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DeRay Mckesson arrested during Baton Rouge protest

DeRay Mckesson -- activist, Baltimore mayoral candidate, schools appointee -- arrested at Baton Rouge protest.

DeRay Mckesson, the prominent civil rights activist who last month was named interim chief human capital officer for Baltimore's public school system after an unsuccessful mayoral bid, was among more than 100 people arrested in Baton Rouge amid nationwide protests against police killings late Saturday and early Sunday.

In a widely-circulated image of his arrest, the Baltimore native is seen on one knee, staring directly ahead of him wearing a T-shirt reading "#StayWoke" — a Twitter hashtag used to urge awareness of the political, social and cultural realities facing minority communities in America. Mckesson turned 31 on Saturday; he was named to schools CEO Sonja Santelises's cabinet on June 28.

Mckesson's arrest came as protesters rallied Saturday at the Baton Rouge police department, the state's Capitol and the convenience store where Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, was fatally shot by two white Baton Rouge police officers Tuesday.

Both Sterling's death and the fatal police shooting on Wednesday of 32-year-old Philando Castile in suburban St. Paul have inspired protests across the country, including in Baltimore.

Castile, a school cafeteria supervisor, was shot during a traffic stop while reaching for his wallet, according to his girlfriend, who live-streamed video of the shooting's immediate aftermath on Facebook. Sterling was shot after a scuffle with officers outside a convenience store, of which video was also captured. The night after Castile was killed, five police officers were fatally shot and others were wounded during protests in Dallas.

Mckesson was arrested on a single count of obstruction of a highway, which is a misdemeanor, as he was walking along Baton Rouge's Airline Highway.

After his release about 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Mckesson said he believes his arrest was unlawful, and that his actions were in line with his mission, personally and professionally, to "make sure that we all live in the best world possible."

"I have a strong commitment to justice and equity across all sectors, namely police and state violence and education, and those commitments are not in conflict with each other," he said.

Roy J. Rodney Jr., a Louisiana attorney representing Mckesson, said he was "wrongfully arrested, excessively charged and overly detained as a result of the exercise of his fundamental and constitutionally protected right to free speech," and called on the East Baton Rouge district attorney to "reconsider and refuse to prosecute."

Rodney was asked to represent Mckesson by prominent Baltimore attorney William H. "Billy" Murphy, who also represents the family of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man whose death from injuries suffered in Baltimore Police custody last year sparked widespread protests.

Baton Rouge Police could not be reached for comment.

In a statement released Sunday titled "A Tale of Two Protests," Baton Rouge Police Sgt. Don Coppola Jr. said a locally organized protest on Saturday was peaceful, and resulted in zero arrests. But then, he wrote, the protest Mckesson was at Saturday night near police headquarters turned violent after "individuals from outside our Baton Rouge community" arrived. In all, 102 people were arrested, and three rifles, three shotguns and two pistols were confiscated, Coppola wrote.

"A Baton Rouge Police Officer had several of his teeth knocked out as a projectile was thrown from the protest," Coppola wrote. "It appears the protest at Baton Rouge Police Headquarters have become more violent as out of town protesters are arriving. Any protest which becomes violent will be immediately dispersed."

Gov. John Bel Edwards said he's "very proud" of the Louisiana law enforcement response to protests.

Flanked by law enforcement leaders, Edwards said he doesn't believe officers have been overly aggressive by using riot gear to push protesters off a highway.

A list of arrestees released by the sheriff's office included two homeless people and 18 from out of state, including Mckesson. The vast majority of the Louisiana residents were from the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas.

Mckesson dismissed the police claim that outsiders caused problems in Baton Rouge. As for why he was there, he said that when protesting in Ferguson in 2014, he and others "made a commitment then that we would stand with [people in other cities] when the time came, and I keep my commitments."

Santelises said the last time she saw Mckesson was late Friday afternoon, when they were discussing staffing at the end of their first full week working together. She awoke to the news of his arrest Sunday morning.

Rather than confirming whether he'd be at work Monday, the first thing that came to Santelises' mind "was just kind of finding out what happened, making sure he was OK." Santelises said she was still awaiting that information late Sunday morning.

"We have had as a country a tense, tense week, and DeRay is still a private citizen and he was on his time," she said. "This is part of who he is, it's part of what drives him, and it's part of what drives him to move the work for kids."

Mckesson said he had already scheduled to take Monday off prior to going to Louisiana, but planned to be back at work on Tuesday.

Jamira Burley, Amnesty International's manager for gun violence and criminal justice reform, said she and Mckesson were part of a group of about 10 people who had decided earlier in the afternoon to stick together. They planned to follow police orders and they were doing so when Mckesson was arrested, she said.

Moments before, police had told them to stay outside of a white line that delineated the highway shoulder from its lanes of travel, she said. But "about 10 seconds later they bumrushed DeRay, they tackled him to the ground."

"Everyone kept saying, 'Why are you arresting him? Why are you arresting him?'" Burley said. "And there was literally no explanation. We were all within the white line."

