Following a mistrial in the Porter case, protesters attempt to regain control of the narrative and highlight a violent arrest
By JAKE CARLO AND BRANDON SODERBERG
Dec 23, 2015 | 3:00 AM
In the days leading up to the announcement of a verdict in Officer William Porter's trial, headlines declared a city "on edge." Out-of-town police, complete with armored trucks and riot gear, milled about Druid Hill Park in preparation. Residents feared a repeat of April's violence while activists anticipated a swift crackdown on their First Amendment rights.
Nothing went as expected, much to the relief of the city and, it would seem, to the frustration of national news teams who were anticipating unrest. When the jury couldn't agree on a verdict and the judge declared a mistrial on Dec. 16, two protests ensued, one downtown (complete with brash media critiques in front of City Hall) and one in Sandtown—along with two arrests before most of the protesters had even arrived at the City Hall starting point. At a press conference the next day, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis praised both the police and protesters for how Wednesday evening was handled and the news repeatedly declared the previous night "peaceful."
But the "peace" was occasionally interrupted. Shortly after the judge declared a mistrial in the late afternoon, sheriff's deputies moved through a small group of protesters outside the courthouse and quickly grabbed activist Kwame Rose who was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, failure to obey, and unlawful use of a bullhorn.
As deputies carried Rose away, activists began yelling, "He didn't do anything!" then started chanting "Free Kwame Rose! Free Kwame Rose!" Deputies went on to briskly push protesters off the sidewalk while telling them they could not be in the street which led the group, in the words of activist Megan Kenny, "to float." A wall of deputies surrounded the north side of the courthouse on East Lexington Street and it seemed, for the most part, calm.
But 20 minutes later, around 4:10, a small group of teenage protesters across the street from the courthouse on East Lexington began chanting and yelling. They also posed and mugged for news cameras: amped-up kids throwing up signs, flashing their grills, and indefatigably chanting on behalf of Freddie Gray, stoked to see themselves on the news or in the paper later on.
As the teens sauntered into the street, deputies moved forward. They singled out one young activist in particular, a 16-year-old who has been a fixture at protests in front of the courthouse since the start of Porter's trial and who has been active in demonstrations across the city since April. The deputy moved on the teen, grabbed him by the neck, and slammed him against the window of the Court Square Building with other deputies piling on him. The 16-year-old, who is from East Baltimore, was arrested and, like Rose, charged with disorderly conduct, failure to obey, and unlawful use of a bullhorn near the courthouse.
The teens who were protesting alongside the 16-year-old were distraught and angry. They'd just met him earlier that day, they said, and he echoed many of the frustrations common among young black men protesting—namely, that they are targeted and harassed by police. At a protest in April he held a sign that read, "Freddie didn't die in vain. Civil rights today!"
City Paper first reported on the 16-year-old last month, noting that he slammed a sign against the door of Ruth's Chris Steak House during a protest on Nov. 30, the first day of the trial, and was promptly lectured by activist Duane "Shorty" Davis. That night, the 16-year-old also spoke passionately in front of the World Trade Center, quoting Malcolm X ("by any means necessary") and later on, in front of cops by Power Plant Live, rapper Lil Boosie ("Without a badge you a bitch and a half").
The most confusing aspect of the arrests last week was the reference to bullhorns. Specifically, the activists were busted for "use of a bullhorn or other amplifying device in proximity to the courthouse while court is in session." But at the time of the 16-year-old's arrest, he was not using a bullhorn and in a video of the arrest posted by CBS News, a deputy moves right by a protester with a bullhorn yelling "Justice for Freddie Gray" to arrest the teen.
When City Paper spoke to Major Sabrina Tapp-Harper, the spokeswoman for the sheriff's office the day after the arrest, she had not yet watched the video of the teen's arrest but she was aware of the video. She also pointed City Paper toward another news video, one from CNN that showed the teen with a bullhorn earlier in the day. Later that evening, the Sheriff's office released a statement that the 16-year-old had been arrested for his use of a bullhorn and that earlier in the day, he had tried to elude deputies when they asked him not to use it. There is an Internal Affairs investigation into the teen's arrest and the sheriff's office is looking for information on another protester who in the chaos of the 16-year-old's arrest kicked a deputy in the head.
At approximately 4:25 p.m., Rev. Westley West launched a march to City Hall that probably wouldn't have happened at all if the teen's arrest hadn't sparked things off. It wasn't until later in the evening that protesters began formally gathering near City Hall for a planned protest at 5:30 p.m. In the meantime, a number of notable faces made appearances: members of the 300 Men March, organizer Stokey Cannady, visual artist Paul Rucker, and former Black Panther Eddie Conway. "The police aren't giving warnings today it looks like, so be careful," Baltimore Bloc's Ralikh Hayes said.
