Baltimore Squeegee Workers: Whose Streets?

Scene of the shooting

On Thursday, July 7, a group of squeegee workers were doing their thing, offering to wash windshields for tips from drivers, at a busy downtown intersection by Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. A motorist, a white man with a master’s degree in engineering from Johns Hopkins University, got out of his car and swung a metal baseball bat at one or more of the squeegee workers. One of the workers pulled a gun, shot the motorist dead, and ran. As of this writing, the police have not caught him.

While this story made frontpage headlines in the daily paper, the Baltimore Sun, few people in the city or suburbs were surprised to see it happen. For decades, squeegee workers, mostly young Black men and teens living in poverty, many of them waking up hungry most mornings, have been trying to make money this way. Many of the drivers are white people from the suburbs, coming downtown to work in office towers or to go to fancy restaurants or sports events. Many of them feel that the impoverished youth carrying squeegees are threatening them and otherwise ruining their day.

Incidents of conflict between squeegee workers and motorists are often in the news locally. Some people call on the police to arrest the squeegee workers. Local politicians set up programs to employ squeegee workers in safer conditions. But, over the years, nothing has really changed. Even after this shooting, the Baltimore Sun editorial said, “A greater and better-funded, citywide push to assist these young people is our best hope to prevent another terrible day [like this].” The mayor and other politicians made similar remarks.

They and their predecessors have been making such remarks literally for decades! There is nothing new in what they propose. And that’s because a solution would mean providing lots of jobs at a living wage, not a minimum wage that keeps people in poverty. Most squeegee workers have been in the Baltimore City Public Schools which, despite the efforts of teachers and other staff, do not have the funding necessary to prepare their students for decent jobs. And so-called “decent” jobs are not even available. Decades ago, Baltimore’s young Black workers could get relatively decent union jobs at Bethlehem Steel, General Motors, and other manufacturing plants. The jobs were usually dirty, dangerous, and hard, but they paid better than what’s out there today. When the big corporations who owned those plants shut them down to find lower-wage workers elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of Baltimore area workers, Black and white, lost their jobs. It was legal for the big bosses to do that and considered acceptable in a system that called itself “free enterprise.” Yes, it was freedom for the capitalists, but it was desperation, despair, poverty, and even death for the workers. Squeegee work is also dirty, dangerous, and hard, but it seems like the best alternative available to many of today’s youth. A part-time job in fast food is not a solution for them.

Black youth are not responsible for the lack of decent jobs in this racist, profit-hungry system. They are not responsible for the inadequate, racist funding of their public schools. They are not responsible for the history of racist laws that enforced — and still enforce — segregation and, therefore, the shoddy housing, food deserts, and lack of a decent public health system that they and their families have to endure. The politicians say they want to do something to help the squeegee workers. But it’s obvious they don’t want to challenge the racist system dominated by the One Percent.

Squeegee workers are absolutely right to defend themselves against attacks when they are on the job. It’s not about whatever the Supreme Court says about guns. The Second Amendment wasn’t written for Black people. The squeegee workers are trying to survive in a society stacked against them by racism and capitalist profiteering. As long as that system exists, the exploited and oppressed will have to defend themselves by whatever means necessary.