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Plight of the Squeegee Kids

How Baltimore’s youth became pawns in a racist culture war

In 1982, political scientist James Q. Wilson and criminologist George Kelling published an essay in The Atlantic outlining a new form of policing that aimed to preempt a perceived threat. They argued that “disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked,” and that, ultimately, “one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.” The argument, perilously simple, said that if police departments would zero in on often non-criminal behavior, they could maintain a community’s social order and thereby prevent cities from succumbing to urban decay. It was natural, almost inevitable, that Reagan-era law enforcement would adopt such a theory as practice: it afforded cops the power to monitor interactions that were vaguely threatening or, more often than not, merely annoying to them personally.

Broken Windows sat well with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a fledgling think tank that rose from the ashes of the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. Founded by British entrepreneur Sir Antony Fisher and former CIA director William J. Casey, the group’s central aim was to promote free market ideas then unpopular in New York. The think tank grew under Reagan, and by the 1990s they were selling books to major publishing houses and producing an influential quarterly called City Journal. The Broken Windows theory fit neatly into their agenda; the Institute held a conference on “quality-of-life” policing that focused on minor infractions in 1991. It was this conference that gave a middle-aged lawyer named Rudolph Giuliani some new ideas.

By this point, Giuliani had already lost a mayoral campaign against Democrat David Dinkins in 1989. It was a particularly rough battle; Giuliani was woefully unprepared to campaign against the man who would become the city’s first black mayor. Assuming he’d face off against the unpopular incumbent Ed Koch instead, Giuliani, in the primaries, took a more moderate stance that focused on “crime, crack, and corruption.” Once Dinkins became a serious contender, however, Giuliani went negative, trying to equate the black candidate with the wrong candidate: in the latter half of the campaign, he took out an ad in the Yiddish-language Algemeiner Journal juxtaposing a photo of himself with then-President Bush against another of Dinkins with Jesse Jackson, who infamously called New York “Hymietown” in 1984. “Let the people of New York choose their own destiny,” the ad demanded.

Giuliani lost by a mere fifty thousand votes, but he lost nonetheless. So, for his next mayoral run, he sought to tilt his platform toward the ideas propagated by the Manhattan Institute. It worked—he won his 1993 race in no small part by naming what many perceived to be the source of the city’s decline: prostitutes, the homeless, and, perhaps less remembered, what Dinkins first referred to as the “squeegee pest.” The last of these describes those metropolitan personae non gratae who cleaned the windshields of passing vehicles for donation money.

Of course, we now recall New York as the exemplar of order-maintenance policing from this era, but it was far from the only example: cities from Newark to Los Angeles to Baltimore all adopted some form of this philosophy, one that precipitously changed the way citizens interacted with the “undesirable persons” in their communities. In short, the symptoms of racial and economic inequality in many of our largest cities were recast as the source of urban degradation and even chaos.

Thus Bad Begins

It was July of 1984, and the Reagan administration was more than two years into its effort to slash federal assistance to cities, a policy that exacerbated the hollowing out of urban industries throughout the country. In Baltimore, kids with squeegees returned to the streets, as they had at least since the 1960s, to earn extra cash during their summer breaks.

At the time, local journalist Katie Gunther eyed the squeegee kids “trend” for the Baltimore Sun, relying on the example of eight-year-old Lionel, who had taken to the streets to earn “a quarter, 50 cents, maybe even a dollar or more,” on his extended break from school. “Just as the long-legged birds swarm over the sand when the waves go out, dashing back to higher ground as the water returns, so do these children scurry onto the street when the light turns red, beating a hasty retreat only as the signal changes,” Gunther wrote. In this carefree version, it’s apparent that the children were wiping windshields not because they had to, but because they wanted to; the “youngsters” were simply making better use of their vacation than playing hopscotch or Cowboys and Indians or searching for dead bodies on the train tracks just outside of town. As an example of daily journalism, Gunther’s write-up amounted to little more than a wide-eyed puff piece about local goings-on. But it’s worth asking today: Did the logic of Broken Windows, or Reagan’s war on inner cities, raise the eyelids of their readers against the city’s youth?

