Ever since her brother died at the hands of Baltimore police during what started out as a routine traffic stop in 2013, Tawanda Jones has been a formidable force in pushing for local police reform.
The Baltimore preschool teacher has led rallies, vigils and Zoom workshops every Wednesday since the death of Tyrone West, honoring his memory by calling for changes in policy she believes would increase police accountability for its dealings with the public.
On Saturday, her efforts intersected with a nationwide movement for broader reforms.
With a pivotal trial in the case of George Floyd set to begin in Minnesota on Monday, Jones, 41, helped lead a caravan of cars through the streets of Baltimore, then an emotional 90-minute rally in front of City Hall in which she and the family members of five other Marylanders killed by police in recent years demanded a fairer, more responsive system.
The event was among the dozens held in cities across the country as a prelude to the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes before he died on May 25, 2020.
Mass Action 4 George Floyd, a Boston-based racial justice organization, coordinated the coast-to-coast campaign, which began at 2 p.m.
“This isn’t just about my brother, Tyrone West,” Jones said, microphone in hand, as a crowd of about 50 looked on in the plaza on Holliday Street. “It’s about all the families who are affected and traumatized by police violence. The system is not just. Police have been getting away with murder. And it’s got to stop.”
Cars started gathering on a windy afternoon along Ednor Road in Northeast Baltimore, less than a mile from where West lost his life. Hip-hop music blared, activists plastered signs and wrote messages on car windows, and horns began honking as about 20 cars started their noisy single-file journey toward City Hall.
Jones set up a sound system, then began the chant that has become familiar at West Wednesdays, the gatherings she has led for 398 consecutive weeks: “We won’t stop until killer cops are in cell blocks.”
The crowd that assembled heard the stories of Black citizens who have died at police hands in Maryland — 20-year-old Jarrell Gray of Frederick in 2007, 46-year-old Anthony Anderson of Baltimore in 2012, 49-year-old Leonard Shand of New Carrollton in Prince George’s County in 2019 ― as told, often in emotional terms, by family members they left behind.
Gray’s uncle, Ken Brown, recited a poem in honor of Gray, who died after police who had been called to a home to answer a noise complaint twice used a taser — an “electronic noose,” in Brown’s telling — to subdue him.
“This system of injustice, as I call it, is doing what it was designed to do,” Brown said.
Anderson’s daughter-in-law, Nicole Pettiford, spoke of how police, suspecting a drug deal, threw Anderson to the pavement in a parking lot, causing the rib and spleen injuries that killed him.
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Shand’s sister, Tracy, recounted how police officers, summoned to a Starbucks where an employee had said Shand was behaving in a threatening manner, ended up shooting him dozens of times.
Police officials defended officers’ actions in each case, and while multiple officers were disciplined, none faced criminal charges.
The speakers saw those as issues that could be resolved if laws guaranteeing fuller transparency can be adopted — one reason all spoke out on behalf of bills making their way through the Maryland General Assembly that would grant more public oversight of police behavior.
Each speaker backed repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights — Jones called it “the Killer Bill of Rights” — which affords broad legal protections for officers accused of misconduct, and some spoke on behalf of a change in the Maryland Public Information Act to make police complaints more easily available to the public.
Jones said the officers responsible for her brother’s death — all still on the force — have never faced full legal accountability for their actions. She’s calling for a reopening of his case.
With jury selection about to begin for Chauvin’s trial, she said, it’s an essential time to shine a light on the problem of police brutality.
“While the whole world is watching, our goal is to be heard,” she said.