The handwritten poster read, at the top, “Stolen Lives in Maryland 2014”, followed by a list of 25 names of people who had died in police custody or in altercations with Maryland law enforcement in one way or another during the year 2014.
A few of the names were people who most would consider to have been truly dangerous judging by the accounts in the news reports which we researched (and are not mentioned here), but most of them were individuals who seemed to have died under unclear, questionable or suspicious circumstances. Some, like Perry Webb, Rajsaun McCray, Jameel Kareem Harrison, Briatay McDuffie and Arvel Williams, died after car chases, when they were either tased, shot or, according to the stories about Webb, may have shot themselves. Some, like Hernan Milton Osorio and Darren Friedman, were apparently attempting suicide and the police, who were allegedly trying to stop them, killed them themselves when threatened, while Luis Arturo Hernandez Jr. was allegedly attempting suicide while holding his wife as a hostage. Ryan Charles Deitrich and Donovan Bayton were reportedly behaving in a threatening manner (though not necessarily committing any crimes) while holding knives, and Mark Anthony Blocker simply would not drop his pellet gun. Eric Harris was killed by police when his fake gun was apparently mistaken for the real thing. Bernard Lofton was killed after a suspected burglary. George King became unruly in a hospital and a Baltimore police officer tased him several times, which killed him. Tyree Woodson was arrested on a murder charge and allegedly committed suicide in a police station bathroom with a gun that he somehow managed to get past a police search, while 78-year-old William R. Walls Sr. reportedly committed suicide during a gun battle with police in a hostage standoff at his home. Angela Randolph fought with a Maryland Transit Administration police officer and was shot, while Antonio Moreno reportedly suffered a heart attack during a struggle with police on a bus. And finally, Winfield Carlton Fisher III was killed in Salisbury under circumstances that were unknown, according to the news article.
The poster concluded with an alarming statistic: “In 2014 Maryland law enforcement killed someone every 14 days.”
The Sister who held that poster had boarded one of several buses from Baltimore City to participate in a rally in Thurgood Marshall Plaza, nicknamed “The People’s Plaza” because of its popularity as a gathering and rallying place for actions such as this one. We were there in Annapolis, on January 15, 2015, what would have been the 86th birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the shadows of the buildings that house the offices and meeting rooms of Maryland’s state senators and delegates in the legislature, to press for the enactment of reforms to the laws that regulate police conduct in the state. Chief among the demands being pressed this day were the incorporation of body cameras for police, the creation of a Special Prosecutor’s Office for cases of alleged police misconduct, the empanelment of a Civilian Police Review Board and other key changes to be made in the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a measure thought by several politicians, but more importantly the vast majority of community activists, to allow corrupt, racist and violent police officers to continuously commit acts of brutality and go unpunished. One particularly objectionable provision in the original Bill is the establishment of a ten-day period after the launching of an investigation into police misconduct that would allow potential police defendants to formulate their alibis. This provision evokes memories of the February 4, 1999 police murder of an unarmed Amadou Diallo in the entrance of his own New York City apartment and the two-day period during which the four police officers who had gunned him down had been able to construct the infamous “we feared for our lives” narrative that ultimately resulted in their acquittals at trial. Not only had internal NYPD investigations concluded the officers had acted “within policy” (much as in the recent cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner), but their claims of having feared for their safety may have set the stage for the use of this self-defense motive to escape criminal charges in future killings of civilians by police.
This particular weekend, there would be many rallies, protests and discussions across the United States centered around the juxtaposition of Dr. King’s birthday and the recent uprisings, in the spirit of Dr. King, against the police violence against civilians that seized the country’s attention starting with the killing of Ferguson’s Michael Brown this past summer. Marches in New Jersey (one by the People’s Organization for Progress, http://njpop.org in Newark on Monday, January 19) and New York (the MLK “Dream 4 Justice” March at Malcolm X Blvd @ 110th Street in Harlem at 12 noon on Monday, January 19), rallies and teach-ins in Washington, DC (several of them sponsored by Black Lives Matter, http://blacklivesmatter.com and the Washington Peace Center, http://washingtonpeacecenter.net), and activities in Cleveland, Ohio, Ferguson, Missouri, Los Angeles, California and places across the country, show the potential for the anti-police brutality movement to morph into a new Civil Rights and Human Rights Movement that could continue for weeks, months or longer. Demonstrations will be held. Streets will be blocked. Arrests will be made. Politicians will make speeches. Police union leaders will complain about disrespect of law enforcement. Talk radio shows will bring the voices of the People to the airwaves. Panels will provide analysis. And in Annapolis, rallies were held directly in the faces of Maryland state law makers. Perhaps some of them will listen.