Gunther’s was the only piece on the squeegee kids published that year, aside from a pithy Evening Sun editorial a few months later that asked “why more of these squeegee kids [weren’t] in classrooms.” The pace quickened the following year: in January of 1985, the Baltimore Police Department requested that the city council criminalize squeegeeing altogether—or, more specifically, the act of wiping windshields at traffic stops for payment, unless the person in question was the driver or passenger of the vehicle. Why? “Sometimes if a driver doesn’t want his windshield washed, the kids will bang on the window or the hood of the car,” a spokesman said. There was already a law in place prohibiting the sale of goods and services on the street without a permit, but since the children received donations rather than payment, it couldn’t be applied to windshield washing at the time.

The symptoms of racial and economic inequality in many of our largest cities were recast as the source of urban degradation and even chaos.

It was Bishop L. Robinson, the city’s first black police commissioner, who began the push to criminalize squeegeeing. His intentions were as pure as a policeman’s can be. “I introduced it in the best interest and safety of the children,” he later told the Sun. “It was not intended to send children to jail.” The city council held its first hearing on March 12, when it realized the process wouldn’t be an easy one. The council divided largely along the color line: black councilmembers believed squeegee kids were just taken by an entrepreneurial spirit, and washing windshields was a better use of their time than the other, unsavory pastimes children get into when left to themselves. Councilman Nathaniel McFadden, in stark contrast to Commissioner Robinson, thought the bill “would cast the windshield washers as criminals,” according to a March 1985 Sun report. Councilman Timothy Murphy felt similarly: “I would rather see kids washing windshields and making money honestly than snatching pocketbooks.”

White councilmembers, however, felt the practice was dangerous for kids and drivers alike. Councilwoman Rikki Spector dutifully explained that the children weren’t all angels, and according to Councilman Anthony Ambridge, several Baltimoreans alleged that squeegee kids were accosting drivers and their cars when they refused their service. The city should simply find safer, more constructive employment for the youngsters, they argued.

Licensed and Registered

The council hadn’t budged much by the initial vote on April 22, 1985. Astoundingly, all eleven white councilmembers present voted in favor of the bill; all seven black councilmembers voted against. Councilman Kweisi Mfume openly declared that the bill “stinks with racist overtones,” which led the mayor to delay the final vote for at least a week—that is, after he’d already announced that he would sign the bill into law the moment it reached his desk.

The so-called “Squeegee Bill” sought to impose a $100 fine (later amended to $50) for anyone over eighteen caught washing windshields in the street. Councilman Jody Landers said it would simply “close a loophole” within the prior bill—the one that prohibited the sale of goods or services on the street—to allow kids to work so long as they weren’t soliciting at the same time. Mfume backed away from his initial remarks and claimed that the bill was only perceived as racist by his constituents. Otherwise, “this was a well-intentioned bill by the police commissioner, who has said he is concerned about public safety.” On Friday, April 26, he proposed a seven-point plan that aimed to regulate squeegeeing: the city would offer kids over twelve years old registration, safety classes, uniforms, and limited hours during which they could work without penalty.

After weeks of discussion, a committee comprising Commissioner Robinson, City Solicitor Benjamin Brown, and Mary Ann Willin, director of the mayor’s Coordinating Council on Criminal Justice, amended the bill to focus less on punishment and more on reform: it exempted minors from criminal penalties and instead designated “squeegee stations” where kids and adults alike could wash windshields with impunity. Minors who refused to stop the practice would be enrolled in a Pre-Intake Adjustment Program, which referred young, first-time offenders of nonviolent crimes to community organizations in order to serve ninety days in job training or counseling.

At one point, the mania for overpolicing had become so severe that a nineteen-year-old was detained for littering on his aunt’s stoop.

