With more officers and accusations of hostility, are the police department and protesters entering a new stage?
By BAYNARD WOODS
Dec 15, 2014 | 3:51 PM
Though the Army-Navy game was taking place at M&T Bank Stadium, the real tactical battle was between the Baltimore Police Department and the People's Power Assembly-led Day of Anger protesters.
Moments after the protest started at McKeldin Fountain at 2 p.m., Police Commissioner Anthony Batts arrived on the scene and immediately wandered into the crowd, which seemed to be about a hundred people at the time and appeared to have a far higher percentage of white people than the past two protests—a demographic reality perhaps played out in the "All Lives Matter" chants that worked their way through the crowd.
When City Paper last spoke to Batts, during the Dec. 4 protests at Penn Station, he said that the Baltimore Police Department was still learning about crowd control, while also acknowledging the protesters' First Amendment rights and simultaneously vowing that he would not let them take over highways.
As we talked Saturday, a member of the activist group Baltimore Bloc asked about batons that had been pulled out on protesters the previous week at Morgan State University. The Bloc sent City Paper the photos via Twitter, so when Batts approached me at the rally I asked him about it. In many ways, it was the perfect technocratic response. "Can you make it bigger, I'm a 50-year-old man," he said. The photo got blurrier the larger it got, so Batts would never quite acknowledge seeing the batons. But he did say he did not approve of the kind of free-hanging batons most Baltimore police officers use and has ordered better sheaths. He then pulled up his jacket to show his shorter baton.
"What you don't see is helmets and shields and riot gear," Batts said. I asked what he thought of the way Berkeley, California police were handling the protesters there—because Batts was formerly Oakland's top cop. "It's normally the other way around, right?" he said. He went on to say he had learned from the bad way that Oakland police handled the Occupy protests after he left the city. "We don't want to do that," he said.
As the group marched down Greene Street towards the stadium where the football game was going on, the police blocked them at the Sunoco Station. "Stop right here!" one officer yelled after several protesters darted past him, pushing one protester back. Within a few moments, the PPA leaders—who were not as willing to talk with police as Joseph Kent and Tre Murphy had been in previous protests—darted around the officers, went down a side street, and made it to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which they then shut down for nearly an hour. "If they won't let us get to the casino, we'll shut down the road," one protester said.
At this point there seemed to be roughly 300 protesters and the number of police on the scene steadily grew as numbered arrest vans arrived. Batts could be seen conferring with other brass on the median. Soon, police began to turn southbound cars around. Eventually, the protest began to move north, away from the stadium.
"We won't negotiate," the protesters said when someone from the BPD entered their circle and tried to talk.
During this time, Sun reporter Ian Duncan began tweeting police movement from the scanner, while police tweeted the protest location. By the time the group stopped in the middle of Howard Street, stopping the Light Rail in both directions, the Baltimore Police tweeted that they asked Duncan to stop tweeting the scanner because it endangered officers (the tweet has since been deleted). Duncan responded, "What happened to off the record?"
As the group began to move again, protesters began to fall away, as did I—until tweets began to indicate an increased level of police hostility to protesters. When I caught back up with the group, it was headed north on Calvert Street, and protesters were outnumbered by police. I was running to catch up with the group when an officer yelled at me to get off the sidewalk. I flashed my card. "This is crazy, huh?" he said.
Throughout the night, officers were overheard talking about overtime, for which, Justin George reported last week in The Sun, the department has paid more than $450,000 during the protests.
There was another stand-off at Calvert and North Avenue—including members of the Baltimore Bloc, who were having a meeting at Red Emma's when the protest started but joined up to show support—where police greatly outnumbered protesters. The smaller number of protesters—and less media presence—of the last stages of the protest seemed to lead to a decrease in police tolerance. One woman, Beth Emmerling, who is an associate of the Baltimore Bloc, claims an officer hit her in the face with his shoulder when she tried to leave the group on Calvert Street to find a bathroom. Others also claim to have witnessed rough treatment (the previous week, on Dec. 4, an officer whose name tag read F. Berry, put his hand on my shoulder and pushed me up onto to the curb as the group marched up Charles Street. When Batts asked "How are my guys doing?" later that night, I told him that I was pushed. He asked where my press pass was, as if not having a press pass made the officer's move understandable).
The department has taken to Twitter to deny any such charges.
At some point around 7 p.m., as the group remained in the intersection of Calvert and North, Foxtrot, the police chopper, began flying lower, making announcements saying this is now "an illegal assembly." The chopper kept getting lower, announcing a second, third, fourth, and final warning, before the protesters finally dispersed and once again went north on Calvert. In the meantime, officers forced people filming the demonstration—including CP music and screens editor Brandon Soderberg—off of a nearby hill.
City Paper has asked the department what happened to make the demonstrations, that Batts previously indicated were part of the protesters First Amendment rights, suddenly illegal. They did not immediately return our request for comment. From the ground, it seemed like the only thing that had changed was that there were now fewer protesters and less media.
Both the attitudes and tactics of police seemed different at this protest, an observation that may be born out by Commissioner Batts' comments upon the shooting of Officer Andrew Groman at a traffic stop—entirely unrelated to the protests—on Sunday night. At the press briefing about the shooting, Batts linked the two.
"I'm not caught on the irony of the time or the situation," Batts said. "We've had marches nationwide on the fact that we have lost lives in police custody. I wonder if we're gonna have those same marches as officers are shot too."
The outcry on social media was fierce, with activists pointing to old stories from California about domestic violence and other allegations against the commissioner.