Within an hour after an East Baltimore man died while in police custody, Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon got an urgent phone call from someone with connections to the family,asking for his help.
The next day, Witherspoon, a 30-year-old clergyman and single father, walked the streets conducting what he calls a "community investigation." Though police said Anthony Anderson had died from choking on drugs, people who said they saw the arrest described an assault.
Anderson's death has since been ruled a homicide, and Witherspoon and his bullhorn have been at the center of rallies calling attention to the issue. His early involvement in such a high-profile case is no coincidence — a gifted speaker who has forged unlikely ties with activists such as the Occupy movement, Witherspoon has been emerging as an omnipresent agitator.
"I walked into a distraught house," he said, recalling the aftermath of Anderson's death. "I walked into a house that was a family unit that was strong, and very connected, but was distraught by what they had encountered. I could tell in their eyes that what they were saying was accurate."
The Park Heights resident, who plans to protest Police Commissioner Anthony Batts' confirmation hearing Wednesday, uses rhetoric that is often biting — some say overly inflammatory. In August, he was arrested after refusing to leave City Hall while trying to deliver a letter to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake regarding alleged police brutality.
Witherspoon makes no apologies. At recent anti-police rallies, supporters have accused officers of murder and held signs that read, "Jail killer police." In an interview at an office space he shares with a socialist group, Witherspoon said such comments "accurately capture the sentiments of the community, who really do feel terrorized.
"It is in the best interest of the citizenry and the entire process for these types of officers to be removed from the force," he said as his 3-year-old son played in the background. "It casts a dark cloud of the hearts and minds of average, everyday working people, and serves as a deterrent for them to be more engaged. I want people to be more engaged, but I understand why they are not."
Robert F. Cherry, president of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge, calls Witherspoon an "extremist" who is "stirring the pot and looking to build a name for himself." Cherry said police have made strides in recent years, not only cutting violent crime but also reducing arrests and citizen complaints.
"They talk about jailing killer cops, but not killer thugs, who are the real predators in those communities, and it hurts the good relationships we have been forging for years," Cherry said.
Twenty-eight people have been killed this year in street violence in the city's Eastern Police district where Anderson died, the most in the city. Attorneys for the officers involved, one of whom is a decorated officer who was previously shot in the line of duty, said they will be cleared of wrongdoing.
Witherspoon said he is an advocate for civil rights, an interest instilled in him by his mother, who raised him and his fraternal twin, Corey, as they moved around West Baltimore and southwest Baltimore County. She was involved in charitable work, and he remembers at a young age wrapping gifts for underprivileged children and visiting the homeless.
He attended Arbutus Middle School, where he said he was a student activist who pushed for greater recognition of black history and formed a black awareness club. He continued such activities at Catonsville High School, where he also played football.
By age 21, Witherspoon believed he was ready for politics, filing to run for the Baltimore City Council in 2003 against stalwart Agnes Welch. People told him he didn't have a chance. He got just 128 votes — 2 percent of the ballots cast.
"I was hard-headed," he said. "A hard head makes a soft behind, and I developed a thick skin."
He served as a president of the Young Democrats and interned with Democratic state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, but these days he works outside the political process. His only employment is an occasional guest preaching appearance, making him a professional activist of sorts.
He often dresses in traditional African garb, and though his medium height does not make him a physically intimidating presence, his speaking voice has the cadence of a fiery preacher. He never seems at a loss for words.
Though his rallies against police have gained media attention, he said that's only part of his outreach work, which has included pushing for greater enforcement of the law against the sale of banned synthetic drugs, lobbying to reinstate an EMS program at Baltimore City Community College, and helping a towing company owner become the only black license holder in the city.
He has also marched with those pushing for more jobs related to the East Baltimore Development Inc. project near Johns Hopkins Hospital and supported efforts to preserve the historic Read's Drug Store on the West Side of downtown.
"He's really big on doing things to help people, and he does it not for money and not for notoriety," said Janice Grant, 79, a civil rights leader who lives in Harford County and considers Witherspoon a "son." "I think it's in his heart. It's the kind of person he is."
Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, the former Baltimore chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, recalls that Witherspoon first got involved in activism as a teenager, but seemed to aspire to leadership without "paying his dues."
"You have to understand the mission. A lot of people want to wear the crown without wearing the cross," said Cheatham, 62.
Cheatham and Witherspoon now speak often. "I'm encouraged to see him pick up the gauntlet, especially when so many other civil rights groups seem to be void of activism," Cheatham said.
Witherspoon has been working to reactivate a local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group whose first president was Martin Luther King Jr. In the meantime, he has been building what he acknowledges are unlikely alliances with the All People's Congress, a socialist group, and the Occupy movement. Though those groups' members are more likely to be white, organizers said they share common goals.
Beth Emmerling, a member of Occupy Baltimore, said Witherspoon attended early meetings and was involved with a working group called Jobs for Justice. She said the partnership was a "natural evolution."
"He has more knowledge in the area of civil rights, and a lot of the African-American poor communities, that we just don't have," Emmerling said. "He also understands our outrage. When we're outraged, we're outraged together."
Witherspoon said some of his black colleagues told him to distance himself from the Occupy movement. But in speeches at rallies, he is just as likely to talk about issues important to Baltimore's black community as he is to voice support for the gay community or other minority groups — not always to the same applause.
"I really believe there's more that unites us than divides us," Witherspoon said. "The level of activity that this [Occupy] group is doing, I have probably not seen in a concentrated, consistent way in my entire life. Some of the issues we face are issues of race, but we face issues of class and economic discrimination that can affect anybody."
An alliance with the All People's Congress solidified after they both protested in 2011 the beating of a black teenager by brothers associated with an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood watch group. Rallies attracted a smattering of various interests, and some of the remarks focused on the religion of the suspects.
Andy Alperstein, an attorney who represented the brothers, said Witherspoon was disruptive in court and the rallies were unproductive.
"I think the issues he's talking about are really important; I don't think anybody would disagree with that. But some of the comments in the process of the trial were incendiary, and they caused heightened tensions in the community for all of the folks involved," Alperstein said.
Witherspoon continues to work with the All People's Congress, specifically with one of its leaders, Sharon Black, who has appeared with him at events and was arrested with him at City Hall. Emmerling said the two often send out group emails into the early morning, and Black said they are increasingly being contacted by those alleging police abuse.
Even with the collective resources of several groups, Witherspoon acknowledges that getting support for a cause in Baltimore is difficult. Thousands marched through downtown streets for a rally organized by Witherspoon and others after the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, but only a fraction took part in a rally for Anderson, the local man whose death during a Sept. 21 arrest has been ruled a homicide.
After hearing of Anderson's case, Witherspoon was concerned but cautious. He went door to door, talking to as many people as he could to vouch for the information he was hearing. He said he found 10 to 15 people, separate from the family, who consistently described an assault by police. He decided Anderson's was a cause worth taking up.
"I firmly believe there is a movement occurring," Witherspoon said. "It's slow, and you have to be patient. But there is something happening in this city."