Youth jail protest jams Baltimore traffic, sparks debate

Protest of funding for youth jail jams Baltimore traffic during Tuesday morning rush.

About 40 demonstrators led by the Rev. Jamal H. Bryant blocked traffic for more than an hour on Interstate 395 in Baltimore Tuesday morning — the first of what Bryant said would be "10 biblical plagues" unless state officials scrap plans for a $30 million youth jail.

At the protest, which snarled traffic for miles and created backups that lasted two hours, Bryant demanded that Gov. Larry Hogan reverse funding for the jail and pump $11 million more into the city's schools.

"State of Maryland, brace yourself, because you've got nine more times," Bryant said. "Nine more times you are going to hear from us."

The blocking of rush-hour traffic drew criticism from some who suggested it prevented hospital workers from reaching medical centers and patients from getting treatment. Former state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, the host of a radio talk show on WBAL, said callers were angered by the disruption to their morning commutes.

"This is the height of irresponsibility," Mitchell said. "I had a person call my show who was part of a surgery team who could not get to the hospital. When you do this, you literally put people's lives in jeopardy."

Mitchell said he was concerned that police didn't arrest any protesters, which he argued would embolden more demonstrators to block major roadways.

"You can't allow that in a major city," he said.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has teamed up with Bryant several times in recent months, appointing him to lead a task force that studied police body cameras and to an anti-violence initiative aimed at reducing homicides among African-American men. Even so, on Tuesday she criticized the protest as going too far.

"I understand and respect the right to protest," Rawlings-Blake said. "When you are putting people at risk by shutting down major thoroughfares, that's beyond reasonable protest. We were very clear with the protesters this morning that wasn't going to be tolerated."

But the mayor said she agrees with the activists' concerns.

"Without any debate at the Board of Public Works, there was a decision to spend millions of dollars on a youth jail," Rawlings-Blake said. "In the same week, there was a decision made not to fund education. It sends an unusual and a peculiar message to the families of Baltimore."

The three-member state panel, which is chaired by Hogan, voted two weeks ago to approve plans for a $30 million, 60-bed jail to house Baltimore teenagers charged as adults. The project, developed during the O'Malley administration, followed years of criticism about the practice of housing young city defendants alongside adults.

The day after the jail vote, Hogan announced that he would refuse to spend $68 million that state lawmakers set aside for schools, including $11 million for Baltimore. He said the state needed the money to bolster the pension fund.

Hogan spokesman Matt Clark noted that plans for the jail predate the new Republican governor's term. Even so, he said, an improved facility is needed.

"The new facility that the state committed to build by unanimous vote at the Board of Public Works will include classrooms, program space, and medical and recreation areas and represents a vastly superior alternative to the current location," Clark said in an email. "The state takes these issues very seriously, and the Hogan administration is committed to drastically improving the overall environment for juveniles charged as adults and committed to its care."

The U.S. Justice Department has said the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center has been violating the law by keeping the youths in the adult jail, where teens are often secluded and do not receive school or other services while incarcerated. State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot, both Democrats, also voted for the youth jail project.

Several demonstrators Tuesday carried signs that read "Mr. Governor Education Not Incarceration" and "Education Over Bondage and Incarceration."

Tamory Winfield, spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, said people began blocking lanes on I-95 and I-395 entering Baltimore at 8:19 a.m. At times, the protesters were responsible for blocking traffic, but sometimes the police shut down lanes out of "concern for safety," Winfield said.

Lanes reopened at 9:33 a.m., but traffic backups — which stretched for miles — lasted until about 10:10 a.m., he said.

Officials from Johns Hopkins Hospital, the University of Maryland Medical Center and Mercy Medical Center reported no major issues. Don Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said some companies' employees arrived late to work but businesses reported no serious problems.

"Obviously, you don't like to have any disruptions from a business perspective," Fry said. "People have a right to protest. Hopefully they can do it without disrupting businesses or the economy."

Bryant said the group Tuesday stopped traffic at five exits from moving into downtown, affecting the morning commute. He said he instructed protesters to allow hospital workers or those in need of medical assistance to pass.

"Change is always inconvenient," Bryant said. "Not one glass was broken today. Nobody was arrested today. There were no physical acts of violence. People are upset about hypothetical issues, not actual issues."

Protesters gathered on the median at the corner of Martin Luther King and Washington boulevards. A handful of uniformed police officers stood on all four corners of the intersection.

MaLacka Reed El encouraged women to come out and protest for their children.

"We have to stand strong, and we have to represent each other and we have to stand for our children," she said. "These are our babies that are being positioned to be incarcerated. Our dream is for them to go to college and be so much more."

Hogan left Tuesday for a 10-day international trade trip to Asia. Bryant said he would wait until the governor returns for his next act of civil disobedience.

Bryant would not reveal his next steps, but said he planned "different tactics" at different locations.

"It's going to be a surprise party and Governor Hogan is the guest of honor," he said. "We are going to keep moving until the juvenile jail is in fact off the table and Baltimore public schools are able to compete on a statewide and a nationwide level."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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