The Battle of Mondawmin

Caution: this post contains some graphic images & videos of organized police violence against black youth.

Most of the injuries, arrests, looting, arson, and property destruction occurring during the so-called Baltimore Riots took place (so far) on the night of Monday, April 27. They followed a confrontation between heavily armed police and school-age children which took place at Mondawmin Mall, starting at 3PM. This event should be considered a critical moment in the unfolding of the “Riots” because it marked the beginning of organized police action and was narratively linked to the wave of mayhem which moved, from 3PM to midnight, along North Avenue, and south-eastward down Pennsylvania Avenue. With blame still flowing freely in the commentary on this incident, it is crucial to understand how things began. Juvenile delinquency? Political rage? Police provocation? Where is the evidence? Who else played a role? We know that the citizens of Baltimore are justifiably angry, and that the police are often unduly provocative, but do we know how the Battle of Mondawmin in fact began? And what actually happened once it did?

News reports on this incident have been curiously scarce, with the Baltimore Sun devoting only a few sentences of its voluminous riot coverage to the confrontation at Mondawmin. The Sun‘s Scott Dance (with a dozen other regulars listed as contributors) reported:

The confrontation near Mondawmin escalated quickly Smoke filled the air as police responded with shields and a tactical vehicle. Demonstrators pelted officers with rocks, bricks and bottles and assaulted a photojournalist, and officers fired back with tear gas and pepper balls.

The Sun does not describe how this confrontation began—seemingly a key question if this incident sparked the “Riots”. National coverage was even more questionable, with Donna Leinwand Leger of USA Today asserting:

The Mondawmin Mall, where city redevelopment authorities had worked for years to bring Target, Ross Dress for Less, Payless Shoes and other chains, closed early to prepare for the anticipated riots. Still, looters broke into the shops. At Deals, a variety story [sic], looters had broken two windows and made off with merchandise before 30 police with armored cars and riot gear arrived. A police helicopter hovered overhead. By 8 p.m., police had established a presence and chased away the looters.

Al Jazeera did not do much better. The Washington Post published a story on Mondawmin which focused on the “purge” rumor circulating on the internet earlier in the day. Most stories followed the same pattern and based their reporting entirely on official sources.

The only detailed mainstream coverage of the Mondawmin events came from Sam Brodey and Jenna McLaughlin of Mother Jones, who wrote:

According to eyewitnesses in the Mondawmin neighborhood, the police were stopping busses and forcing riders, including many students who were trying to get home, to disembark. Cops shut down the local subway stop. They also blockaded roads near the Mondawmin Mall and Frederick Douglass High School, which is across the street from the mall, and essentially corralled young people in the area. That is, they did not allow the after-school crowd to disperse.

This report, the only one to cite any sources other than police and city officials, corresponds with the evidence as scrutinized by the Eclipse since Monday. Plenty of Frederick Douglass students were picked up by parents earlier in the day, due to concerns about trouble at Mondawmin. Others tried to get home on their own, only to find their path to the buses blocked by a line of heavily armored storm troopers. Mondawmin is one of the biggest transit hubs in the city: a necessary stop in the homeward journies of thousands of students forced by “education reform” to attend schools dispersed across the city. Already this artificial situation requires high school students to congregate here—and where go groups of black high school students, so too go antagonistic police.

More bus routes stop at Mondawmin than at any other station on the West Side.

More bus routes stop at Mondawmin than at any other station on the West Side. (Eleven, plus the subway. Source: MTA transit maps.)

What follows is a preliminary investigation into the events at Mondawmin, based on limited witness testimony, photos, and videos.

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Addressing the New Plan to Reduce Police Brutality in Baltimore

Like many major metropolitan areas, the city of Baltimore has had a major police brutality problem. The recent police shooting in Ferguson as open the spotlight on the issue across the nation. In Baltimore, police brutality has been an ongoing issue for years. Only recently have officials started to address the problem after many families began protesting the deaths of loved ones that were victims of police brutality. Some of the more visible accounts have included the deaths of Tyrone West, Anthony Anderson and George King. Others have included beatings or attacks like the case of Kollin Truss (Baltimore Sun, 2014). Countless hours of meetings, protests, official letters to call for investigations and the released video from the Kollin Truss case has finally resulted in several visible steps to address the problem. These steps include a possible Department of Justice investigation and a new plan or report to deal with police brutality. Unfortunately, the city has a history of either implementing empty reforms or simply pushing the issue under the proverbial rug. Hopefully there will be real steps taken that ensure that police brutality will be effectively monitored and addressed with real investigations.

