Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake Walks a Fine Line in City Divided by Race

© Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at a school in Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood where Freddie Gray, whose death has sparked rioting, grew up.
© Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at a school in Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood where Freddie Gray, whose death has sparked rioting, grew up.

With buildings ablaze and looters rampaging through city streets, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake faced television cameras Monday night and sternly denounced the rioters as “thugs.” The next day, with some black residents in an uproar over a word they call racially charged, she walked it back. 

“There are no thugs in Baltimore,” the mayor, who is African-American, said at a church, where she met with members of the clergy. “Sometimes my own little anger translator gets the best of me.”

The episode demonstrates the fine line Ms. Rawlings-Blake, 45, walks as she tries to lead this majority black city out of what she calls “one of our darkest days.” It is also a vivid reminder that the presence of a black mayor (and black police chief as well) does not guarantee an intimate bond or rapport with poor black residents that might help calm a city going through the kind of trauma facing Baltimore.

Any mayor would face challenges under such circumstances. But for Ms. Rawlings-Blake the challenges are especially acute. She must try to bring together two Baltimores, neither of which she is entirely part of: the gentrified Baltimore of the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards and the frustrated, low-income black Baltimore, with its boarded-up-row houses.

“She’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t,” said Billy Murphy, the lawyer for the family of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man whose death after a spinal cord injury in police custody set off the unrest. “She’s in a catch-22.”

On Wednesday, with the city in a tentative peace, she tried to tamp down expectations that the police would make public on Friday the results of an investigation into Mr. Gray’s death.

With her elite upbringing (her mother is a doctor and her father was one of Maryland’s most powerful politicians) and serious, reserved political style, Ms. Rawlings-Blake has not endeared herself to people in Baltimore’s most blighted neighborhoods, where she is seen as distant and out of touch. Now Mr. Gray’s death has exposed those tensions as never before.

“A lot of us don’t like her,” said Jasmine Squirrel, 25, a high school classmate of Mr. Gray’s. “She don’t really do a lot for our city, the inner city, the schools and the youth. We don’t see her face in our community — the only time we did see her was around the time when it was time for her to get elected. The only reason why she’s out now is because they tore it up.”

On Wednesday, Ms. Rawlings-Blake was out in city neighborhoods, as she has been all week, day and night. She turned up — dressed in an elegant navy three-piece knit suit and matching patent leather heels — at a school in Sandtown-Winchester, the West Baltimore neighborhood where Mr. Gray grew up, and later met community leaders at the New Shiloh Baptist Church, where his funeral was held.

At a morning news conference at City Hall, the mayor said she was sensitive to the plight of people in the inner city — if not from her own experience, then from that of her family.

“There’s a lot of pain in our city, and when you are in a position like mine, a lot of the frustration is, you know, fairly or unfairly, directed at you,” she said. “My parents grew up in Baltimore; I grew up in Baltimore. I’ve had cousins in jail, on drugs, killed; my brother was almost killed. I have cousins that are extremely successful, and I have family that are unemployed. We run the gamut, and I understand the problems. I can’t fault anyone for not understanding what’s on my heart.”

Ms. Rawlings-Blake grew up around politics and civil rights. Her father, Howard Rawlings, who was known as Pete, was a civil rights activist who became the first black man to become chairman of the powerful appropriations committee in Maryland’s House of Representatives. When she was a little girl, friends say, Ms. Rawlings-Blake would race through the corridors of the State House in Annapolis, telling her parents she wished they could live in the capital city full time.

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