The January 15 Day of Action Against Police Brutality at the Maryland State Legislature in Annapolis had been organized by the Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III, Pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in North Baltimore; Bro. Faraji Muhammad of WEAA-FM and the American Friends Service Committee; Bro. Davon Love of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle; Bro. Tre Murphy of The Algebra Project; Sis. Towanda Jones and the Family of Tyrone West (who was killed by Baltimore City police in July 2013 and whose family still seeks justice); and several other activists who attended and assisted in the organization of the rally, march and planned meetings with members of the Maryland House of Delegates. Special guests at the event included students from Connexions Charter School, who had come to see an example of “civics in action”. Buses had been contracted to pick up participants from at least three meeting locations in Baltimore City and nearby areas of the state.
Rev. Dr. Heber Brown, III, Pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, called the rally to order at 10:00 AM. “I want to be clear, that if anybody has any questions about who the leaders are, do me a favor. Because I want to introduce you to the leaders. Look to your left. Now look to your right. You have just seen the new leaders of the movement for social justice in our generation. We are the leaders. We have our own spheres of influence, our own circles, where we are connected. You have opportunity to lead where you are. We are here this morning, bringing together all the leaders, from Baltimore City, from Anne Arundel County, Harford County, PG [Prince Georges County], Montgomery County. We’re bringing together all the leaders to address the situation that addresses and challenges all of us. We are here to stand against police violence and police brutality. Can I give you a word of applause and encouragement right now? Because I’m so proud of you. Because they thought we’d sit down and shut up. They thought after a few marches, after a few rallies, they thought that we’d just calm down again, get back to Scandal, get back to How To Get Away With Murder. … We’re tired of other people getting away with murder. We’re tired of the scandal in our community. Black and Brown people are being brutalized and terrorized by those abusing the powers afforded them. … After we rally right here, we’re going inside these buildings. … We’ve got some meetings to have today. There are some elected officials that we need to meet with today, and be clear about some specific legislation. We didn’t come this far to have a picture taking party. … We’ve got some work to do. There’s some work that we must do; there’s some work that only we can do.”
Sis. Taya Angelou gave a song-and-spoken-word performance to rouse the crowd, which had grown by this time to about 100 people.
Bro. Tre Murphy of The Algebra Project reflected on the fact that this rally was being held on January 15, what would have been the 86th birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Look around. About 100 people standing here today, who have marched on Annapolis today because the issues of police brutality and our communities being under attack stem from the underlying issues of systematic racism and systematic oppression. … The system of White Supremacy has undervalued and devalued the lives of Black people. I wonder if MLK were still alive today, what would he say? What would he do? I can’t help but think that MLK would not appreciate the silence of the Black Church, that has not taken a stance on these issues. I can’t help but to wonder and to think that MLK would not appreciate that [there are] Elders who sit idly by while young people speak out against injustice. I can’t help but to wonder and think that MLK would not appreciate that politicians and law enforcement, whose job is to protect and serve our communities, care more about protecting killer cops than they do about passing laws that adhere to bring justice to the Black community.
“We are at a pivotal time in history. A time in history where we have the opportunity to create a better future for generations to come than what was left for us. It has the hope and reassurance that somewhere out there lies a bigger, better and brighter tomorrow. And that it doesn’t just end with today. That’s the vision that we must hold on to. So, in closing, here’s my call to action in the spirit of MLK’s birthday today.
“To every clergy member, I ask that you join us, for the silence of the Church has been insufficient to the work of creating a better life for God’s people. I hope to convene a roundtable of religious and clergy leaders to talk about a long term strategy of what the roles of churches are in this work.
“To all of the older civil rights organizations, the ACLU, the NAACP, Rainbow-PUSH Coalition, Rev. Al Sharpton, whoever you are, this is my call to action for you. Stand with us. Support community-based organizations and people who are out here making a change. For it is this work, the work of transforming communities, that will be the determining factor between us staying in the past of yesterday or moving forward into the bright visionary futures of tomorrow that MLK had envisioned.