S.R.-B. & Batts were not thrilled.

The Mayor and Police Commissioner addressing a forum on policing in Baltimore

What is being touted as a major plan to deal with police brutality, the Police Commissioner Batts and Mayor Rawlings-Blake have produced the report entitled “Preventing Harm”. In the Baltimore Sun article “Baltimore officials offer plan to curb police brutality”, the authors, Luke Broadwater and Mark Puente, describe the report as a 41 page document detailing a number of potential solutions that could be utilized to reduce the incidents of police brutality.   Some of the solutions put forward include a call to increase internal affairs staffing, conduct a study on wearable cameras, utilizing more tasers, changing the current laws that sometimes protect rogue officers and a proposed new citizen’s police academy. While many of these options have potentially positive effects, there are many questions about their effectiveness in implementation.

In many ways this report has a number of fixes that appear good on paper. The problem is that the solutions might not work as effectively as there are promised. For instance, the proposal of utilizing wearable cameras could be a good option. It could bring greater accountability and a more candid view of how police interact with people on the streets. Unfortunately, there could also be several problems with their use.   Would such video recordings be made available to the public? Who would have access to the video recordings? Would civilians be able to request recordings or would they be buried under “ongoing investigations” that seem to go one forever? There is also the issue of privacy and surveillance. Would such recordings be abused or mishandled? These problems would need to be addressed fairly quickly if they were to be implemented effectively.

The case of Tyrone West has generated a great deal of protests over the past year in Baltimore.

Numerous protests over police brutality have brought the issue to the front headlines

While the plan to implementation can be a good step in creating an atmosphere of greater accountability, would all officers wear them? Several proposals have been put forward that limit their use to either new recruits just graduating from the police academy or phasing in their use. There would need to be a full implementation if they were to be utilized fully. Simply creating a lengthy timeframe for implementing such devices could render their use moot.

Another problem is the solution potentially utilizing more numbers of tasers. For some the idea of non-lethal type weapons might appear to be an effective way to reduce police killings. The reality is far different. There are a number of cases including the death of Tyrone West and Kollin Truss where tasers were used as essentially devices of torture. Do we really want to have police officers going around essentially electrocuting residents, even those that are not charged with a crime? Tasers are also potentially deadly, even some people with healthy bodies. In many instances, officers tend to overuse tasers with the belief that they are “safe” or at least leave no marks for potential investigations. Far from reducing incidents of police brutality, tasers could actually increase them. They could also increase the fear factor and divide that the community has for the police as this time.

Beyond these problems, there is also a lack of in-depth review of how current police brutality cases are handled. There is a critical need to reform the current civilian based review board system. According to the article, “Baltimore police review board called irrelevant, ineffective”, the review board is often understaffed with vacancies, has its recommendations ignored by the police and constant complaints about its inefficiencies (Baltimore Sun, 2013).   While the current Mayor and Police Commissioner have taken steps to reform the review the board, there are still some critical changes needed. One is a streamlined process to ensure easier reporting of police related crimes. Another is greater transparency for the general public. Many cases are often kept hidden or secret from the public eyes during review board investigations. Then there are the problems where cases were either ignored or swept under the rug. Even when the review board acts on a case, it doesn’t necessarily bring charges against officers, making it harder for disciplinary actions to be enacted.

Baltimore City Police Cars

A group of police cars can cause fear among the community

A second problem is the lack of action by the state attorney’s office. Even in cases where victims were killed by the police without cause with a great deal of evidence, there is often little effort to prosecute the officers involved. In the case of Anthony Anderson, police officers physically threw the man onto the ground killing him with dozens of onlookers. His death was even ruled a homicide by the coroner’s office. Yet none of the officers were punished. With the case of Tyrone West involving multiple officers beating the man to death over an unwarranted traffic stop, none were ever held accountable. Worse, there were attempts at stonewalling the investigation over his death, delays in performing the autopsy and questions about the overall transparency of the investigation process itself. Essentially the report ignores this problem of a lack of prosecution by the state’s attorney. Even when there is evidence to support the complaint against an officer, there are often little in the way of justice involved.

