One by one, protesters took the microphone outside Baltimore City Hall on New Year’s Day to read gut-wrenching tales of police brutality or discrimination.
In one story a protester read on behalf of a victim, a 12-year-old boy finishing homework in his basement thought robbers had invaded when he heard yelling and was confronted by a man with a gun. In another, a mother who asked for anonymity wrote of struggling to explain to her four children, again and again, why they could not see their father after his death. Another family said they called 911 to get an emergency petition for a family member needing hospitalization for a mental health crisis. Instead, he was shot, a protester read from the family’s description of events.
During the “speak-out session” organized by several activist groups, families that feared going public asked protesters to speak for them and withhold their names. But others chose to speak publicly about their anger, grief and loss.
Anthony Anderson, 46, died in 2012 after he was tackled by a Baltimore City police officer, according to reports in The Sun. The reports said officers stopped Anderson in a vacant lot where they said he failed to respond to commands, prompting one officer to use a “bear hug” maneuver.
“They claim that he was trying to run away or that he was involved in a hand-to-hand transaction with drugs," Marcus Pettiford, Anderson’s son, said during Wednesday’s event. "They found no drugs, they found no money on him. He’d actually just spent all his money on snacks at a package goods store.”
The speak-out event took place a day before a new city law will take effect that bans the use of so-called gag orders in city settlements. Nondisclosure agreements, which have long been part of agreements between families and the city in police brutality or discrimination cases, prohibit signers from publicly discussing their case.
The new law, passed by the City Council in October, followed a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that found the gag order requirement unconstitutional. The city law also requires the city law department to publicly disclose information about claims.
Tawanda Jones, of the Justice for Tyrone West Coalition, said she and others organized Wednesday’s event to coincide with and raise awareness of the new law.
“It’s very important for victims to be able to speak their truth,” Jones said.
Erricka Bridgeford of Baltimore Ceasefire said she was glad to stand in for a family.
“If you understand trauma, being able to tell your story is a huge part of the healing process,” Bridgeford said. “It’s a whole other dimension when somebody tells you we’ll give you some money, but you can never tell your story again.”
But some organizers remain unconvinced that the law alone will offer protection for those who decide to speak out. Those concerns led to organizers’ decision to read stories from people who wanted to remain anonymous.
In September, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young announced an executive order that he said would allow those who have reached settlements with the city to speak about what happened. City Solicitor Andre Davis had said the mayor’s order offered an added layer of certainty.
But those advocating for a ban on gag orders believed the mayor’s order did not go far enough and said they grew even more concerned when the mayor let the City Council bill become law without his signature. Davis had said the council could not pass a law pertaining to settlements involving the Baltimore Police Department because the department is officially a state agency, not a city agency. On Wednesday, a spokesman for Young could not be reached.
But Deputy City Solicitor Dana P. Moore, who addressed the crowd at organizers’ invitation, sought to reassure them that the law department plans to comply and already has complied with the law and will continue to settle cases without requiring nondisclosure agreements.
“Legally, it’s settled. Politically, it’s settled. But it’s not settled in the hearts of the people who are here. And that’s why I’m here," said Moore, who will serve as interim solicitor after Davis’ planned resignation March 1. “Until every person who has a story that they feel they can’t tell understands they can tell it, our work’s not done.”
She said the disparagement agreements “will not come back. The law does not allow it. Whatever we think about the law, the law is clear, and we will follow that law.”
Some with past settlements remained unconvinced.
Adiena Britt said she signed an agreement with the city in 2018, but still is worried about repercussions if she talks about the case. Britt would say only that it affected her entire family. She wants additional assurance that the city won’t go after people with existing agreements who speak out.
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“They won’t put it in writing,” she said.