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.

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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Person of the Week- Duane “Shorty” Davis

Duane “Shorty” Davis is a Baltimore activist, cook, father, veteran, and a politicians’ worst nightmare. Originally from Zion, Illinois, Shorty moved to Baltimore in 1991 and began to help his community by feeding the homeless. Today, he continues to feed the homeless, speaks at public forums, participates in all forms of activism, and involves himself in the dealings of politicians all over the state. Throughout his time as an activist he has also created his own program; S.H.O.R.T.Y.S Self Help Organization for the Re-development and Re-education of the Young”, that focuses on the social and economic hardships faced by young people in the city. My favorite thing about Shorty, other than his sense of humor, is that he holds everyone accountable. If you show up late, unprepared, or (God forbid) don’t show up at all Shorty will notice and you will be hearing about it. Fondly referred to as “Shut ‘em down Shorty”, he loudly identifies and challenges racist and corrupt state officials, often times, in their faces. One way he does this is through the motif of toilets. He decorates toilets with political names, faces, and evidence of wrongdoing and places them in public places. Shorty’s toilets are intelligent, thought provoking, and funny just like the man who makes them.

He is currently running for Lieutenant Governor of Maryland in the 2014 elections. His platform includes politician transparency and accountability to the people, stopping the cradle to prison pipeline created by ‘The War on Drugs’, and giving power back to the people. Shorty can be found feeding the homeless and giving out free books on the third Sunday of every month. He is also active on Twitter – “Shortman_9” and Facebook- “Duane G. Davis” and welcomes anyone who wants to get involved in community activism to contact him.

Baltimore confronts abusers at “town hall meeting”

Abdul-Salaam to Blake & Batts: You say you are trying to help the city, but you are hurting the very people we need in the community. You are terrorizing the children with a police force that can attack citizens with impunity.

Coverage of this event in The Sun is inadequate and misleading. Audience comments overwhelmingly criticized Mayor Blake & Police Chief Batts for enabling violence against ordinary people in Baltimore. Yet this article, by Colin Campbell, devotes only one paragraph — the tenth out of sixteen — to this type of criticism. Most of the article pays fawning tribute to the city’s untested new plan to curb violence, despite the bad record of the officials who are promoting it. (Mr. Campbell’s Twitter coverage was similar. Justin Fenton’s tweetstream was a little better. Remember, Tweets at the top are most recent.)

The article’s title, “Mayor, Batts attend west-side town hall meeting”, also distorts the reality of what happened. Ms. Blake and Mr. Batts did not “attend” a community meeting; they set up their own event, on their own terms, with their own overt & covert security forces. As the city is well aware, these meetings were scheduled for the same time as West Wednesday. Although the official purpose of the event was to reach out to the community, in practice the city officials were quite hostile to the people who came to see them. They also made it difficult for citizen journalists to record the event.

Nevertheless, Baltimore Bloc brings us several videos that show more of what really happened at this “town hall:”:

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Maryland Correctional Enterprises: Prison Labor With A Smile

Maryland Correctional Enterprises (MCE) is the state’s own prison labor company. A semi-autonomous subdivision of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS), MCE commands a workforce of thousands of prisoners, paid just a few dollars per day.

According to a search of the ProQuest database (available with your Enoch Pratt Free Library card; County residents try here), The Baltimore Sun has run a total of nine articles covering MCE since it changed names in 2005. That’s about one article per year. One hundred percent of these articles show MCE in a neutral or positive light, reporting mostly on officials who worked as overseers of MCE and on good works done by prisoners, e.g. “From the Prisons Comes a Thanksgiving Feast“, written by Peter Hermann in November 2009.

“Myra Wooten’s Thanksgiving came from prison.  Officers from state correctional institutions in Jessup and Baltimore delivered a large box packed with a week’s worth of food, including a frozen 13-pound turkey, to the East Baltimore resident.”

Later in the article:

“Even inmates get into the act: Those who work at the Maryland Correctional Enterprises Meal Plant in Hagerstown cooked more than 700 turkeys for the poor.”

The Sun has  also described MCE as a useful stepping-stone for inmates, which will help them to find employment after they are released. (TV news outlets report on MCE with similar cheeriness.)

These reports do not provide the public with meaningful information about the scope of prison labor in Maryland. Futhermore, they gloss over serious questions about the practice of using prisoners as hypercheap labor. MCE workers make far less than minimum wage, earning between $1.50 and $5.10 for an entire day’s work.

MCE logo etc

The Sun, seemingly, goes out of its way to highlight the arguments in favor of prison labor, but fails completely to cover the other side of the story. Critics of the practice say that prison labor, akin to outright slavery,  is unethical, abusive, and bad for the economy.

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Jim Crow Justice, Jim Crow Journalism: Shorty versus Dred Scott decision

Sun readers may remember Duane “Shorty” Davis as the man arrested for placing a “toilet bomb” outside of the Baltimore County Courthouse. The toilet, of course, was not a bomb, and Shorty was found not guilty by a jury of his peers. To their credit, the Sun reported on this verdict and even did a follow-up story with a cool photo gallery for the two-year anniversary.

Since then, another year has gone by, and Shorty returned to court on Monday for another trial. This time, he was the plaintiff. What transpired was truly amazing. For example, Shorty was able (for the first time) to cross-examine under oath Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger: the very man responsible for wrongfully jailing Shorty in 2011. You won’t read about it in the Sun or see it on cable, so we’ve brought you an Eclipse exclusive report.

You can also watch videos from outside the courthouse at Freeman Sullivan’s livestream channel. And here’s an interview with Freeman & Shorty, conducted on Sunday 23 Feb, to introduce the case:

Without further ado, our report:

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