Protesters took hold of a Johns Hopkins University town hall Thursday evening, demonstrating opposition to the planned introduction of a private armed police force.
Hopkins hosted its first town hall for the community to give feedback on the draft memorandum of understanding between the university and Baltimore Police. The event at Shriver Hall was moved to an online-only format after a crowd of chanting protesters took over the meeting stage and followed Hopkins police leader Branville Bard Jr. out of the building, off campus and ultimately to a fenced-in Hopkins campus safety and security building.
The memorandum is a key piece needed for Hopkins to create its private armed police force. It will lay out terms for jurisdiction between city and university police — a proposed entity that has received much opposition and protest from students, faculty and community members the past few years. Critics have questioned how the police force will be held accountable and expressed concern about how it will treat Black and Brown community members.
Hopkins has said it wants an armed police force as part of a comprehensive, multifaceted approach to addressing crime on and around the campus.
The memorandum draft, released Monday, states that the department’s jurisdiction would be any property that is owned, leased, operated by or under the control of the university, including specific boundaries outlined within its Homewood, East Baltimore and Peabody campuses. Hopkins police would also be given power over public property that is immediately adjacent to the campus, including sidewalks, streets or other thoroughfares and parking facilities, the draft states. Officers can operate outside these bounds only if they’re in pursuit of a suspect, are directing traffic or are given orders to do so by the mayor or governor.
The draft will undergo a 30-day period for the community to provide feedback. During this time, three town halls will take place. Around mid-October, the memorandum will be sent to the City Council for another 30-day period. Bard, who is leading the Hopkins police force, said he hopes to have a final version of the memorandum posted online by the end of the year.
Thursday’s town hall was attended by Bard, who ran the meeting, as well as protesters and other members of the community. The meeting was primarily attended by protesters, who started on the steps of Shriver Hall, sitting quietly with signs.
Caleb Andrews, a fifth-year doctoral student at Hopkins, was the first to show up at Shriver Hall at 4:47 p.m., more than an hour before the town hall, which was scheduled for 6 p.m. He held a handful of posters made by fellow protesters with Coalition Against Policing by Hopkins. The one he made read “Police killed my neighbor” in black ink. He was referencing his neighbor from Battle Creek, Michigan, who was killed through vehicular manslaughter by a police officer.
“It’s one of those things that stick with you,” Andrews said.
Andrews came to Hopkins in spring 2019, the same semester as students held a monthlong sit-in protesting similar plans to institute a private police force. He said the university’s pause in 2020 in its plans to create a private force was lip service, especially since Bard was hired after that. He said he planned to obstruct the town hall as much as he could.
The Hopkins student was joined by other protesters who soon filled the steps of the school building. One protester, Tamar June, a clinical social worker living in the area, said she is upset Hopkins is still working to build a police force, especially after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. She said a police force will further endanger everyone, and Black and Brown neighbors disproportionately. Furthermore, June said, the creation of a private police force will impact people’s mental health just as much as their physical safety.
“It’s shameful,” June said. “They’ve never listened to their constituents.”
June was also disheartened by how the town hall was advertised. She said she found out about it Wednesday only through an email Listserv she receives as a result of having a certain type of parking permit. She found out about the memorandum on the same day.
She said she showed up Thursday to give her public opinion, though she is “afraid a decision has already been made.”
Once allowed inside Shriver Hall, the protesters lined the stage and sat in the walkways of the auditorium, chanting and stomping.
“No justice! No peace! No Hopkins police!”
The protesters went on for more than 15 minutes straight, chanting well into the meeting’s start time. A moderator walked up to the lectern and began to speak with a presentation projected on the screen behind her. Yet, she remained mostly inaudible under the noise from the protesters.
“So let’s be respectful of one another,” the moderator said.
“F--- you!” someone shouted from the crowd.
One protester, dressed in a yellow doctoral gown and carrying a megaphone, began to stand on the auditorium seats. Peers continued to stomp and chant. More people started to stand onstage. All the while, Bard and his fellow panelists remained seated in the white chairs set out for them on the platform.
Moderators attempted to start the event, but protesters moved onto the stage, blocking the screen and drowning out sound from the microphoned lectern.
Suddenly, a siren, apparently part of the megaphone a protester was carrying, started whooping from an upper window of the room. For a moment, the house lights turned on, and the presentation projected onto the screen behind the stage stopped. Panelists left their chairs.
Bard walked down one of the aisles and announced: “Folks, we’re pivoting to a virtual formal. Everything will be on the website.” According to Hopkins spokespeople, the panelists would move to an undisclosed location and hold the event solely through a livestream, which more than 140 people were already using to view the town hall.
Erricka Bridgeford, executive director at Baltimore Community Mediation Center, said she assumed the town hall would play out as it did. Bridgeford, who was brought in to help moderate conversations on the police force, said she was still disappointed because the protesters’ actions meant other attendees were unable to have their voices heard, in part because they did not have sufficient technological resources to participate in an online town hall.
Protesters waded outside, following Bard down the sidewalk wherever he turned. Eventually, he walked up to a white SUV and ducked inside while protesters surrounded the car. People chanted, and some attempted to drape a painted tapestry over the vehicle. At that moment, Bard stepped out of the car, told the protesters they were committing a crime by their actions and continued walking down the lawn to the edge of campus.
People followed him off campus, chanting through neighborhood streets until Bard reached 3001 Remington Ave. There, Bard slipped behind a chain-link fence, which was quickly shut as protesters rushed up to the gate. Protesters surrounded the building, chanting and banging on the doors: “No justice! No peace!”
Yara Changyit-Levin, a freshman who uses the pronoun they, said they came to protest because they do not think policing is a solution for students “to feel or be safer.” They said the idea of a police force already adds stress and unease, and they feel wary about the Johns Hopkins force being first responders. Changyit-Levin said they imagine there will be a narrative that Hopkins couldn’t host the town hall because of protesters.
“It should not have gotten to this point if they had listened to students,” they said.
After the town hall, Hopkins said in a statement: “At Johns Hopkins, we strongly value free expression and fully support the right to protest. We also believe we must be able to engage civilly across our differences and have difficult conversations about the challenging issues we face together as a community, such as public safety. Individuals who wish to participate in a constructive dialog will have additional opportunities to share their comments and questions at one of two remaining town halls, or by email or through the feedback option on our public safety website. The feedback captured through the public engagement period will directly inform the final operational agreement between the BPD and Johns Hopkins, and we continue to encourage members of our community to participate in the ongoing MOU engagement process, which includes the public comment period and city council review.”