IT'S NOT OFTEN a man gets to see his hometown go stark, raving loony. But within one short week, Baltimore's slipped into demented mode.
It started Oct. 7, when two Baltimore police officers chased a stolen car speeding up Greenmount Avenue. The car stopped and two men jumped out. One, Larry Hubbard -- who had a lengthy arrest record -- tried to run but was caught on Barclay Street.
Officers Barry Hamilton and Robert Quick Jr. tried to arrest Hubbard. Hamilton either shot Hubbard after he grabbed Quick's gun or shot him as Hubbard lay on the ground pleading for his life, depending on whom you believe, the officers or witnesses. The gods -- or fate, or just plain bad luck -- as if to ensure that Baltimore would go crazy, further complicated matters and raised the tension by making both officers white and Hubbard black. The incident was thus to some no longer a police shooting of a suspect, but yet another case of white racist oppression.
Police spokesman Rob Weinhold pleaded with Baltimore residents not to "rush to judgment" before the investigation was complete. But NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, in what WCBM talk show host Les Kinsolving described as a "sprint to Janet Reno," urged a federal investigation of the shooting. Mfume's decision doesn't quite approach the level of lunacy, but it is bad judgment. Why would we want the FBI, which lied about the Waco incident and is scarcely capable of policing itself, investigating a cop shooting in Baltimore?
The real looniness started Wednesday when protesters gathered in front of the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street and hoisted signs that accused Hamilton of being a racist and a murderer.
One of the protesters couldn't resist the urge to take the microphone and excoriate the "bootlicking, Uncle Tom" blacks who didn't join the protest. Another promised that Baltimore would burn "north to south, east to west" the day zero-tolerance policing is implemented in the city.
There were scattered voices of reason. Democratic mayoral candidate Martin O'Malley parked his van at Cathedral and Centre streets and trudged a block uphill to the library, his jacket slung dapperly over his shoulder.
"This shooting has nothing to do with zero tolerance or any other law enforcement strategy, any more than the [James] Quarles shooting did," he said, referring to the Lexington Market police shooting of a knife-wielding man two years ago. He repeated the statement to the crowd before he went into the library to debate his Republican opponent David Tufaro, and got hisses, catcalls and boos in response. He'd have had better luck trying to get a nightingale to sing bass.
State Sen. Nathaniel McFadden has serious doubts about the police version of the shooting but didn't buy into the notion that Hamilton was a "racist murderer."
"It's my understanding that these officers panicked," McFadden said. He talked to one witness who told him that Hubbard was on his back and partially handcuffed when he was shot. Based on experience in his East Baltimore neighborhood, McFadden said, he has no reason to doubt the witness.
"I've heard [police] say, 'If you move, [insert Oedipal expletive here], I'll shoot you.' I've seen them slam people to the ground."
Perhaps the most sober and measured response came from Charles Dugger, a Baltimore teacher and recent Democratic mayoral candidate. He joined the protesters, sympathized with them, said he understood why they had gathered. But he cautioned them that even as they protested, there were blacks throughout the city who were frightened to leave their homes because of the crime running rampant through their communities.
Only two days before the protesters gathered to howl about the death of a hoodlum and charge that cops are the main killers of young black men, a group of people had assembled 30 or so blocks west, in the Rosemont community. They sat in a room above a store on Poplar Grove Street. Some Korean businessmen were present, as were about 10 elderly African-Americans.
Drug dealers sell their wares in front of their homes, the seniors said. If they protest or call the police, they're subjected to harassment from the neighborhood hoodlums. They would love to form a Citizens on Patrol group like the one the Upper Park Heights community has, they said, but they don't have enough young bodies interested in doing it.
Those bodies were in front of Enoch Pratt Free Library Wednesday, protesting, oddly, the death of a man not unlike the ones holding these senior citizens hostage in their homes.