Hundreds of Marylanders joined noisy demonstrations at the State House in Annapolis and on downtown Baltimore streets Thursday to call for an end to police brutality and other misconduct.
They packed a hearing room on the second day of the 2015 General Assembly session and vowed to monitor legislative proposals aimed at police misconduct. Later, about 130 demonstrators gathered at the Inner Harbor and marched downtown, blocking President and Pratt street intersections for hours.
"We have to take a stand against police violence and police brutality," the Rev. Heber Brown III shouted into a megaphone in Annapolis. "We're here today because other people are getting away with murder."
A "March on Annapolis" flier outlined the protesters' legislative demands, which include changing a state law that provides procedural safeguards for officers accused of misconduct. They called for strengthening Baltimore's civilian review board and tapping independent prosecutors to handle police brutality investigations.
Thursday's protests, part of a nationwide effort to voice concerns about police, coincided with what would have been the 86th birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
To energize the crowd, speakers asked what the civil rights leader would do about the anger permeating the country in the aftermath of police killing unarmed blacks.
The deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in New York and Tamir Rice in Cleveland at the hands of officers have helped to focus national attention on police conduct.
Baltimore police have drawn scrutiny in the death of Tyrone West. A Baltimore Sun investigation showed that the city has paid nearly $6 million since 2011 in settlements and court judgments for plaintiffs who alleged brutality and other misconduct.
Sixty demonstrators, a mix of retirees, students and ministers, boarded a bus at the Alameda shopping center in Baltimore early Thursday for Annapolis. They carried phones, coffee cups and signs denouncing police violence against unarmed citizens.
Protesters gathered at Lawyers Mall to demand that lawmakers change a state law so police face swifter justice when they commit misconduct. Standing underneath a statute of Thurgood Marshall, speakers led the crowd in chants of "We want justice," "Black lives matter" and "No justice, no peace."
"We want to make a stand on this day!" yelled Baltimore's Farajii Muhammad, as several dozen police officers and troopers watched the crowd. Officers made most people remove wooden sticks from signs.
The Rev. Stephen Tillett, pastor of Asbury Broadneck Methodist Church in Annapolis, told the crowd that many Americans have knee-jerk reactions to the nationwide protests. He stressed that nobody opposes police officers.
"It's an anti-brutality protest," he bellowed. "We support the good cops."
The Rev. Donald Palmore of Baltimore said he rode on one of two buses from Baltimore to show support for the effort to equip police with body cameras.
"It would protect the police as well as the public," he said.
After 30 minutes, the crowd marched up the street to the Taylor House of Delegates Office Building.
"Everybody has the power and influence to bring about change," said Baba Staton, a law student from Baltimore.
Demonstrators stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the entrance of the building, like soldiers in formation. Their shouts vibrated down the block.
"The next funeral I go to is where we bury injustice!" shouted Chinedu Nwokeafor of Baltimore.
It took about 30 minutes for the obedient protesters to pass through metal detectors in the building.
The crowd gathered in front of the hearing room of the House Judiciary Committee, where legislative proposals supported by the group are likely to be heard. Any changes to Maryland's decades-old law enforcement Bill of Rights, which provides procedural safeguards when officers are accused of misconduct, could come before the committee.
The demonstrators are not alone in seeking changes to the police Bill of Rights. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts have said that police officials need more power to address misconduct quickly.
Protesters stood silently as the committee read its roll call. Del. Jill P. Carter, one of several lawmakers who wants to loosen protections in the Bill of Rights, thanked the crowd for attending.
"Justice is our top priority," the Baltimore Democrat said.
Brown, pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in North Baltimore, vowed that people would pack that room to keep a watchful eye on legislation.
"If you don't do the will of the people, you will be in retirement after the next election," he said about lawmakers.
Del. Curt Anderson, who chairs Baltimore's House delegation, said the number of protesters shows other lawmakers "that we in Baltimore City face unique challenges."
Two groups gathered in Baltimore later Thursday. One group met at the Inner Harbor and the other outside the U.S. attorney's office on South Charles Street.
Tre Murphy, a 19-year-old activist who staged a sit-in at a Baltimore City School Board meeting last month to protest the closure of several schools, said his group demands change from lawmakers.
"They're used to folks being there one time," he said. "This is not a one-time thing. We're going back there. ... We're going to get our legislation passed by any means necessary."
Garland Nixon, 53, a retired Maryland Natural Resources Police major and a board member of the ACLU of Maryland, said he saw first-hand the need for an amended officer Bill of Rights and stronger Civilian Review Board.
"The Constitution gives everybody all the rights they need," he said. "Law enforcement should be held to a higher accountability, not a lower one."
At McKeldin Square, a large group of mostly college-age and young adults formed a circle chanting loudly and singing "We Shall Overcome."
Amenhotep "Cruz" Omegasoul, 26, said he came to "show some solidarity for everyone participating in the struggle" on King's birthday. "It's definitely important today," Omegasoul said. "But more importantly it's important to fight every day, to fight for justice, to fight for equality every day."
Protesters decried the arrest of activist Sara E. Benjamin, 23, earlier in the day, and her name became a group rallying cry.
Police said she wasn't arrested for demonstrating but for an unrelated matter. Court records show she had an outstanding warrant for failing to appear at a court hearing stemming from a second-degree assault charge in September 2013.
At about 5:30 p.m., as downtown workers left parking garages for the commute home, demonstrators poured onto Pratt Street and headed east toward President Street. Large groups of uniformed police officers escorted them, and the demonstration became a rolling roadblock for commuters.
"The police are blocking off roads so the group can protest the police," one observer tweeted.
Intersections on President Street and in Harbor East faced logjams until just before 7 p.m., when protesters broke up.