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Protesters paint ‘Defund the Police’ outside Baltimore City Hall as council discusses department budget

Crowds of protesters gathered early Friday afternoon before heading to City Hall to voice their opposition to the Baltimore Police Department’s half-billion dollar proposed budget being discussed later by the city council.

More than 100 marchers met first at Baltimore’s Central Booking and Intake Center downtown, while a car caravan gathered at the West Baltimore MARC station, where they displayed signs calling to “Defund BPD." The groups converged outside City Hall as some members of the crowd painted in “Defund the Police” on the pavement of Gay Street.

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The city council hearing began at 5:30 p.m. and was to include comments from Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and others on the $550 million budget proposed by Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. The hearing wraps up a week of budget hearings for the city’s $3 billion operating budget for the next fiscal year that begins July 1.

Because of coronavirus-related restrictions, the budget hearings have been a mix of live and remote participation. The head of the council’s Budget and Appropriations committee and other agency heads have appeared at City Hall while support staff chime in virtually.

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Residents can tune in online by following directions on the Council’s website.

The budget discussions come as many across the country question how police departments are funded in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd’s death, which occurred after police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, has ignited weeks of widespread protesting across the country and demands locally and nationally for sweeping police reforms, including calls for “defunding the police.”

The rally took on a festival atmosphere when street artists began to paint “Defund the Police” in pink letters on the pavement while a loudspeaker blasted music. Local street artists participated in the project, but declined to give their names because, one said, the mural had not been authorized by officials. Toward the end of the evening organizers invited bystanders to help place the finishing touches on the letters.

Michaela Brown, executive director of Organizing Black, called it “absolutely amazing” to see so many people taking on a cause her group has advocated for since its founding in 2016.

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As a police helicopter hovered overhead, Brown said the message being sent is that communities are more than capable of keeping themselves safe "without the violence that police [inflict].”

Harrison said this week he will defend his department’s budget, which is largely made up of personnel costs and contractual spending for items such as body cameras.

He said he agrees that more needs to be done to address the root causes of crime. But reducing police funding now — in a city reeling from violent crime and a department trying to rebuild itself under a federal consent decree meant to reform it — would be detrimental.

“We can’t do it at the cost of reducing services while I’m in the middle of the highest murder rate in the country and where we are dealing with those things right now,” he said.

Protest organizers, however, want much more drastic measures and are demanding that police budgets be slashed in half, with those savings instead going to community-based mental health services, education and youth programming.

“Police and policing are over funded in Baltimore City at the expense of critical resources communities need to survive and be safe,” the Organizing Black group said in a statement.

The rally saw participation from a coalition of groups including the Democratic Socialists, the Harm Reduction Coalition, CASA, Black Lives Matter and Organizing Black.

Among the protesters was photographer Levern Nichols, who grew up in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where Freddie Gray, a Baltimore man who died in 2015 from injuries suffered in police custody, had lived. The area has long been traumatized by police, he said. Nichols said he’d like to see that funding go into promoting arts in the once vibrant Pennsylvania Avenue area.

Abraham Tema of CASA said the cause was important to immigrants like him because “we receive the same treatment from the police — sometimes worse.”

Since moving into Baltimore he’s had many bad experiences with law enforcement. “They pull us over for nothing,” he said.

Earlier, a group of protesters met at the MARC station where they outfitted their cars with messages, including writing the names police brutality victims on windshields and side windows. Others used tape to display messages supporting reductions in police budgets.

One truck’s loudspeaker played Kendrick Lamar‘s “Alright” and Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” two of the songs heard most frequently at demonstrations during the past two weeks of protest.

Baltimore Sun photographer Ulysses Muñoz contributed to this story.

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