On June 3, 1985, the “Squeegee Bill” passed with an 18-1 vote. The black councilmembers were moved in its favor by agreed-upon amendments—some suggested by Councilman Mfume—and somewhat because they had no other choice; had they stood firm on their positions, they would have lost anyway, considering there were only seven black councilmembers in the first place. The only person to vote against it was Councilwoman Jacqueline F. McLean. “You have to take into consideration the business people,” she explained, puzzlingly. “Many of those newspaper vendors have been working corners for years.”

The bill was signed into law by Mayor William Donald Schaefer on June 25, 1985, and was slated to take effect on July 25. After that, any squeegee kid who wanted to continue the work had to take training classes and work at the squeegee stations exclusively. Four days after the bill took effect, Susan Warner at the Evening Sun reported that the squeegee kids hadn’t even known about the bill. Nor did they care.

From Thuggee to Mini-Thug

In the spring of 1986, an undergraduate published an essay on squeegee men for Loyola University’s nonfiction magazine. “The Cult of Squeegee” opens with a description of an ancient South Indian death cult called the Thuggee that roved through the region robbing and murdering travelers until they were “exterminated” by an East India Company campaign led by Captain William Sleeman, sometime between 1831 and 1882 (the year the last known Thuggee was hanged). As you may have guessed, the young writer used the anecdote to trace the word thug’s etymological roots, before using it to describe Baltimore’s own “cult of Squeegee,” and arguing that criticizing “thugs” isn’t racist—the Thuggees were, after all, murderers. “The ‘Squeegee Wars’ have nothing to do with race,” Stewart wrote. “The victims are not unemployed blacks or automobile drivers. The real victim is the American automobile.”

The essay is clearly satirical; the student spends the latter half fleshing out this absurdist thesis, going so far as to declare that squeegeeing “constitutes an attack on the Constitution and American capitalism!”

After the bill was passed, public perception of the squeegee kids took a downturn. Whereas those stealing wallets or kicking tires were always considered bad apples among a cohort of precocious youngsters, the public view now shifted the focus of opinion on to the problem of “mini-thugs.” One week a resident wrote to the Sun claiming that his daughter was sprayed in the face with cleaning liquid by one of the washers. “I personally view the term ‘squeegee kid’ with about the same benignancy that I view the term ‘freedom fighter’ when being used to refer to revolutionary terrorists,” he wrote, in earnest. Later that week, it was reported that an old woman was hit with a squeegee by another. And on Saturday, August 3, 1985, a driver ran over a squeegee kid’s foot on North Wolfe Street. That same weekend, yet another teen was arrested and charged after kicking the car of a woman who’d refused his service.

Victorious and certain, however, by mid-1986 the Baltimore Police Department declared that the “squeegee law” had worked. Squeegee kids were still a common presence in unauthorized parts of the city, but between June 1985 and April 1986, only “eleven juveniles and no adults [had] been arrested,” the Sun reported. “The low number of arrests results from the majority of violators obeying the police officers’ orders to cease . . . their activity,” according to Commissioner Robinson.

In early August, fourteen-year-old Howard Bradshaw was crushed by an eighteen-wheel tractor-trailer on Jones Falls Expressway. He was a regular windshield washer who mostly wanted to earn money for clothes, shoes, and school supplies. That Tuesday, August 5, he carried $200 that he’d made from squeegeeing alone. Bradshaw was washing a car’s windshield a little after 9 a.m. when the truck hit a car and “rolled over the youth.” The driver was issued a citation for negligent driving; the teen died within the hour from multiple injuries. Jones Falls Expressway was not one of the designated squeegee stations. This was the end of the Squeegee War—for the moment.


