Protest movement grows across all spectrums in Baltimore area

The growing number of protests might not be a surprise but the tacit support of institutions might be

Dr. Manisha Sharma climbed on a bench outside the Johns Hopkins medical school campus this week and shouted: "If I can't breathe, you can't breathe!"

Dozens of students around her responded with the same phrase in unison. It was Human Rights Day, and medical students across the country were participating in protests similar to those that have been taking place with greater frequency since grand juries declined to indict police officers who shot an unarmed black 18-year-old in Missouri and choked to death a black man accused of selling illegal cigarettes in New York.

The symbolic starkness of medical students sworn to save lives participating in a demonstration known as a "die in" showed just how wide-reaching protests have become.

"People of all races, all different types of people and all different kinds of organizations — not just civil rights organizations — are taking part," Baltimore NAACP chapter president Tessa Hill-Aston said. "Everyone is seeing that there's something wrong."

Police brutality has come into focus in a big way, here and across the country. Acts of civil disobedience across Maryland have included a wide spectrum of people and also elicited a surprising reaction — universities, workplaces, Congress and even law enforcement, which in the past might have opposed such demonstrations, now offer tacit support or, in the case of police, have shown restraint and acceptance.

Baltimore police have deployed hundreds of officers to monitor protests since August, when fatal police shooting of teenager Michael Brown in ferguson, Mo., sparked nationwide demonstrations. They have spent $450,000 in officer overtime to help keep the peace in Baltimore but have arrested no one — a testament to both demonstrators and police, who have avoided aggressive tactics and shows of force that many say prompted violent clashes in Ferguson.

"The strategy is simply ensuring that citizens have the ability to peaceably exercise their constitutional rights," Baltimore police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said.

This week saw a rally outside the University of Maryland School of Medicine, a march from Penn Station to the Baltimore jail, another up Main Street in Annapolis, and a peaceful rush-hour protest Friday in Columbia.

On Saturday, Baltimore police expect a sizable rally outside M&T Bank Stadium before the Army-Navy football game, while the NAACP and the National Action Network have planned a march that ends at Freedom Plaza in Washington.

Empowerment Temple of Baltimore has asked its congregants to wear black to Sunday services in honor of "unnamed African-Americans who have been brutally murdered by police," church spokeswoman Nicole Kirby said. The Rev. Jamal H. Bryant also plans to curtail Sunday's service at 12:30 p.m. to lead the congregation to a protest at Northern Parkway and Reisterstown Road, she said.

The church is one of several predominantly African-American churches and denominations nationwide participating in services devoted to the theme "Black lives matter."

While many of these protests are one-time or first-time events, the activist group Baltimore Bloc said it has held more than 70 rallies against police misconduct and brutality since late 2012, when unarmed 46-year-old East Baltimore resident Anthony Anderson died of internal injuries when Baltimore police officers tackled him after they say they witnessed a drug deal.

The group's members said in a statement that they believe it's not just police brutality cases swelling their ranks but the way police have treated demonstrators in other cities.

"The heightened local/national response to the killing of Mike Brown began because of how quickly the community in Ferguson responded and continued to mobilize," the group said. "The savage repression by law enforcement further encouraged more demonstrations. And then other cases of brutality like Eric Garner and Tamir Rice around the country have kept the pressure up."

College students have caused much of the local commotion, particularly around Morgan State University, where street demonstrations blocking traffic were shown to national audiences on CNN late last month.

"A lot of my generation is just weary because we thought these issues have ended," said Chinedu Nwokeafor, 22, chief of the Morgan Action Committee on campus. "As the time went on and the [grand jury] results came out, students began to realize how it affects them and how they feel and how police brutality affects the country."

Kweisi Mfume, former Maryland congressman and national NAACP president, identified with the students' feelings, and said that's why he's been fully supportive of the disruptive but peaceful demonstrations — even though he is chairman of the Morgan State board of regents.

"I'm heartened to see that students like Americans of all races are being pushed from their places of comfort into the streets to speak truth to power," Mfume said.

A Morgan alumnus, Mfume said he remembers participating in college protests over curriculum controversies and education funding in the 1970s. Incidents such as the July 14 choking death of Eric Garner by a New York police officer have demonstrated that inequity exists in the way blacks are treated by law enforcement, Mfume said.

Other institutions have responded with restraint or inaction because no position on the polarizing topic of alleged police brutality might be the safest and least controversial of strategies.

No repercussions have been reported for congressional staffer members who walked out of their jobs this week in protest of the recent grand jury decisions. The NFL did not reprimand St. Louis Rams players who came out during game day introductions with both hands raised, and the NBA has said no players will be penalized for wearing unsanctioned pregame T-shirts and sweatshirts that say "I Can't Breathe."

Medical student Steven Pennybaker said he told a Hopkins School of Medicine associate dean that students were planning their "die-in" demonstration, and the dean responded by saying they could do so as long as they didn't block entrances.

Medical student Katie O'Conor said the school asked that students respect the "delicate balance of making a social statement and respecting patients." A request for a statement from or interview with school administrators was not returned.

On Thursday, as rain fell on about 20 protesters under the giant "Male/Female" statue in front of Penn Station in Mid-Town Belvedere, Edna Lawrence, 67, took hold of a megaphone from one of the event leaders.

"I'm gonna stand with the young people on any grounds," Lawrence said, her voice carrying in the cold air. "You cannot allow a free country to murder its citizens at will."

A longtime demonstrator whom some know as "Grandmother Edna," Lawrence said America's problem with police violence "isn't about race," but "economic war" between "the haves and the have-nots."

A few feet away, Aziz Taylor, wearing a kufi and a long thobe, shielded his face from the cold wind with a scarf while carrying a sign that read "Black and Muslims Lives Matter."

"I'm like a lot of people," he said. "I'm just tired of young black men getting killed."

Nearby, a group of Baltimore police officers talked among themselves or sipped coffee, allowing the protest to go on uninterrupted.

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/justingeorge

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