“To all the Black community members, who sit idly by while our communities are under attack, I say to you, get off the fence and join the Revolution. The movement needs your energy and your spirit.
“To our White counterparts, and other communities alike, I say to you, join our cause. You want to be on the right side of history when this goes down in the history books. This is the call to action, and I hope that all will answer to it.”
One Brother who was occasionally called upon to speak made appeals to the group to access that spiritual source that provides the courage to boldly confront the state’s lawmakers. “We are not asking questions. … Questions are for yesteryear. Now we are making demands. We urge them … to give us answers. … We are not, we will not and we cannot continue to allow these injustices within our neighborhoods and our communities to continue. All I want you all to know is, and I want the state of Maryland to know and I want the United States of America to know, the next funeral I go to is the funeral where we bury injustice, the funeral where we bury all violence, where we bury issues, where we bury all the mistrust. We are here to forge forward, fortified, ready, standing strong, Black Power, togetherness, unity, we are tied together. Malcolm said it, and Martin said it. We are tied together by the garments of mutual destiny. … I am ready to reconnect this movement because we are lost, but today … we will bridge the gap that death created. We are risen today. Let’s forge forward.”
Pastor Stephen A. Tillett, President of the Annapolis Chapter of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and President of the Anne Arundel County NAACP, pointed out that the Black Church was present this day, and then explained the agenda of the rally and visit to the legislative chamber that was to follow on this day. “The Church is in the house. I just wanted to point that out. … My assignment today is to state in clear terms what we want and why we are here. … All across the nation, communities are rising up in a new human rights movement, to demand constructive change from those who are elected to serve us, and from those empowered to protect us. And so we are here to demand that those who serve us do so in a moral, just and fair way. The knee-jerk reflexive response to our protests has been to label us as anti-police. Let me be clear. In my congregation are local, county and federal law enforcement officers. I’m a member of the United States Military. So we are not anti-law enforcement. This is not an anti-police protest, but it is an anti-excessive force protest. It is an anti-police brutality protest. But we unequivocally support the good cops doing their job the right way.
“The question Pastor Brown has asked me to address today is, What do we want. What do we want? Equal protection under the law. What do we want? Equal treatment under the law. What do we want? Equal justice under the law.
“There are several things we can do immediately to ensure more equal protection, equal treatment and equal justice. First, we want for Maryland to take advantage of the federal funding offered by President Obama for body cameras for the police, and we support passage of legislation to make that happen. You see, when there is a body camera, that eliminates a lot of he-said-she-said, because it’s on film. Of course that’s what we thought with Eric Garner, but at least we know what really happened. Hello, somebody!
“Number two, we support legislation to establish an independent Special Prosecutor’s Office to adjudicate cases involving accusations of excessive force and police involved shootings. We need a prosecutor who is not connected to and dependent upon the police on a daily basis to render unbiased decisions on prosecutions. This eliminates the current conflict of interest that exists when close co-workers are involved. Bottom line, what that means is, that right now the prosecutors who decide whether to take a case to the grand jury, what instructions to give the grand jury, are the same prosecutors who depend on police to win their cases. That’s a conflict of interest. So what we’re saying is that there should be an independent prosecutor who is not connected to that at all, and let him or her render decisions, bring cases to the grand jury if necessary, and the chips will fall where they may.
“Number three, we support legislation to create Civilian Police Review Boards throughout the state. Our friends in law enforcement seem to oppose it because they feel that only police can accurately evaluate what happens in the line of police work. Let me give you an illustration. In the Church, let’s say that there’s some financial impropriety, and you bring that financial impropriety or accusation of financial impropriety to my attention, and I say ‘Well, the Deacons and I will look into it and we’ll get back to you.’ There’s some accusation of sexual impropriety in the Church, and you bring it to me and I say ‘The Deacons and I will look into it, and we’ll get back to you.’ That process is not transparent, and nobody’s going to believe what we come up with. This Civilian Police Review Board is actually to the benefit of the police, because what it does is create a transparent process that some of you, or some of us, may be a part of, and when the decision is rendered, at least the people will be able to say, ‘Well, Pastor Brown is on that Review Board, so that’s what they came up with, I’ve got to trust Brown.’ You’re not going to get an outcome that you want all the time, but at least it will be a transparent outcome.