When out-of-towners think of Baltimore, they often think about two things. The first is The Wire, a show inspired by one of the city’s most tumultuous periods, the late 1980s and early 1990s—when its creator, David Simon, covered crime at the Sun—years before the mayor tasked with closing out the millennium, Martin O’Malley, ushered in an era of zero-tolerance policing inspired by Giuliani’s vise-grip on New York City. (At one point, the mania for overpolicing had become so severe that a nineteen-year-old was detained for littering on his aunt’s stoop.)

The second thing outsiders remember is Freddie Gray. On April 12, 2015, the twenty-five-year-old was chased by patrolmen on bikes after making eye contact with them on a North Avenue corner. Gray was then caught and arrested for possessing a small knife that was assumed illegal. Between 8:46 and 9:24 a.m., Gray’s spine was nearly severed on the way to the Western District police station. Seven days later he was dead. The events leading to Gray’s death catalyzed citywide unrest (in various forms) that has changed the landscape of Baltimore ever since.

In a recent piece for ProPublica, Alec MacGillis noted that Baltimore, before the death of Freddie Gray, was enjoying an “upswing.” “Because of the Johns Hopkins biomedical empire, the city’s busy port and its proximity to Washington,” he writes, “metro Baltimore enjoyed higher levels of wealth and income—including among its black population—than many former manufacturing hubs.” Unemployment fell from nearly 12 percent in 2010 to 5 percent in 2018. Unfortunately, a stark racial divide persisted long before the uprising. Black homeownership hadn’t blossomed the way many hoped during this economic boost, and the average white household made around twice the income of the average black household. A third of the households of color had a net worth of zero in 2017.

Much of this has to do with segregation. In 2016, a Morgan State professor named Lawrence Brown published a striking data visualization of investment patterns that confirmed the systematic disenfranchisement of Baltimore’s black citizens. “Because of 105 years of racist policies and practices,” he writes, “Baltimore’s hypersegregated neighborhoods experience radically different realities.” White neighborhoods that accumulated structural advantages took shape as an “L”; black neighborhoods, left disadvantaged, formed a butterfly. Wealth and resources are still deliberately concentrated along the “L”: the Charm City Circulator (free) rather than the MTA (not free), banks rather than pawn shops, organic grocery stores rather than Save-a-Lots, well-funded public schools rather than those vulnerable to closure.

Black Baltimoreans, despite making up 63 percent of the city, own fewer homes than white Baltimoreans; there are three unemployed black residents for every white resident. Black households bring home only half of what white households do; nine out of ten incarcerees are black. And, really, it was planned this way: in 1937, the federal Loan Owners’ Loan Corporation published a map that filled Baltimore neighborhoods in with different colors in order to grade them for residential mortgage lenders. Areas highlighted in red were considered the greatest risks; they just happened to be predominantly black.


It was under these conditions that Mayor Catherine Pugh—who resigned in May over payments she received from the University of Maryland Medical System while serving on its board of directors—brought the squeegee kids back into the limelight. During the summer of 2017, she formed the “Squeegee Corps,” an initiative similar to the one proposed in 1985—that is, it operates without the threat of arrest. The program recruited kids who were already working on their own and hosting pop-up car washes. Rather than washing windshields for a few dollars at a time, Squeegee Corps offered fixed prices based on the model of vehicle customers drove and how they wanted it washed. The purpose was to teach the kids how to operate a business and work on a team, while giving them a safe place to do the job. The project didn’t last the year.

In early 2018, Pugh started a behind-the-scenes YouTube series called “MayorMoves,” a series of vlogs detailing her day-to-day experience in the city’s highest office. The first post, on January 11, featured an interaction that caught Baltimoreans’ attention. As she’s being driven through Druid Heights, Mayor Pugh notices a young windshield washer. She rolls her window down and asks, “Why are you not in school?” The boy finds himself at a loss for words, so Mayor Pugh repeats herself: “Why are you not in school? Get off the corner. Go to school. Now!”

