About 300 people gathered outside Baltimore’s City Hall on Thursday afternoon for protests and speeches, marking the seventh straight day of mostly peaceful demonstrations to show support for George Floyd, the black Minnesota man killed when a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
The crowd grew fairly quickly as organizers said they wanted to continue building momentum for change around the country and in Baltimore, which has had troubled relations between police and residents. Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison accepted an invitation to speak and made brief remarks, and later took a knee with the group during a march through downtown.
“Because of protests like this one, this department is several years into transformation. We’ve got a long way to go," Harrison told the crowd.
The demonstrations in Baltimore, as well as two others in Towson and Bel Air on Thursday, are part of ongoing nationwide protests since Floyd’s arrest and death.
Video of Floyd’s arrest showed former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneel on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes as he called out in pain.
Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder in Floyd’s death, along with three other officers whose charges were also announced on Thursday, just before hundreds gathered in Minneapolis the memorial service for Floyd, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Harrison walked with protesters when they stopped at Baltimore and Liberty streets, near the Royal Farms Arena where protesters stopped and took a knee and raised their fists. Harrison, along with Lt. Col. Monique Brown, and other officers also took a knee.
Speaking with protesters earlier outside City Hall, some in the group urged Harrison to seek reforms, including changes to how officers respond to people in mental health crisis, highlighted by an incident in which a woman was struck by an officer during Friday’s protest.
Se’Daysia Cooper-Lee asked Harrison about pairing officers with mental health workers, which Harrison responded was difficult because of budget issues.
“We can always blame money,” Cooper-Lee said, adding funding decisions are based on priorities.
Audrey Seiz said she was not fully satisfied by Harrison’s comments, saying “I would have really appreciated some specifics.”
Wesley Hawkins, who heads the Nolita Project Inc., a youth mentorship program, asked Harrison to remove a sergeant who previously told front line protesters, “I’m tired of getting calls from your community of things you’re doing to your community,” when protesters said they were tired of police brutality. Harrison asked for Hawkins to follow-up with him about the officer.
Harrison praised the protesters for “a remarkable job of keeping the peace” and said he believed his officers had also done a remarkable job. He said people often talk about police and community relations, but said that separation is not needed.
"I say we are the community.”
Harrison also spoke about empathy and compassion from many in law enforcement, noting how he was among the first law enforcement leaders to condemn the actions of the officers involved in Floyd’s death.
“It doesn’t mean we are weak or soft, it means we have empathy and compassion," he said.
At recent protests, some Baltimore police officers have talked to protesters over barricades, and taken a knee as a gesture of unity. A police lieutenant won praise at an early demonstration for reading the names of 13 black people who died at the hands of police officers.
Organizers of Thursday’s city protest said they asked Mayor Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to meet with them but he declined.
Terry Williams addressed the mostly white crowd with a measure of appreciation.
“You are privileged, yet you found time to be here, to be on the right side of history. We need y’all to speak up," Williams said.
Bel Air resident Kelbey Egerland said she wanted to see the sheriff stand with demonstrators against systemic racism, pointing to Floyd’s killing as one symptom of the unequal — and deadly — treatment of black people by police. The 21-year-old said she had no complaints about the Harford sheriff’s office, but wanted to see people in positions of power share the protesters’ commitment.
“We want to see he is standing with us,” Egerland said. “If he is not, he is saying he is OK with it.”
Meanwhile in Towson, a crowd of more than one hundred people gathered outside the Circuit Courthouse before marching to the county jail.
Once the group arrived at the Baltimore County Detention Center, detainees were banging on the windows as protesters chanted the name of Breonna Taylor, a Louisville woman who was shot and killed by police earlier this year.
Many cars honked in support of their message, including a Baltimore County Fire Engine drawing cheers from the crowd. Other drivers yell out “No Justice, No Peace” and raised their fists out of car windows in support of the crowd.
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“I want to come out and represent my community. I don’t want to seem silent from being home,” said 16-year-old Kayla Norris, who, with her friends Madison Hayes and Zuri Hurley, have been joining protests in Baltimore City.
“You can do so much over the phone and over the internet, but being in person can honestly have a much bigger impact also,” Norris said.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr., who has on Twitter voiced his support for peaceful demonstrators, stopped by the rally midafternoon, his spokesman said.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan highlighted the protests in Baltimore, particularly one that drew more than one thousand people who marched in and around downtown Monday night, as an example for others to follow.
Minneapolis and other cities have seen protests disintegrate into looting and violence, similar to what Baltimore experienced in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody.