The Battle of Sandtown-Winchester: The police occupation of a West Baltimore neighborhood

City Paper

The scene at the corner of Gilmor Street and Riggs Avenue on Saturday night is not a protest. It is an occupation. The police, wearing riot gear and holding batons and shields, outnumber the protesters more than 3-to-1 and are arranged in a circle, blocking protesters in. Except that most of them aren’t exactly protesters. They aren’t outside agitators. They live in the neighborhood and one of their friends and neighbors was killed in police custody. They know it could be them. They are sad and angry. And the police force of Commissioner Anthony Batts, who is holding a press conference a block away at the Western District precinct office, takes the opportunity for a show of force.

Saturday starts out subdued. When I arrive in Sandtown-Winchester around noon, there is a kind of calm quietness as people sit on their stoops talking, staring, smoking blunts, or drinking sodas and waiting for the world to descend on their streets.

Two brothers, both young men, sit on a low wall drinking sodas near the St. Vincent de Paul building at 1114 N. Mount St. BJ, the older of the two, says he’s glad to see people coming to the neighborhood today. “The politicians come around, we need to see ’em more often, not just something as serious as an event like this,” he says. “Come around, show your face a little more often. I vote. I’m a voter. So I would love to see their face more often.”

“I don’t like the police, I got bad experience around them,” his brother Jay says. “You can be walking down the street minding your own business and say something already happened in the neighborhood, I understand that you are more cautious about what’s going on, but you can’t just hop out on everybody weapon-ready. You hear me? You can’t just come at everybody all tough and rough. Just walking down the street and want to go to the store, peaceful.They need to build a better relationship with the community.”

A couple of blocks away, a woman who wants only to be identified as Latonya is sitting on a stoop with her neighbor, her niece, and her toddler-age daughter.

“We can’t come out of our doors without being harassed,” she says. “I can understand a simple fact if we are doing something wrong, then, hey, correct that. But for you to just treat us the way that y’all treat us, that’s not right. Because we’re the ones that have to live here.”

The neighbor, a teenage girl, adds: “They think that we’re involved in something or like we fit the description of something—”

“The first thing they say is you fit a description,” Latonya says. “What is the description? Being black female or being black male?” She turns to the neighbor. “They harassed her and my daughter one day. They were coming from the store through the playground and they like, ‘y’all fit a description’ . . . They make you sit on the ground, they search you—”

“Can’t put your hands in your pocket,” the neighbor continues with an exasperated teenage sigh.

“Harass you, talk to you like shit, have 1,001 police and it could be one person.”

“Yaas!” the neighbor says enthusiastically. “There was hell of um. Hell of um. On the bikes and everything.”

“What they’re basing it off of is the area we’re living in because we live in the projects,” Latonya continues. “We’re in this community, so that’s how they pick us out, but that’s not right because you can’t choose everybody from which area they live in because you don’t know what’s going on with someone else’s life. You cannot consider in Sandtown-Winchester . . . that every single block is a high-crime area.”

She says that the crime in the area has changed a lot. “It has gone down a lot, you don’t see a lot of things you did back in the day. It has changed but it wasn’t due to them it was due to us. We are the ones that changed. They didn’t help us. All they did was help by what? locking them up abusing them, taking them, questioning them, threatening them, and setting them back out here.”

And though she acknowledges that there is crime—“12, 13-year-old little boys that’s walking, they thinking they grown men”—she insists that “Sandtown-Winchester is all one big community.”

“Yeah,” the neighbor agrees.

“Everybody know each other from Fulton Avenue on over,” Latonya says. “We all know each other. Everybody is together. It’s not, no, this gang is rivaling with that gang. We don’t have that down here.”

Todd Marcus, a neighborhood resident and community organizer who works in the area  with Newborn Holistic Ministries, agrees that there is not a major or obvious gang presence in the neighborhood, though “the presence of drugs is a reality,” Marcus, also a jazz musician, says. “Cops are policing heavily on that aspect.”

