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Activists planning protests around Freddie Gray hearings, as police prepare

Baltimore Police cancel officer leave, ensuring max availability during Freddie Gray hearings.

Activists plan to protest at the courthouse and elsewhere in the city as hearings begin Wednesday in the case against six Baltimore police officers charged in Freddie Gray's arrest and death.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are set to argue whether Judge Barry Williams should dismiss the case or recuse Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby. They also will discuss whether the six officers — who have pleaded not guilty — will be tried separately or together.

The attorneys are then set to argue whether to move the case out of Baltimore at a second hearing scheduled for Sept. 10.

"Our message is pretty obvious. Do not drop the charges. No change in venue. Do not recuse Marilyn Mosby," said Sharon Black of the Baltimore People's Power Assembly, an organization known for its protests against alleged police brutality. It is planning the demonstration at the downtown Circuit Court.

"Our demands are pretty simple. We want to keep the attention on those three issues."

Police and city officials have been preparing for protests — and possible unrest — in light of the hearings. The Police Department canceled leave to maximize availability of city officers for both hearings, a police spokesman said on Monday.

The Baltimore Sheriff's Office, which is responsible for safety at the Calvert Street courthouse, also said it will have "an increased presence" in and around the courthouse.

Activist Duane "Shorty" Davis said his organization, Baltimore BLOC, is encouraging residents to engage in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience this week and next. He said they don't plan to protest in West Baltimore, where the bulk of April's unrest occurred, but downtown and in wealthier parts of the city.

"I want you to go to Canton, Fells Point, the Inner Harbor, the Orioles' games," Davis said. "We're not just going to go in the black community and wave our hands. We're going to the white communities."

Gray, 25, died in April after suffering a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody. His death spurred protests against police brutality amid a growing national conversation on the topic. On April 27, the day of his funeral, the city erupted in rioting, looting and arson.

Mosby brought the charges against the six officers several days later, and they were indicted by a grand jury.

Baltimore police have met with law enforcement agencies from surrounding jurisdictions and are making other preparations in advance of the hearings.

T.J. Smith, a police spokesman, emphasized that the department is not anticipating any trouble surrounding the hearings or the officers' trials, even if it is preparing for it.

He said the decision to cancel leave was made "out of an abundance of caution, just so we're not caught flat-footed in case there is a need." Such a move isn't unusual on a day when big crowds are expected to gather in the city.

People have a "right to protest," Smith said, and police in the area will not be wearing riot gear.

Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said at a Monday night public safety forum that he hosted with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake that police "will treat a protest like a protest and a riot like a riot" and that officers "can't afford to get those two mixed up."

Smith said police are asking for the public's help in keeping the peace. "People who want to exercise their rights to protest are fine, and we recognize that the protesters are different from those people who cause public safety concerns by their actions," he said.

The force has about 3,000 officers. Police do not release details about the staging or deployment of officers.

As of Monday afternoon, more than 350 people had indicated on the Power Assembly's Facebook page that they planned to attend the protest at the courthouse.

Black said the event will be peaceful but that activists will not be cowed by the "militarization" of police or any "disconcerting" attempts to interfere with their First Amendment rights to assemble and speak their minds.

"It's not going to have a chilling effect on us as activists in terms of protesting," she said. The group plans to protest "as close as we can to the door" of the courthouse, she said.

Black said that recusing Mosby — who is elected — would send the wrong message to city residents who want their voices heard. And if the case is moved out of the city, she said, the protests will only grow larger.

"If that happens, it means that the people in the very city where this took place wouldn't have access to the court," she said. "We just think it would be egregious and wrong."

Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr., the driver of the police transport van in which Gray was injured, is charged with second-degree depraved heart murder. Sgt. Alicia D. White, Lt. Brian W. Rice and Officer William G. Porter are charged with manslaughter. Officers Edward M. Nero and Garrett E. Miller, who were involved in Gray's arrest, face lesser charges, including second-degree assault.

A trial date has been scheduled for Oct. 13, though that could change as the individual motions are considered by the judge.

The Police Department has been criticized by the Fraternal Order of Police for the way it handled the April unrest. The department has acknowledged its officers were outnumbered and "outflanked" by large crowds of people in the streets. More than 100 officers were injured during the April unrest.

Since then, the department has ordered additional protective gear for officers and provided training in crowd control and riot response. It also has embarked on an expanded community outreach program to address deep-seated mistrust in some of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the unrest.

More than 400 businesses were damaged in the riots, which prompted Rawlings-Blake to impose a citywide curfew and Gov. Larry Hogan to deploy the National Guard.

Also in the aftermath of the riots, the Orioles played one game to a stadium closed to the public and moved a weekend homestand to St. Petersburg, Fla. The team has a home game against Tampa Bay on Wednesday night, and begins a six-game road trip Friday.

Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor of public health at Morgan State University, said police helped elevate tensions in April, in part because they staged officers in protective gear near Mondawmin Mall, where clashes with police began.

He said he hopes police approach Wednesday's protests, which he plans to attend, with less of an "us-versus-them" mentality and more understanding.

He worries that Wednesday's protests could lay bare what he described as the Police Department's inability to "talk to folks who are not just in respectable positions or professional agencies or things of that nature, but who are really in the street, who may be dealing drugs, who may be riding dirt bikes, who may have a criminal record."

"To the degree that people are still grieving, still traumatized, still hurting, a lot of that may resurface as this trial takes place," Brown said.

krector@baltsun.com

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