The demonstration outside the Baton Rouge Police Department was at times tense, as protesters faced off against police dressed in riot gear.

Shouting "No justice! No peace!" a few hundred protesters gathered, waving homemade signs as passing cars honked their support. Some drivers stopped by with bottles of water.

At one point police in riot gear came out to clear the road, as crowds of demonstrators yelled at them. A police officer on a microphone told the crowd that as long as they stayed on the grass and not on the road they could remain, and then police eventually pulled back and traffic reopened.

Video posted on Periscope shows footage taken by Mckesson in the moments leading up to his arrest. The video shows Mckesson walking alongside Airline Highway on his way back to the main area where the protests were going on.

On the video, Mckesson can be heard talking with fellow protesters and describing what he said was provocative police behavior against protesters.

"The police in Baton Rouge have been truly awful tonight," Mckesson said on the video. "They have provoked people, they chase people just for kicks. The police have been violent tonight. The protesters have not."

Moments later, someone shouts, "This is the police, you're under arrest! Don't fight me! Don't fight me!"

Mckesson responds: "I'm under arrest, y'all!" before the camera is knocked to the ground.

Burley said police had been pushing protesters back toward the police station. The group she and Mckesson were part of were trying to comply, but had little place to go other than the shoulder, she said. There was no sidewalk, and they did not want to walk on private car dealership property to the side of the highway and "give police another excuse" to make arrests, she said.

Still, she said many arrests seemed indiscriminate to the protesters. At one point, she witnessed an officer chase a young man. "His co-worker, a white woman, said to him, 'Why are you chasing him? Were you trying to burn off calories?' And he turned to her and said, 'No, I was bored,'" Burley said.

"They were literally plucking people out of the crowd. That was the environment all night. They were looking for reasons to antagonize the crowd and looking for any excuse to arrest people," Burley said.

Mckesson first landed on the national stage two years ago when he took a leave of absence from his job as senior director of human capital in the Minneapolis Public Schools system to protest the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. He founded and leads We the Protesters, a group that advocates policy changes against police violence, and has won praise from high-ranking officials including President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee.

Earlier this year, Mckesson surprised many by entering his name in the Democratic primary for Baltimore mayor, filing his candidacy on the day of the Feb. 3 deadline. He struggled to catch up to opponents who had been running for months, and finished sixth in the race — well behind the winner, state Sen. Catherine Pugh.

In his new role, Mckesson is earning a salary of $165,000 as the district's third chief of human capital in two years, and manage of a budget of $4 million and 56 employees.

After being appointed last month, Mckesson said he was ready to get to work.

"At its core, this role is about finding great people, matching them to the right role, and helping them to develop and experience careers in the service of our kids," he said. "I am excited to return to city schools … and to continue doing the work to ensure that every child in Baltimore City receives a world-class education."

Santelises said Mckesson, who previously spent about two and a half years overseeing key reforms as a strategist and special assistant in the human capital office, would lead the office at least through the fall.

On Sunday, Santelises said she and Mckesson had discussed his role in the protest community prior to his hire, and "both felt that he could focus in and help lift the work that we need to do as city schools."

"And I will say for the first week that has absolutely been the case," she said. "...He has really provided some direction for the team."

To date, Mckesson's profile and activism "has in no way, shape or form impacted the amount of work that he's been able to do, which has been significant," Santelises said. "I said this when DeRay was hired: His commitment to the young people in Baltimore, his commitment to seeing them live full lives, is part of why he does what he does."

Prior to his arrest in Baton Rouge, Mckesson had been actively updating his 455,000 Twitter followers on what was going on there. He repeatedly said that police were provoking the protesters.

"If anything happens tonight, it was caused by the police. Everybody has been peaceful tonight but them," he wrote at one point.

Baton Rouge resident Marie Flowers, who came to the protest with her three children, said people in the north Baton Rouge neighborhood where the shooting happened are frustrated.

Pointing to the crowds shouting along a fence surrounding the police department she said: "To me, this is just a snapshot of north Baton Rouge and how frustrated they are. They are so frustrated with this bull crap."

At one point, she gestured to her 12-year-old son and said they were there to protect men like him.

"Black boys are being killed and this is just the culmination of what has been going on for decades," Flowers said.

The Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into Sterling's death. Burley said protests and marches would proceed on Sunday as scheduled.

The protests in Baton Rouge were among many in cities all across the country this weekend over the police killings of Sterling and Castile.

In Baltimore, protesters marched Friday and Saturday nights, blocking traffic near the Inner Harbor and drawing police in skirmish lines. The protests on Saturday was peaceful but the mood grew tense outside police headquarters Saturday night, where officers kept people from walking into the street to allow traffic to pass, while the protesters linked arms along a line of police officers.

Friday's protest was also largely peaceful, though it briefly shut down traffic coming into the city from Interstate 83. Baltimore police said four people were arrested for blocking streets and refusing to move.

"Outside of that, the protesters have been peaceful and the protest organizers have been helpful," police spokesman Jeremy Silbert said in a statement Friday night.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

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