By 3 p.m. there are hundreds of people gathered in the neighborhood, either at Mount and Presstman or Mount and Riggs, where the police have had barricades since last Wednesday. At the Western District precinct a middle-aged woman named Reesa Burton is standing there with her middle finger raised in the air. Her sister Margaret stands off to the side chuckling at her.

“When you need ’em they don’t come, by the time they come the motherfucker’s gone,” Reesa says, frustrated by crime and the police. “If I call the police it’s half an hour coming. It’s terrible. Ain’t worth a shit.”

At 4 p.m., the last group of marchers leaves the neighborhood, following Rev. Heber Brown III, who stands in the back of a truck, speaking through a microphone towards City Hall, where there was a large protest, followed by a fracas between protesters and sports fans and the destruction of police cars.

When CP photographer J.M. Giordano and I return to the Western District at around 10 p.m. the scene is entirely different. The police have moved up to create a new skirmish line with their shields 50 or so feet in front of the barrier, as if they were waging some kind of World War I-style trench warfare. What are they fighting for?

I heard reports that 12 people were arrested just before we got there. I managed to track one of them, Amir Valian, a 33-year-old professional of Middle-Eastern descent who says he had come to the protest because of a growing frustration with police violence. 

He says he walked back to the Western District from the downtown protests and arrived at 8:15 p.m. to find what he estimated as 50-75 protesters and as many as 200 police. He says that everything was peaceful until about 9:45 p.m. when the media left. There was an exchange between police, who were still behind the barricades, and a protester. Then someone threw something from east on Riggs, down the hill toward Gilmor. Valian thinks it was a plastic bottle. That’s when, he says, somewhere between eight and 14 cops came out from behind the barrier. “People start putting their hands up and approaching the officers and saying ‘hands up don’t shoot,’” Valian recalls. “[The police] looked kind of panicky and then they went back behind the barricade. And then there were some kids, juveniles—things were being thrown at them. They told everyone to get back.”

Valian thought he was obeying orders as he walked toward Gilmor, figuring it was on the way to the subway station, which he would use to go home. “I thought I’d just watch a little longer,” he says.

But the police had started advancing, five at a time, down Riggs toward Gilmor Street—and Valian.

Valian says he didn’t see or hear the police car approach with its lights off until two officers were jumping out. “The first thing I think when I see the guys come out is I’m gonna get my ass kicked,” he says. “I thought . . . I’m going to get down or they’re going to throw me down. As I’m getting down I get struck with a baton on my back area. I’m on the ground. There’s two guys on me, they’re cussing at me, just going fucking nuts. They’ve got my hands all the way up [behind me] and it’s hurting. I didn’t start screaming yet. I’m looking towards the left, I’m on the ground. One of them puts a knee on my face, on my temple area. Then I was scared that they were going to hurt me.”

City Councilman Carl Stokes told City Paper earlier in the day that he thought the “rough ride” the police gave Freddie Gray in the back of the transport van was actually used to cover up the true circumstances of the injury, which, Stokes believes, came from a move very similar to this: a knee to the neck.

Valian says he could see no cameras around and started screaming. “One of them says ‘quit screaming like a little bitch.’” When they picked him up off the ground, Valian says he saw another prisoner, a 44-year-old man who was bleeding from the side of his head. 

Valian says officers wouldn’t tell him what he was being charged with, but ultimately settled on “second-degree assault, rioting, and disturbing the peace, and using a deadly weapon.”

While they were waiting to be processed, the other man’s phone rang. He reached around and pulled it out of his pocket with cuffed hands and put it on speaker phone. “A cop comes in and he is pissed,” Valian recalls. “He’s got short cropped blond hair. With his shoulder he pushed the guy hard into the wall.”

 

When Giordano and I arrive, all of this has already gone down. But one guy, who identified himself as Ben, walks up to me. “I wish you would have been here 20 minutes ago,” he says. “They beat me and two other females over there on the car. They rushed us with the guitar and started beating both of us.”

“They rush with the baton, babe, the baton,” a woman beside him says. The woman who claims to have been hit doesn’t want to give her name except as Topaz. “I was standing next to my husband’s car not doing nothing to nobody,” she says. “They pushed me to move and I started to move and then he hits me with the stick like I’m not moving fast enough. He hit me in my rib cage in my right side.”

