Small 'Women in Black' group got big change in Baltimore

Laura Silverman holds peace sign stickers up to give to passersby as Baltimore Women In Black hold their first weekly vigil on McKeldin Square since winning a landmark lawsuit against the city over protesters rights.
Laura Silverman holds peace sign stickers up to give to passersby as Baltimore Women In Black hold their first weekly vigil on McKeldin Square since winning a landmark lawsuit against the city over protesters rights.(Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

Most days, only a few women joined Betsy Cunningham's "Women in Black" anti-war protests. Sometimes she was all alone.

Through heat, rain and snow, she and her black-clad companions stood silently on the corner of Pratt and Light streets near Baltimore's Inner Harbor every Friday for more than a decade, objecting to war. They have been yelled at, spit on and threatened with arrest.


But after 12 years of persistence, Cunningham and the group of self-described "little old ladies" have done something rather large: They have expanded free-speech rights for all Baltimoreans.

"People sometimes yell at us, 'Get a job!'" Cunningham, a lawyer who lives in Charles Village, said before a demonstration Friday afternoon. "I have a job. My job is for peace."

This week, Baltimore officials approved a payment of $98,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union to settle a long-standing federal lawsuit over protesters' rights in Baltimore. In settling the suit — in which Cunningham was the lead plaintiff — city officials agreed to loosen restrictions on when and where demonstrations can take place.

The new rules allow groups of up to 30 people to protest or pass out fliers without obtaining a permit at all city parks and 10 designated locations, including the downtown McKeldin Square.

The new locations — previously off-limits to protesters without a permit — include Rash Field, Kaufman Pavilion, the area west of the Baltimore Visitor Center on the Inner Harbor, and the grass field between the World Trade Center and the National Aquarium. The rules also provide for "instant permits" to be issued by police when larger-than-expected crowds attend a protest.

"It's very satisfying," said Ellen Robbins, 68, of Oakenshawe, a longtime member of the Women in Black. "It was surprising because everything in the world has been going the wrong way. To have something go the right way is quite encouraging."

Their demonstration this week was larger than normal: About 15 women gathered at McKeldin Square on Friday. But unlike previous Fridays, this event was hardly silent.

The women shared a celebratory cake and stories of their years together: How they got started after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when many of them felt the world had become so crazy and dangerous that they had no other choice but to pick a corner and advocate for peace. How they frequently braved rainstorms. How passing motorists sometimes honked in support and sometimes gave them the finger. How it was always the veterans who appreciated them the most.


"One veteran, he crossed the street and kissed all our hands," said Katharine LeVeque, 81, a retired social worker. "They know what war is about."

They recalled that day in 2003 after the start of the Iraq War when Baltimore police officers approached them and told them to move along. It was then that they decided to sue.

"It was a very frustrating day," said LeVeque, of Charles Village. "We decided we needed to do something about it. They thought they could tell us what to do. We didn't think they could. We figured they would look silly if they arrested five little old ladies."

About 10 of the women were told to move that day, and five agreed to sign on to the federal lawsuit, which the ACLU filed on their behalf. Cunningham says her name got top billing because "the letter C happened to be at the top of the list."

City officials immediately implemented interim rules — allowing up to 25 people to demonstrate without a permit in McKeldin Square — but those rules were never made official and enforced only sporadically, according to the ACLU.

As the federal lawsuit wended its way through the court system, the women continued their silent protests. In 2009, they were forced to move again, when Baltimore police officers threatened to arrest them.


"He really did threaten to take us to jail," LeVeque said of one of the officers. "I thought, 'You are going to look really dumb.'"

Police brass ordered retraining on the interim rules for those officers at the time, and City Solicitor George Nilson said this week that police will be trained "aggressively" in the coming weeks on the new rules. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake endorsed the new rules as striking the proper balance between free speech and the need to maintain crowd control.

David Rocah, an attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, said the settlement should serve as notice to Maryland's other jurisdictions that have outdated and unconstitutional restrictions on free speech.

"The rules that are in place now can serve as a model for other jurisdictions around the state," he said, adding that settlement "should serve as a cautionary tale to other jurisdictions lest they be next in line."

The $98,000 to be paid to the ACLU covers attorney fees.

Cunningham said she first learned about the Women in Black, a worldwide movement, in the 1990s while visiting Israel and Palestine, and has since traveled extensively to meetings of the group. She remembers the first demonstration she organized in Baltimore.

"After 9/11, I saw a more fearsome world going on. More homeland security. More arms. More weapons," she said. "I wanted to be in a group that included Muslims, Christians and Jews. I went down to the Inner Harbor thinking I'd be lucky if any of my friends came, and there were 75 people standing for peace."

The numbers fluctuated as the years went by, rising when war was in the news and falling when it wasn't.

Since 2001, as many as 330,000 people have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan during the global war on terror, according to research conducted by professors at Brown and Boston universities.

The U.S. military withdrew from Iraq in 2011, and President Barack Obama has pledged to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan next year.

But with restrictions on demonstrations now loosened in Baltimore, the Women in Black are hoping more will join them.

"People are here every Friday, even if it's just two or three," LeVeque said. "Sometimes it's raining and windy, but our misery is nothing compared to the misery people are going through in wars. We've got to find a different way of settling arguments. Standing here, we hope somebody comes by, looks at our signs, and says, 'Peace: That's a thought.' At least we've made an impression."