In an allusion to Eugène Delacroix’s
© Jerrell Gibbs Liberty Leading the People, February 2018

The scene stoked ire on Twitter; many criticized the mayor for demonizing black youth and mishandling a situation that required more empathy. Pugh doubled down two months later by anchoring her second State of the City address in the young boy’s story.

In her speech, she revealed that the boy’s mother is “actually homeless and an addict,” that she connected the family with social services where she “learned there were many more problems that we were not aware of.” She wound up sending the boy to foster care and signing him up for one of the city’s youth job programs.

The episode illustrated the ways in which our interactions with kids have become fraught. On October 4, 2018, a “Maryland man” claimed that his window had been shattered by a squeegee kid whose service he’d refused. “If we let this kind of person go, it’s gonna happen again,” he told WMAR-2 News. As reporter Justine Barron explained in a Baltimore Fishbowl story, however, “no data has actually been collected to describe how frequent or dangerous these interactions really are.” She also found that, immediately following the incident, the man had referred to the children as “animals,” language that wasn’t uncommon among white Baltimore residents discussing the children on Facebook. After speaking with the children themselves, Barron found that they encountered “frequent verbal abuse and harassment.” In some instances, drivers would get out of their cars, initiating a potentially violent scene.

After city councilman Eric Costello brought the man’s encounter to the Public Safety Committee on October 10, the city’s Downtown Partnership announced that they were stationing unarmed security guards at certain intersections to monitor interactions between windshield wipers and drivers. On October 22, Mayor Pugh penned an op-ed for the Sun in which she announced her latest effort to get squeegee kids off the streets, before scolding them for being there in the first place. “The difference with some squeegee kids, of course, is their tendency to congregate in numbers and on the same corners, creating understandable anxiety and even fear among idle motorists,” she wrote. “What some of those eager to earn a dollar or two for washing a windshield do not sufficiently understand is that ‘no’ means just that—NO.” Pugh, in the op-ed, also recounts some of her past efforts to eradicate squeegeeing on the streets. Aside from the Squeegee Corps—she claims that eight of the kids made over $700—she also points to other young squeegeers who were enrolled in the BMORE Beautiful program, in which they beautified different neighborhoods in the city.

It’s a dangerous business, but the trade is simply too lucrative. Many teens prefer to make $200 in a day wiping windshields to selling drugs.

Tensions are still mounting this year: on January 12, WJZ-13 reported that a family got into a row with a group of squeegee kids. According to the father, Jon Coles, one child hit his windshield after Coles had refused their service. He exited the car and was hit in the face and head before pepper-spraying the kids and departing. The kids remain faceless and nameless; one can only guess what they thought Coles planned to do.

It’s a dangerous business, but the trade is simply too lucrative. Many teens prefer to make $200 in a day wiping windshields to selling drugs.

Most of this is already common knowledge for Baltimore residents because it’s visible. You see it when you pass through gentrified neighborhoods, a university, and empty rowhomes all along the same road, or when you can’t catch the Circulator because you’re a little too far east. After order-maintenance policing methods like Broken Windows were adopted by law enforcement, those who were most economically disadvantaged or vulnerable turned to accessible means of making money in order to survive. And when you’re a child, survival means not only eating enough to live but also enough to sit in class each day. City Hall, meanwhile, too often focuses their anti-squeegee efforts on controlling the children themselves, when they’re plainly the victims of their city’s policies.

Order-maintenance policing is still used today, with questionable efficacy. In Newark, for example, relations between police and the community disintegrated thanks to the advent of “blue summonses”— citations for minor offenses—that saddled low-income neighborhoods with fines. New York, for its part, saw a remarkable decline in crime rates after implementing the policy in the 1990s: homicide, robbery, and car theft all declined by more than 60 percent. Of course, we now know this phenomenon had more to do with money than theory. In 2002, economists Hope Corman and Naci Mocan convincingly argued that improved economic conditions gave New Yorkers fewer reasons to commit crimes. It turns out the best thing you can do with broken windows is repair them—a fitting prelude to wiping them clean.