By Sean Yoes
AFRO Baltimore Editor
Two burly young men armed with squeegees and windex approached my vehicle the morning of Feb. 17, near the traffic light at Conway, as I prepared to turn on to 395, on my way to work.
And I did what I usually do; I made eye contact as they approached, waved them off the windshield wash, but I handed one of the young cats a couple of dollars anyway.
“Thank you big brother, have a blessed day,” was his response. As I drove off, I yelled out the window, be safe!
But, over the last few weeks I’ve witnessed members of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), basically chasing young brothers out of intersections, who are trying to make a couple of dollars washing windows. One day on North Ave., near Mt. Royal (one of the busier squeegee spots) I hopped out of my vehicle to flag down a brother from the Nation of Islam, trying to buy a bean pie. As I walked back to my vehicle, I saw one of the young men who got moved from the intersection by the police. I asked him, Why are they messin’ (although I didn’t use the word “messin”) with ya’ll?
“We just tryin to get some money,” he said as he walked down North, shaking his head.
I emailed a question to City Hall inquiring if there has been an official shift in policing policy regarding so-called squeegee kids. I never got a reply.
But, if there is a new policy of moving them from intersections, I find it interesting that no such policy has been implemented regarding sign wielding panhandlers.
When one of these young brothers approaches my vehicle, I don’t see an enemy, I don’t see a menace and I don’t see a criminal. I see one of my sons. And to a great extent this city has failed its Black sons for generations. Many of them see scrambling on the corner as their most plausible option to get money.
So, we criminalize those who opt for busy intersections instead?
I can count maybe on two fingers the number of people I know personally who have had a bad encounter with the young Black men in our city known as squeegee kids. I myself have not and I pray to God that I don’t.
However, I had drinks in Station North recently with a friend who said she had a rough encounter with one of these young men (I’ve heard the stories of physical attacks on vehicles and intimidation of drivers). She is a brilliant musician at night, but during the day my friend is an addiction counselor. I know she has a heart for young people.
But, to be clear, if she doesn’t want to be bothered with somebody approaching her car (for whatever reason) that doesn’t give that person the right to be verbally abusive. Further, she argues the reason I have not been hassled by the so-called squeegee kids may be because I’m a larger Black male.
Fair enough, but at the end of the day people just want to be treated with respect.
Another friend and fellow storyteller Tiffany Ginyard and I were driving down MLK over the summer, and on that day we were both pretty broke and a couple of young dudes washing windows lingered nearby at the stoplight. Despite our temporary condition of “brokeness” we both scraped up a couple of dollars apiece and she handed the money over to a grateful young man.
This doesn’t make us better than anybody; we just recognize the fact that these young men come from the neighborhoods we come from. So, we chose to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Maybe more of us should.
You don’t have to be proficient in calculus to do the math when it comes to how the city typically and historically has treated our young Black men, because the response to them has almost always been about subtraction; closing PAL centers, closing rec centers, closing the doors of the church.
So, when I see a young man armed with a squeegee and Windex, who probably has been dealt some bad cards; abandonment, addiction and abuse among others, I see somebody fighting to stay alive in the midst of a city that seems to hate him.
So, I don’t think it’s robbery for me to give him a couple of dollars if I have it.
Sean Yoes is the AFRO’s Baltimore editor and the author of Baltimore After Freddie Gray: Real Stories From One of America’s Great Imperiled Cities.