As the long-awaited showdown began yesterday between the NAACP's board and Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., other battles in the hot sun outside the organization's national headquarters brewed between city police officers and dozens of media personnel trying to document the historic event.
As many as two dozen uniformed city police officers -- some on foot, others on bicycles -- held more than 50 reporters and camera operators behind yellow police tape.
They were restrained two blocks from the NAACP's national headquarters in the Seton Industrial Park off Mount Hope Drive, a public road.
"Why can't we go down there?" asked James Williams, editor of Baltimore's Afro-American newspaper, as he watched some pro-Chavis rally participants and others cross police lines onto the NAACP property.
Inside the headquarters, the 64 members of the NAACP's board of directors gathered to hear Dr. Chavis explain why he made a secret settlement in November 1993 to pay as much as $332,400 a fired aide, Mary E. Stansel, who claimed sexual harassment and discrimination.
Mr. Chavis made the deal without telling the board or the NAACP's general counsel.
A second woman also made a sexual harassment charge against Dr. Chavis but withdrew it.
"We're asking for the press' cooperation," said police Capt. Gerald F. Busnuk as he tried to cool angry reporters. "We take charge of public streets all the time -- at murder scenes, public demonstrations."
"Is this a public demonstration?" one reporter shouted back at the police officer. About a half dozen people with picket signs stood nearby.
Terhea A. Washington, a NAACP spokeswoman, said in a press statement Thursday that "no media access will be allowed. This includes building and grounds of the NAACP."
Members of Dr. Chavis' staff hoped to gain some positive media coverage at yesterday's meeting by staging a pro-Chavis rally outside the national headquarters while the board meeting proceeded during the afternoon. "There are going to be demonstrations in support of Dr. Chavis," Don Rojas, director of communications for the NAACP, told the press standing behind the police lines yesterday.
"Those demonstrations are going to take place on the grounds of the NAACP. You will be allowed to view the demonstrations, but you will not be allowed to stay."
Press takes a vote
Reporters and camera operators voted not to cover the rally unless police officers permanently fixed the police lines directly across the street from the NAACP building. Police officers later agreed.
Several buses arrived, yielding about 100 pro-Chavis supporters, who sometimes sat unenthusiastically in a grassy area alongside the NAACP building.
Among the rally participants were about 10 relatives of Martha Chavis, wife of the NAACP leader. They said they came to support Dr. Chavis, having been disturbed by what they called negative press reports. "It's a terrible feeling," said Amarilis Jacobo of the Bronx, N.Y., a niece of Mrs. Chavis. "But we all came from New York to support Ben. With all the support he's been having, people are going to think twice about letting him go."
Several speakers stood at a podium blocked by trees and too far away for most members of the media to see clearly.
'We go berserk'
"If [Dr. Chavis] goes, we go berserk," said Jamil Armstrong, a youth member in the Baltimore Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "We will sit in on the board meeting. We came here today prepared to stop the proceedings."
Since he became the head of the nation's largest civil rights organization in April 1993, Dr. Chavis has found most of his support among youth.
"He's been there for us, and that's why we're here for him today," said Terrika Stanley, 17, of Somerset, N.J..