A third issue is the problem of transparency. While the mayor and police commissioner promise greater accountability, will there be real reforms for transparency? Only in the last year or two have official statistics been opened to the public. These have included reports of police misconduct, legal settlements for victims of police brutality and disciplinary reports for rogue officers.   Unfortunately, there is very little that has been released about past incidents of police brutality, making it harder to discern the real facts about the issue in Baltimore. A full level of transparency would be another good step for helping to address the issue of police brutality as well as helping to re-establish a great trust of the police in the community.

To be fair there are some steps that could be positive changes for the police department. Commissioner Batts would like to reform state level protections that often cover the actions of rogue police officers.   Currently, officers can be suspended with pay during any investigations. Unless they are formally charged with a felony, police officers cannot be dismissed or punished within the police department. Batts would like to see a change in this process and bring greater power to discipline officers within the police department.

Community trust needs to be regained with the city police

Community trust needs to be regained with the city police

Perhaps the biggest positive outcome of the report is the simple fact that city officials are finally addressing the problem of police brutality with real reforms. In numerous times over the city’s history, there has been little real reform to address the problem. Bringing the issue out in public debate, making everyone aware of the problem and hopefully talking about real plans to reform the current system are positive steps in the right direction. The question is whether these steps are enough. In some ways they may not be with further actions needed for change.

Perhaps on a deeper level, there is a foundation issue that is not always talked about. That is the issue of trust between the police and the community.   Part of this problem comes from historic problems of abuse, misconduct as well as racial profiling. There is also the loss of trust that occurred with the implementation of O’Malley’s “Zero tolerance” which resulted in thousands of arrests for crimes that were either dismissed or ultimately considered trivial. This environment, coupled a history of police misconduct, helped to create the current environment where there is little trust with the city police. While Mayor Rawlings-Blake has stated her intentions to change this issue of trust, it will take further actions to do so.

In the end, reducing the incidents of police brutality may take more than what was detailed in the steps revealed in the “Reduce Harm” report produced by Police Commissioner Batts. It’s going to take both concrete actions as well as ongoing efforts to help change how police brutality is handled in the city. Only by making investigations more transparent, changing how officers are disciplined and implementing effective public review polices can the problem start to be addressed. While technological aids such as wearable cameras can be beneficial, they are not necessarily the ultimate answer. There is no quick fix to the problem. Our city requires an ongoing effort that will take years if properly implemented. Only time will tell if the city can rise to the challenge and ensure a proper policing system that does not victimize its own citizens.

Writing the Truth – Bertolt Brecht (1935)

“Nowadays, anyone who wishes to combat lies and ignorance and to write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties. He must have the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons. These are formidable problems for writers living under Fascism, but they exist also for those writers who have fled or been exiled; they exist even for writers working in countries where civil liberty prevails.” – Bertolt Brecht

— This quote is as relevant today as it was in 1935. Let it serve as an inspiration to those people writing to reveal the atrocities of police brutality!

Tyrone West Anniversary Protest – an account by Nadrat Siddique

Baltimore, MD — Tyrone West was a tall, dreadlock-sporting Baltimore native who grew up on the city’s east side. He loved his family, sporty cars, and his artwork, and had a joie de vivre about him. On July 18, 2013, Tyrone’s life was snuffed out, when he made one “wrong” maneuver in the vicinity of Kitmore and Kelway Road, not far from Morgan State University. Police noticed him driving under the speed limit as he went over a speed hump on a quiet side street (Kelway), and stopped him. They pulled him out of his vehicle, it is said, by the locks and started beating him. According to the States Attorney’s report, they hit him with batons on the knees to get him down. However, eyewitnesses report far greater use of force, saying Tyrone was surrounded by a “sea of blue” and that police continued to punch and to kick him even after he was already down. When it was over, Tyrone lay dead. He had not been charged with a crime, arraigned, tried, or convicted. He was a victim of a police force of control and unaccountable to the People.

Ten to fifteen police officers, including a Morgan State University police officer, were identified as participating in the murder. None of them was suspended or fired. The States Attorney Gregg Bernstein, known for his racially predicated prosecutions–and withholding of prosecutions–did a perfunctory investigation and found the officers had acted according to police protocol. Despite a plethora of eyewitness testimony supporting the view that excess force had been used against Tyrone, not a single indictment of a police officer was handed down in the case, leading many to surmise that the police were above the law in Baltimore (as in many other major cities). When Bernstein was unseated in the subsequent election by a relatively underfunded and lesser known challeger, many said the West case had been a determining factor–one one-sided prosecution too many. In the meantime, Tyrone’s murder still went unprosecuted and the medical examiner’s office continued to withhold the complete autopsy report.