“Dr. King correctly said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. It was true then, and it’s just as true today. And only truly when we know justice, will we know peace.”
Pastor Brown thanked a number of organizations and communities who had come out to support the rally, including a Jewish organization named Repair the World Baltimore, several LGBT activists who had come out in support, the Christian Church Pastors, several of whom had attended the rally, the Muslim community, those from other faiths, the Agnostic and Atheist communities and a host of representatives from various cultural traditions. He also mentioned that several hundred cards had been printed for the legislators that included a concise list of the group’s legislative demands “so they know quite clearly, that we didn’t come down here just to make noise, we came with an agenda, and the agenda is printed there on the back of the card.”
At this point, the assembled crowd marched to the Casper Taylor legislative building, chanting a variety of call-and-responses, including “No justice, no peace/No racist police”, “Black lives matter”, “Hands up/Don’t shoot”, and “What do we want/Justice/When do we want it/Now”.
Outside the Casper Taylor building, Bro. Tre Murphy addressed the crowd again.
“We’re not taking this any more. There’s not going to be one more Michael Brown. There’s not going to be one more Tyrone West. There’s not going to be one more Anthony Anderson. There’s not going to be one more Tamir Rice. There’s not going to be one more Ramarley Graham. There’s not going to be one more Oscar Grant. There’s not going to be one more Sean Bell. There’s not going to be one more of our people from our community that has been assassinated, their lives having been taken, because of this system of oppression, because of police brutality, because of evil people who hide behind this system of injustice … and we’re here to say Not One More.”
The crowd gathered inside the Casper Taylor building, in the hallway outside the conference room where the House Judiciary Committee, the committee that initially hears and votes on those pieces of legislation that will go to the full House of Delegates, was about to meet. Rev. Brown gave the assembled protesters some final words of encouragement prior to entering the conference room.
“We don’t have to walk into these spaces like we need permission to be here. … You pay for these pretty lights in this building, and the wonderful carpet on this floor. But beyond that, let me also let you know that as legislators and law makers are walking in, you are not looking at gods in flesh. You are looking at everyday men and women. … We don’t have to cow and bow and curtsey like we’re meeting people who are gods. Remember, they are here because people voted them here. And if people don’t vote them in and vote them out they’ll be home, just like us. So when we engage our law makers about specific policy demands, do it in the spirit of courage. Do it in the spirit of confidence. You don’t have to cow and bow and curtsey. Because you are the ones with the power. … Remember, when we meet with them on this glorious day, the birthday of our Ancestor, Martin Luther King Jr., we’re giving him a gift today. We’re giving him something more than just a Facebook status. Something more than something to post on Twitter or Instagram. Our Ancestor is smiling today. Because if he was on this earth in the way that we are, he’d be right here with us, pushing the issue. Remember, when you look at these pictures, when you look at him and so many others standing, they were standing just like we’re standing. They were engaging in actions of courageous disobedience just like we are. And so, when we’re talking about these legislative items, when we’re talking about amending the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, we’re not saying ‘Excuse me Sister, Brother Legislator, can you please, do you think it would be okay if, or would you mind if …?’ We’re saying, ‘This is what the People want. We want you to change the laws that you were sent here to do, this is the will of the People, and if you do not do the will of the People, then you will be in retirement the next election.’ We’re here to strengthen the Civilian Review Board, and we’re going to push the envelope on that because there needs to be civilian oversight … and finally, other measures to make sure our communities are going to be protected. Let’s be clear. These things on this paper [the printed cards with the agenda items on the back], alone, are not going to be the answer to all of our issues. This is a part of the answer. We’re also doing stuff back home where we are. In the city and the county, we are already working in other ways as well. So I just want to make sure you’re encouraged. … This is your building. These people work for you. And guess who you are. You’re the supervisors. You set the rules. You lay out the agenda. You tell them what they’re going to do. And if they don’t do it, you organize and stay together and we change some people in these seats. And there’s some nice seats in there too. I’m sure somebody else would love to sit in those seats, if somebody doesn’t act right around this agenda. … We’ve got people who are not from Baltimore who are here. And we’ve got to make sure that you all know that before there was Mike Brown, there was Tyrone West. Tyrone West is our Mike Brown. … We want to make our way inside the hearing room now, and listen: walk in like you own the place, because guess what? We do!”