“They hit both of us,” Ben says. “I’m dizzy as I don’t know what. Hit me and two chicks, like straight swinging for no reason and we hands up backing up, backing up following the law and we didn’t throw nothing, they straight started swinging for no reason.”

Neither Ben nor Topaz are charged, though several people say they witnessed the offending officer being escorted into the office afterward.

A few minutes later, the people in the street notice a small group in a confrontation with police two blocks east—where Valian was arrested—and begin running. I am talking with the 12 O’Clock Boy Baltimore Banshee Killer and we start running with the crowd, cutting through a small, overgrown alley. As people dart past us, one says to me “excuse me, sir.”

When we arrive at the corner of Gilmor and Riggs,  there is a small group, hugely outnumbered by the police officers already there. “We’re coming,” someone says as the larger group arrives. There are still no more than 20 protesters and a few people who live on the block, hanging at their stoops. More and more police begin to amass, standing as many as five deep.

“We’re tired. We’re tired of this, that’s why we’re here. We can’t take this no more,” one man says to a cop.

“You remember me? Yeah I remember you. How you like it now?” another says, looking at an officer who glares at him through his visor. He asks the officer how it feels to be the one who can’t say anything now.

Throughout the protests this week, demonstrators and residents have called out officers who, they claim, have previously beaten or mistreated them.

“Where is that bitch that beat me?” one angry man screamed in front of the line of police earlier in the day. And tonight, I start to see what the residents were talking about earlier in the day. I begin to feel like the police force is an occupying army.

Maybe this show of force is just a jacked-up version of what it is like for those who live in the Western District when the world is not watching.

“That’s stressful when that’s your reality all the time,” Todd Marcus says. “When you’re living in this 24/7 it takes its toll. I’ve seen it compared to PTSD.”

And of course, the individual police officers have incredibly difficult jobs. 

One guy stood in front of an officer and shadow boxes, dancing and swinging, his fist coming within six inches of the officer’s masked face.

“Without that badge, you a bitch and a half,” someone says. Others join in on the refrain from the Louisiana rapper Lil Boosie. “Fuck the police, fuck the police.”

Occasionally someone throws something from the back. A guy on the front line yells at the people throwing things, saying that if they want to challenge the cops, do it from up front and don’t endanger those standing there by “being a bitch in the back.”

I am trying to film and tweet everything but my battery is dying. It is hard to keep track of all of the movements, but at one point, the police officers come into a tight circle and then begin marching forward chanting “move back, move back.” They block off the intersection at Riggs and Gilmor, so that the residents, protesters, and journalists are stuck on whatever part of the road they end up on. And it doesn’t really matter because they are all blocked off at the other end. I am off to the side of the corner store filming the line when James MacArthur, the blogger known as Baltimore Spectator, appears to be pushed by the officer closest to the store when he tries to get over to the side of him. MacArthur has also been taking pictures. He begins to yell and curse at the officer. I tweet that the police are beginning to seem really dangerous. And I have almost no battery. Giordano’s phone is dead.

 

Fireworks go off and everyone seems to tense up on the first loud blast. The flares light up the police helmets and visors. Foxtrot’s lights sweep through the smoke.

The protesters grow more agitated as the number of police increase. They draw back from the formation that blocked the intersection and back up into a tight bunch up the hill on Riggs toward the station. Giordano, who was an MP in the army, describes it as pulling back the pinball plunger. They are across from Rawlings Community Garden.

We are standing between the protesters and the cops. A bottle flies and hits a shield and suddenly the police are running toward us, batons out. It’s all so quick. Giordano is squatting, he shoots, gets up to run out of the way and several cops are suddenly on him, his face smashed up against the shields, which they use to knock him down. He says they ground his face into the ground. I manage to get my camera out and film as they assault him. “He’s a photographer! He’s press!” I yell over and over as they pummel Giordano.

Then, they are almost on me and I turn and run to the side just as my phone dies. “They got your boy!” Shaun Young—a resident who grabbed the CNN mic and yelled “Fuck CNN” early in the week and helped calm protesters at the harbor earlier in the day—says as he runs up to me and we dash together over toward Giordano, who is now free, abandoned by the police, still taking pictures.

