Can Kevin Davis and the cops distinguish a protest from a riot?
By By Brandon Soderberg
Sep 30, 2015 | 3:00 AM
At a Public Safety meeting in Waverly on Aug. 31, Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake by his side, told citizens that the Baltimore Police Department would "treat a protest like a protest and a riot like a riot" during the coming days of pretrial hearings and trials in the Freddie Gray case. Then he added, "[We] can't afford to get those mixed up. We won't this time around."
Two days after Davis' comments, on Sept. 2, the Baltimore Police Department brought out riot gear for a small protest that made its way downtown from the Mitchell Courthouse, arresting activist Kwame Rose for disorderly conduct and other charges and another leader of the protest, Pastor Westley West, one week later for, among other things, "inciting a riot." A few hours after the Sept. 2 protest and Rose's arrest, Davis and Rawlings-Blake held a press conference in which they praised the handling of morning's protest.
"Today's actions were peaceful, respectful, and an example of democracy in action," Rawlings-Blake said. Davis confirmed that the BPD had "treated a protest like a protest."
That evening, police officers in riot gear hovered around City Hall during the weekly West Wednesday protest, organized by Tawanda Jones, the sister of Tyrone West, a man who died in police custody in 2013. This was the 110th consecutive West Wednesday protest Jones had organized. All of them had been peaceful. As Jones and others spoke, officers casually twirled batons and gripped their riot helmets nearby.
If this is the plan for the Baltimore Police under Interim Commissioner Davis, to "treat a protest like a protest and a riot like a riot," then the problem might be that Davis and the BPD don't know the difference. And Davis doesn't consider the presence of police in riot gear to be in and of itself a problem—a curious stance, given how frequently police pre-emptively arriving in riot gear at Mondawmin on April 27 is cited as adding to the violence of that infamous day.
Davis' "protest like a protest" catch phrase is a thinly veiled critique of how police handled situations during the uprising—either too aggressively or not aggressively enough, depending on who you ask. On both days of violence, April 25 and April 27, the combination of protesters or residents briefly getting out of control and the police's inability to de-escalate led to the violence.
Thanks to media images of the CVS burning, played on endless loops, and fear-mongering comments from police officials which are picked up by the press and batted around its echo chamber, there is a sense in the city that protests are on the verge of exploding into chaos at any moment. But this isn't true. From April 19, the day of Freddie Gray's death, to April 25, when 1,500-plus people marched from Sandtown to City Hall, protests of varying sizes occurred daily, often in the streets, and there was a little to no violence. It was only after the April 25 march, near Camden Yards, when the protest veered out of control.
That day, a clash between protesters and angry Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox fans got violent. As City Paper also reported on April 25, a breakdown in the organization of the protest contributed to the violence. After the speeches at City Hall, the large group of protesters scattered into smaller groups because there wasn't a clear plan to get everybody back to West Baltimore where the protest began. The mood got darker, and the activists who had brought the group there, including Malik Shabazz, were nowhere to be found. A mix of sports fans baiting protesters and violent protesters lacking clear organization meant the conflict quickly escalated. The groups began throwing things at each other then, when protesters pulled a barrier fence down, began throwing punches at each other. Then protesters smashed in windows and destroyed cars—and the chaos spread.
But police handled it well—in part because they did very little to stop the violence. Focusing on people's safety, rather than aggressively defending property, allowed them to de-escalate the situation. The mayor characterized this as giving protesters space to destroy, a comment she later walked back.
The story, however, unfolded differently over in Sandtown that evening when police in riot gear attacked residents for being outside and even beat up CP Photo Editor J.M. Giordano.
There was a day of rest on Sunday—but Monday ended in rioting.
Critics suggest police escalated the situation at Mondawmin on Monday, April 27. Police announced at 11:30 a.m. that day, as Freddie Gray's funeral was winding down, that there was a "credible threat" that Baltimore's gangs had teamed up to kill cops. Police also announced that high school students were planning a "purge" or a day of violence at 3 p.m. at Mondawmin.
Police showed up at Mondawmin in full riot gear as hundreds of students poured off the buses at the transportation hub. The MTA shut down buses and the subway. Students had no way to get home. As some students began hurling rocks and bottles, police swooped in, arresting rioters and bystanders—and fueling the crowd's anger. Overwhelmed police tried to control the situation, but rioters moved to North and Penn, then fractured into small groups who caused property damage throughout Midtown and all the way into Waverly.
