A scary situation that could have been even scarier

It could have ended badly.

Last Saturday, as many as 10,000 people listened while blogger Frank James MacArthur broadcast his stand-off with the Baltimore City Police Department live via Internet radio. The BPD had been trying for more than a week to issue a warrant written in June after Mr. MacArthur allegedly failed to appear at a probation violation hearing related to a 2009 weapons charge.


According to his blog, he spent the days leading up to the confrontation on the run, writing, broadcasting, and trying to ensure he could surrender without being harmed. But a Dec. 1 post on his Twitter account read in part, "Anyone trying to capture me, ur [sic] gonna have to kill me, before I kill you." The police had to take him at his word, so a tweet helped produce a SWAT team, a helicopter and a negotiation streamed live online.

A lot of people who follow crime reports in Baltimore knew, or knew of, A.F. James MacArthur. (That's how his name appeared on his business card.) I met him last year during a sleep-out that a coalition of college students planned to stage in front of City Hall during National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.

I didn't know what to expect at the sleep-out, and I didn't know what to make of James MacArthur. He was tall, charming and conspiratorial. We all wore rugged clothing to the event, but, if I remember correctly, Mr. MacArthur wore something similar to a meeting I had organized weeks before. It seemed like an unofficial uniform. Judging from what I later saw on his website and Twitter page, he was always prepared for the next story. Mr. MacArthur spoke scathingly of police misconduct and dropped names of people on the force whom he knew. I assumed he was leveraging real-life experience and bravado to cultivate the image of an insider and a happy warrior.

The sleep-out was meant to be a peaceful display of solidarity in support of people who were less fortunate. While it was not officially tied to the Occupy movement, Occupy Baltimore protesters were just blocks away on McKeldin Square, and a small band of Occupy Wall Street activists who walked from New York to Washington, D.C. arrived in Baltimore and briefly joined our rally. We were denied permission to camp out overnight. Organizers said the lack of an overnight permit hadn't been an impediment in years past, but that night the police took no chances. A helicopter followed the New York activists to City Hall and remained in the air long afterward. And police on the ground arrived early to make sure the students and their supporters left on time.

One young woman reported that an officer taunted her, joking that someone as unassuming as her wouldn't like it in jail. And a young man I interviewed later told me, "I … felt like we saw a dark side of Baltimore City politics." The helicopter, the threat — what was all this for? Some interstate pedestrians and college kids?

A few days ago, I suddenly remembered that A.F. James MacArthur was one of the few members of our group last year who seemed unsurprised by the police response, as if he'd experienced something like it before. Had he, I wondered? And what, exactly, happened over this past weekend?

From what I can gather, the police performed exceptionally well. Mr. MacArthur threatened to hurt someone, but BPD ensured no one was injured. That being said, I've seen firsthand how some officers gave even mild-mannered college students reason to distrust them.

And while I've heard A.F. James MacArthur speak eloquently about the importance of protecting civil liberties, after reading some of his overheated references to God, himself, death, and war, all written in the third person, I had concerns about his well-being.


But in the end, he turned himself in — unharmed.

Most people will never find themselves in a stand-off with the police. But Baltimore can be a scary place, so many struggle with how to respond to it, swinging periodically between optimism and fear. I know I have. After more than a week on the dark end of that pendulum, I'm glad Mr. MacArthur finally chose hope.

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. Email: lionel@lionelfoster.com. Twitter: @LionelBMD.