—-

On the one-year anniversary of Tyrone’s murder, activists and supporters of the West family rallied at the site of the murder. The event was called by the family and facilitated by a local grassroots collective called the Baltimore Bloc. The activists included young and old; Muslim, Christian, Jew, and atheist; Black American, Asian, African, Caucasian, and Native American; students, blue-collar workers, health care workers, attorneys, candidates for office, and even a delegate. 

The candidates included David Anthony Wiggins (Baltimore City Sheriff candidate, running on a platform against police brutality and judicial corruption, and for the empowerment of the People); Russell Neverdon, Sr., (candidate for States Attorney); and Duane G. Davis (candidate for Lieutenant Governor). Wiggins, Neverdon, and Del. Jill P. Carter (Maryland House of Delegates) spoke, expressing solidarity with the family. 

Wiggins promised that when elected Sheriff, he would prosecute police engaging in abuses such as that against Tyrone West, as this was a power endowed to the Sheriff (Editor’s note: Sadly, the standing Sheriff, Anderson, in office for decades, has never employed it in defense of his constituents, who, like West, are brutalized by police or otherwise abused by corrupt government officials).

Several Christian preachers, including Baltimore’s social conscience Rev. Heber Brown III (Pleasant Hope Baptist Church), Rev. Kinji Scott, and Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, were present. Masjid Jamaat al-Muslimeen, in Baltimore’s Govens neighborhood, sent its imam, Dr. Kaukab Siddique, mosque administrator Ashira Na’im, and a contingent of half a dozen others to “stand with the family of Tyrone West and all victims of police brutality.” Red Emma’s, a well known Peoples’ bookstore, was also well represented at the event.

Baltimore native Abdul Salaam, a Muslim, was beat by police in a manner very similar to Tyrone West just 17 days prior to the latter’s murder. Salaam, a soft-spoken, slightly built man, addressed the crowd briefly. He described how he had passed police conducting a stop near his home. The cops followed him home, pulled him out of his car, and attacked and beat him in his own driveway, in front of his 3-year old child. They claimed he was not wearing a seat belt (he has steadfastly maintained that he was wearing one). Salaam was body slammed to the ground twice at the start of the attack, hogtied (with his hands and feet behind his back), and beat further. He was never charged with a crime. 

He eventually ran across the West family at one of their weekly protests, dubbed “West Wednesday,” and was shocked to find the similarities between their story and his. Most alarming was the fact that the two police officers who beat him–Chapman and Ruiz–were among those who had participated in the murder of Tyrone West. Both families were befuddled as to why the officers had been allowed to continue on the police force after attacking Abdul Salaam. If normal judicial procedure had been followed, they would have been removed after the attack on Abdul Salaam, and hence been unable to participate in the attack on Tyrone West. Abdul Salaam and the West family have since joined forces and filed a civil suit against the police.

Initially torn by whether or not to hold the event at the very spot where the murder occurred, with all its horrific associations, the West family eventually decided to proceed with it. Despite the emotional toll involved, the family felt they owed it to Tyrone to come together at the very spot where a completely gratuitous act of savagery took his innocent life. They released black balloons, shared Tyrone’s beautiful art, received messages of solidarity, said prayers, and marched. They left just before sunset, aware, at least, that their beloved Tyrone had not been forgotten.

© 2014 Nadrat Siddique

This piece was reposted with author’s permission from her Facebook, where you can view pictures of the event. 

Media Coverage

“Media Coverage”

west wednesday - MEDIA COVERAGE

Family & Friends of Tyrone West demonstrate their feelings about Fox 45 News.

Was Tyrone West initially pulled over for a “traffic stop” or a “drug stop?” What was the actual cause of his death? Why couldn’t ten officers arrest him safely? If they really found cocaine on his person, why didn’t they follow normal procedures for drug confiscation? Why such a big delay in taking him to the hospital? TV news networks and the Baltimore Sun have refused to ask these difficult questions, choosing instead to report what the authorities tell them.

The Family of Tyrone West will be at Kitmore & Kelway on the one year anniversary of the murder. Will TV news be there? Will you?

We cannot trust mainstream news or police to give us good information about what’s happening in our city. Thus we are taking media into our own hands.