Once inside the hearing room, Rev. Brown took the opportunity to briefly discuss what happens when the Maryland House Judiciary Committee meets here. “This is the place where a lot of bills die, or they get the ‘green light’ to move forward. That’s why we’re in this room. Because the first leg of our battle … will be in this room. So be real comfortable with this room, because we’re going to be here throughout this Session. … We’re going to give you a real Social Studies lesson this year, and let you see Social Studies, civics, in action.” That brief “pep talk” should have been sufficient to prepare everyone for a variety of political tricks that could be employed by those in the halls of power who might not want to hear the protesters’ demands, but a relatively simple act, which may have been an innocent part of the original schedule for the committee or may have been a cynical ploy to avoid a direct confrontation with the protesters, seemed to then take some in the group by surprise.
Members of the House of Delegates who sat on the Judiciary Committee announced themselves in a ritual of reintroduction after their long vacation that took close to 20 minutes. Then, in a move that surprised some of the protesters who thought they had come to directly address the delegates, the “law makers” got up and left the room.
A smaller group of organizers of the protest followed several of the delegates to a side room to discuss the agenda of the protest in detail. This group included Rev. Brown, Bro. Davon Love, Bro. Faraji Muhammad and Towanda Jones, sister of Tyrone West. Meanwhile, Bro. Tre Murphy explained what was happening, as several members of the group had become suspicious and frustrated about the sudden departure of the delegates. Jill Carter and Frank Conaway, Jr., two supportive delegates from Baltimore City, explained some of the political maneuvering that we needed to be prepared for and encouraged everyone to continue the struggle to be heard as Rev. Brown and his group held their meeting in close quarters with the delegates in the other room.
To be fair, there are a number of delegates who are committed to doing the People’s work. Delegate Jill Carter, who personally interacted with the group during the rally and after the session in the hearing room, has been consistent as an “activist” legislator, speaking at community forums and meetings such as one that was held at the University of Baltimore on January 8 (along with outgoing delegate Aisha Braveboy), “friending” local activists on Facebook (including us), and supporting rallies such as this one. Delegate Curtis Anderson was one legislator who has previously gone on record in support of efforts to amend the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. Delegate Frank Conaway Jr. also spoke to the group after the rather curious-looking walkout, explaining that he wanted to hear the anti-police brutality agenda and become educated about it.
This rally had begun as rallies often do, with great energy, commitment and expectations that come from a renewed commitment by a mass of people to work for and achieve some measure of social justice through group struggle. People from a wide variety of organizations and walks of life had come together to stand in the cold Annapolis winter in the hope of turning that rally into some concrete achievement by exercising their right to confront those who had been elected to look out for the People’s best interests. That group, many of whom had not worked together before, had in one day been exposed to the warmth and euphoria that comes with the grand pronouncements of the speakers, the call-and-response that encourages group consensus, and the feeling that their elected officials would listen to them, this time. Whether it was a procedural step that would have been taken anyway or a cynical move by legislators seeking to avoid bring forced to answer hard questions and agree to the demands of “rabble-rousers” who were taking democracy just a bit too seriously, the simple act of leaving the hearing room at the end brought home the stark reality that it would take much more than a feel-good rally in Annapolis to bring about real change in the lives of Afrikan people and those in marginalized communities in the state of Maryland. It would take constant pressure, and it would take getting “real comfortable with this room”, as Rev. Brown was telling us in the hearing room before the delegates left. It will also take much organizing that has little direct bearing on rallies in Downtown Baltimore, marches across the country or meetings with legislators in Annapolis. It will take Grassroots Assemblies where the community comes together to decide what their priorities are, independent of the politicians and the business interests. It will take the Pan-Afrikan activists and organizations to come together, put their often-trivial differences aside, and work out a common Pan-Afrikan Agenda and an Agenda of Truth and Justice for the larger community. It will take the People organizing amongst themselves, determining their own priorities and making plans to develop the independent power to force uncooperative legislators and “law makers” to agree to do their jobs and to truly do the People’s business as they were elected to do.