Shortly after, Hayes and approximately 50 protesters began a march that looped around City Hall and headed east to President Street, briefly stopped at the exit ramp to the Jones Falls Expressway, headed back the way they'd come along President, then Fayette Street, and ended back at City Hall. Some 50 journalists followed the protesters, illuminating the march with camera lights.
When the protest returned to City Hall, the west end of the plaza was swarming with additional local and national broadcasters. In response, protest leaders began disrupting television news reporters one by one. Shorty Davis, a longtime area activist, kicked things off by inserting himself between WJZ anchor Vic Carter and his camera. Protesters then swarmed media for a spontaneous critique of coverage. "Y'all not going to keep making money off our struggle. Y'all don't have to live and go through what we go through every day," a protester yelled at a white television reporter.
Activist Megan Kenny questioned why television news crews, largely absent from the city since the April uprising, chose to descend on Baltimore only when it seemed a crisis might erupt. "We've been searching for justice—where were you?" she shouted.
Makayla Gilliam-Price explained to a reporter what it meant for his media outlet to be there. "Evaluate the systematic oppression tied to your body and your camera and the implications of your body being in this space and the implications of your words refuting what these black bodies are saying to you," she said. "Understand that you have no right to be here when black people are enraged and grieving. Mourning is not a joke. It is not something to be seen. It's not something to be watched."
Then Shorty Davis moved the group to another newscaster and then another.
Across town in Sandtown, between 20 and 30 demonstrators, some holding signs reading "Jail Killer Police," mingled with dozens of onlookers outside the metro station on the southwest corner of North and Pennsylvania avenues, just a few yards from the shell of the drug store that burned on the night of April 27 and became television news' visual cue for "the Baltimore riots."
A dozen or so police casually watched the demonstrators from across North Avenue. Among the shifting group of protesters and Penn North residents was Sonja Sohn, who is making a documentary about Baltimore's young activists for HBO. She spoke at length with Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, head of the police department's Community Collaboration Unit and a Baltimore Police officer often praised by activists.
Nearby, Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore City chapter of the NAACP, stood chatting with members of the community: "What we're doing out here tonight is just keeping people calm, with some pastors and the police department, and having prayer," Hill-Aston said.
Also on hand was Toya Graham, who in April briefly became famous after the release of a video of her scolding, head-slapping, and chasing her 16-year-old son away from a confrontation between students and police near Mondawmin Mall. Graham said she had come down to the corner this evening to encourage peace and unity within her community.
"We don't want the violence," Graham said. "Even though I am very angry with the outcome of the trial, it still isn't over, we still have a fighting chance. And if we fight together instead of burning up the city, we can get through this together."
Graham said she had invited her son to join her but that he had declined to come with his mom.
Some area residents voiced anger at the demonstrators who had come to the neighborhood to carry a political message, saying that it created an atmosphere wherein the emotions of area youth might find explosive expression, as they did in April. Gesturing to the corner where Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, bullhorn in hand, delivered a fiery sermon on the city's failures, resident Ralph Boller said, "Listen to what he's saying, he's just aggravating them. They're already tense and aggravated." Witherspoon's sermon, he suggested, ought to be given somewhere else.
Not long after, a motorist heading south on Pennsylvania Avenue shouted out his window at demonstrators, telling them to "go downtown."
Back downtown, around 7 p.m. the protesters split up. Some went to a know-your-rights workshop at the Real News Network while others headed to the Juvenile Justice Center where it was assumed the 16-year-old was being held.
The group of activists linked arms in front of the Juvenile Justice Center and led by activist Tariq Touré (who recently contributed poetry to City Paper) began chanting the familiar chants as well as a new one, "I got a target on my body somebody please protect me"—the refrain of Baltimore poet Mohamed Tall's "Do The Right Thing."
Gilliam-Price also spoke. She reminded the group that the teen arrested was just 16 years old and invoked his arrest as part of the school-to-prison pipeline. "They're taking babies off the streets," she added. "[He] is our future. . .He was put in a chokehold and slammed to the ground."
CNN's Miguel Marquez stood across the street near some Baltimore Police officers and observed the group. (Back in April, Sandtown resident Shaun Young grabbed Marquez's microphone and yelled "Fuck CNN" live on the air.) But a few minutes before 8 p.m. Marquez walked over to the Juvenile Justice Center to broadcast live. Activists surrounded Marquez and made it clear that he should be prepared to have his broadcast interrupted if he said anything they took issue with. If CNN was going to use protesters, protesters would use CNN. They positioned Kelly Holsey, the fiancee of Keith Davis Jr.—a man who was shot by police back in June, who remains in custody and whose story seems to get more complicated—next to Marquez.
Marquez nervously reported and as far as protesters were concerned, he stuck to the facts and so he was spared another Shaun Young situation. Soon after, Davis and Gilliam-Price called for a mic check and everyone gathered.
"Be safe" is all that Davis declared and the night was over.
Both Rose and the 16-year-old were released early on Thursday morning.