At the recent Sept. 2 protest in front of the courthouse, the fear of rioting clearly formed the backdrop for police—and they were preparing with a slew of riot gear in the wings. As protesters left their space in front of the courthouse and moved toward the Inner Harbor, police immediately declared the protest illegal and donned riot gear. Police hit several protesters with clubs. The crowd moved back. The scene was ugly, in part because of the chaotic protest led by Rose and West, but also because of aggressive police screaming and swinging clubs at the two dozen or so protesters. Sept. 2's protest, in which riot gear appeared and Rose was arrested and West allegedly incited a riot, wasn't different from the dozens of protests that have occurred in the city since April and even late last year during the city's Ferguson-related protests in November.
Davis' comments to The Baltimore Sun on Sept. 16 suggest that the problem on Sept. 2 was that the protest was downtown and in the street, blocking traffic. "We can't have motorists surrounded in their cars on the street," Davis said. "We can't block traffic in downtown Baltimore and suffer the impacts of that."
As recently as Aug. 8, however, at a protest for the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown's death, things went the other way. Activists—and cops—were peaceful. Organized by the Baltimore People's Power Assembly, protesters marched from North Avenue and Penn Station to Station North, often in the streets, even stopping traffic. No riot gear was present and nobody was arrested even though, at the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and North Howard Street, the protest stopped in the street for nearly 10 minutes. Police declared the protesters' actions illegal—but didn't rush to make arrests.
It followed the approach established by former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, who generally permitted protests in the streets as long as participants kept moving. And while police discouraged protesters from stopping in the road and blocking traffic, they were slower to arrest participants and were conscious of actions that would escalate the situation.
The first City Paper heard about this shift in policy, in which the ban on marching in the streets would be aggressively enforced, was in a private conversation between cops and protesters. An organizer connected to West Wednesdays approached a police officer on Sept. 2 and asked what they could to avoid any of "the drama" that ensued that morning. The officer stressed that if anybody from West Wednesday took to the streets, even briefly, they would be arrested. Tawanda Jones, who didn't want anybody arrested, took her West Wednesday march from Mitchell Courthouse to City Hall via sidewalk.
Meanwhile, the police are growing more comfortable bringing out riot gear—and not only at riots. In early August, police in riot gear appeared on Reisterstown Road following a fight among spectators watching illegal dirt bikers. Police claim the crowd threw rocks at them. A police officer pulled a gun on the crowd. (Supervisors have since put him on administrative leave.) The following weekend, officers in riot gear paced up and down a mostly empty Reisterstown Road which had been reduced to only one lane each way to prevent dirt bikers from riding. On the morning of Sept. 2, on the way to the protest, on St. Paul and Centre streets, City Paper observed three police vans and a number of officers preparing riot gear and what appeared to be tear-gas canisters. One officer joked to the others that they were "ready to go to war."
On Thursday, Sept. 10, as Baltimore Judge Barry Williams weighed defense motions for a change of venue in the Freddie Gray trials, protesters worried about a police crackdown. The previous night, police arrested pastor West for "inciting a riot" six days earlier. (Police footage shows West slamming his hands down on the hood of a car and preventing the car from moving as protesters cross the street in front of it.) Given West's arrest, police use of aerial surveillance, and cops in riot gear, protesters worried that police were attempting to provoke them.
Police seemed jumpy that morning, too. At one point Rose briskly exited the protest area near Mitchell Courthouse. Police followed him—perhaps worried he was moving the march from the designated area to the streets; he was just crossing the street. A line of police and state troopers stood blocking protesters, confining them in the area in front of the courthouse. At one point, police and state troopers put up gates that penned in protesters. A few protesters invoked "kettling," insisting they were being illegally confined. Eventually, the fence was removed. Save for one arrest—Randi Gloss, a young woman who refused to move off the sidewalk in front of the courthouse when state troopers ordered her to—and a rowdy man in Red Sox hat yelling at protesters, the protest was calm. When protesters moved, they did so in an orderly fashion, walking around the courthouse on the sidewalk.
The only time the protest grew chaotic was when Commissioner Davis appeared and engaged a number of protesters, including Rose, in conversation. This interrupted the march, sending all the media toward Davis and fracturing the group. For a moment it threatened to get ugly. But it didn't, mostly because protesters followed police demands, including marching on the sidewalk and not milling about in the street.
The protest ended in a moment of joy when it was announced the trials would remain in the city. Protesters took credit for the victory, saying they kept the pressure on in the months since Freddie Gray's death. The police stood by as the crowd cheered. They had eschewed riot gear that day and indeed, they had treated a protest like a protest.