Watch: “A Year in the Death of Tyrone West”

A new witness to the Tyrone West murder has released new testimony. An excerpt:

I was sitting in my living room The evening of July 18th when I heard police sirens . I looked out my window and saw three vehicles racing down the street and I knew something bad was happening. I called upstairs to my wife and then opened my door, looking down the street to my left (I live in the 1300 Kitmore) Allt he way down at Kelway I saw what appeared to be about ten police officers circling in a frenzy. My wife and I thought someone had committed a robbery or that there was a shooting. Before long I see them place a large handcuffed man on his face. Then something happened and my wife became upset because they turned the man on his back and started cpr. We had no idea what happened until the next day. Here is what bothered us the most…to this day. We kept asking each other why did it take so long for the ambulance and here’s the incredible part that infuriated us….The ambulance sat there for what seemed forever. “Why aren’t they taking him to Good Sam” my wife asked as the minutes ticked and ticked by. Good Sam is 5 or 6 blocks away and common sense tells you that in a cpr situation you continue cpr and get the patient to the professionals asap!!!! They didn’t! My computer has a grainy photo of the crime scene…and it was a crime to leave him there that long!

Read this information, share it around, and, most importantly, think critically about what you read and see!

“Below the Fold” — more people are speaking up about inconsistency and bias in local media coverage.

 

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Public Service Announcement

Family members of Tyrone West & Maurice Donald Johnson reflect on the struggle for justice after the “Public Safety Summit” at Morgan State.

Tawanda Jones reports that her family is being harassed by police. They were also approached by a bishop who offered them hush money. She says:

“If anything happens to the West family or friends, please blame the City of Baltimore.”

Marcella Holloman’s son, Maurice Donald Johnson, was killed in front of her, in her house, by police. She reminds us:

“And they think that people don’t get killed in they house, in the United States. Yes, they do. [Yes they do.] They think all this killing happen in Iran and Iraq. They just run up and kill your family member in your house. No, it happen in Baltimore City too, in United States of America. People get killed in front of they family for no reason. It happen here too.”

Baltimore Public Safety Collective Seeks Answers from Police Commissioner

Below is the text of a letter that members of the Baltimore Public Safety Collective will deliver to Commissioner Batts at the April 10 BPD/Mayoral town hall, to be held at the American Brewery building, 1701 N. Gay Street, at 7 p.m.  The Eclipse will document any response (or non-response) received by the Collective and post a wrap-up of tonight’s and any future town hall.


 

Dear Commissioner Batts:

We are a collective of Baltimoreans formed out of great concern for the safety of the residents of and visitors to our city, particularly those who have been or are at risk of becoming victims of violence at the hands of the Baltimore Police Department.  We were pleased to learn that you and the Department will be holding town halls to address the serious problem of violence in Baltimore and of your intent to engage the community in making the city safer.

As you know, some of the most serious recent violent acts have been committed by your officers.  We share your concern about street gangs; however, while most of us and most Baltimoreans in general will have little or no interaction with gang members, nearly everyone in the City will at some time or another encounter police officers.  Therefore it is critical that the Department and the community immediately identify and work to eliminate the causes of officers’ violent behavior.

While we plan to do our part by continuing to attend the town halls, we thought it would be appropriate to lay out our questions in writing below, so that we do not take up inordinate amounts of speaking time at these district-specific meetings that should be used by those living in each district to address their neighborhoods’ discrete concerns.

  • Please provide or instruct us on where to obtain a comprehensive list of victims killed or injured in police shootings and beatings in Baltimore City since 2004.
  • You have publicly stated that you do not have the authority to suspend officers.  Who does have this authority?
  • How can citizens access information about and track the progress of internal BPD investigations and disciplinary procedures?
  • How many officers are currently out on suspension or are on some type of restricted duty?
  • You have said in recent Twitter town halls that only 30% of BPD officers live in Baltimore City.  Of the 30%, how many live in the districts to which they are assigned?  Beyond directing employees to state homeownership incentives, what is the Department’s plan to increase the percentage of City residents on its payroll?  Do you and other high-ranking Department officials live inside the City?  How many of 2014’s police-involved shootings have been committed by non-resident officers?
  • What is the Department’s explanation for the high number of police-involved shootings so far this calendar year?
  • What is the expected timeline for the hiring of a permanent academy director?  Will that person be give a mandate to eliminate or decrease violence committed by officers?

We would appreciate a written response to this letter by April 30, 2014.  We look forward to your response and thank you in advance for your cooperation as we address the crisis of police violence in Baltimore.