And what he got is crazy. The guy who was shadow-boxing the cop was standing beside Giordano when they charged. When they brought Giordano down, they also brought him down. Now, they are pulling him into the circle of police. As Giordano shoots pictures between their legs officers grab him by the back of the jacket and pull him. In the photos, it looks as if the protester is being beaten by an officer with a baton.

Another photographer, Sait Serkan Gurbuz, who is shooting for Reuters, is standing on the sidewalk taking pictures of the assault on Giordano, then is grabbed and arrested.

The Sun’s Kevin Rector, who wrote a story about the event, quoted a Reuters spokesperson as saying “Serkan was on a public sidewalk and the events were happening in plain view. We do not agree with the police’s citation for ‘failure to obey orders,’ as Serkan backed away from the scene when the police demanded that he do so, or with the way in which he was treated by the police.”

With Giordano knocked down and roughed up, Gurbuz arrested, and MacArthur pushed, it feels like the police are targeting media, especially photographers—and I wonder if they just want to get them out of the way while they beat the protesters.

Or perhaps the Baltimore Police Department really just doesn’t give a fuck and are treating the media the way they treat everyone else in Sandtown-Winchester. Except, in our case, they ultimately let Giordano up and later release Gurbuz when they realize he is press.

Giordano brushes himself off, but he is pissed he can’t reach his Orioles cap. He walks up to the circle of police. “Excuse me, officer,” he says. “Can you reach back and hand me my hat.” The officer does not. But later, when the police move again, he rushes over and reaches down and grabs it. He slaps it against his leg, dusting it off, and puts it back on his head.

After Batts finishes his press conference at the district office, things get worse. It seems like there are even more cops and fewer protesters every minute. But the people who remain are increasingly angry. They begin, in earnest now, to throw rocks and bricks and bottles up the hill at the cops.

Now, that shit scares me. I don’t want a rock in the head. So when the bricks start flying, I duck off to the side, pressing against a wall, phoneless, recording audio with my tape recorder. I don’t think anyone will try to hit me. But I don’t trust their aim, either. But Giordano stands there snapping away alone in the no man’s land between these warring factions as the projectiles rain down and thump against police shields, shooting with a steady hand. Then photographer Josh Sinn, who with his own backward hat looks like a young Giordano, shows up and starts shooting for City Paper too. Colin Campbell from The Sun is there, but was charging his phone when Joe was brought down. ABC2 also has a cameraman on scene.

The rock-throwing continues for a while. One cop gets hit in the face with a brick. More cops come down Gilmor to trap the protesters who continue to move east on Riggs. At one point a long blue van comes speeding up the street, taking the turn fast. It slows. The wall of police parts and it pulls between them. Though they pelt it with rocks, many of the protesters run.

“No, no,” someone yells. “It’s empty. Don’t run.”

But a moment later, the police charge again, as they did when they took Giordano down, running as fast as they can with drawn batons. The protesters dart off through the streets. I see Sinn off to side with his hands up as the cops storm by him.

Then the streets are momentarily quiet except for the ever-present chopper.

Cops straggle back. At first, all are empty-handed. Eventually, three different people are brought into custody.

“They gone say I threw something,” one says, smiling.

When a sufficient number of cops have returned, they form another line. There are still about a hundred. And no protesters.

“OK, we surrender,” Giordano says, raising his hands and looking over the scene—three journalists facing a wall of blue.

Then the police start walking backward, slowly and still in formation, up the hill toward the precinct. Tony McMillan, an older man who has lived in the neighborhood since he was a child, walks out onto the sidewalk to watch them retreat, standing almost alone in front of his house, on the corner that had been a battleground moments ago. “We feel like we’re prisoners in our own neighborhood where we grown up,” he says. “They never give us no time to rest or peace of mind or try to relax, they always on us about anything, everything, just keep coming at us over and over about anything. That’s a racket.”

Tonight, a few privileged white reporters learned a little bit about that racket as we saw the way the police act in the Western District when they think no one is watching. 

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