65 arrests at #AFROMATION protest that moved through Artscape and onto I-83

City Paper

Sixty-five people were arrested as part of #AFROMATION, a protest against police misconduct that moved from Mount Vernon to Artscape and then onto I-83 on Saturday. Organized by Makayla Gilliam-Price, alumna of City College's activist group City Bloc, with assistance from Baltimore Bloc, Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) Baltimore, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, and others, the march began at Guilford Avenue and Chase Street around 5 p.m. Protesters moved through Artscape soon after. Gilliam-Price hinted at the action via social media for the past week or so and the group conducted Civil Disobedience Training on Wednesday for the action, whose date and time was kept private until the last moment.

#AFROMATION released a statement, bookended by quotes from Assata Shakur and Mary Hooks, announcing two demands: the creation of a civilian review board for police investigations and a city police budget that earmarked 10 percent for community programming. The march is was described as a "concerted effort to affirm the existence of black life and to lead the charge in this nation against the system of unjust police practices."

Protesters moved from Artscape, near Penn Station, to the on-ramp of I-83 via St. Paul Street. They proceeded onto the highway, locking arms and briefly blocking traffic as they formed a line stretching across one side of the interstate. Police asked the group to move for an ambulance and protesters obliged, moving to the shoulder, only to see two police vans pull up. There was no ambulance. Police then told the group to move off of I-83, and then they were arrested. Some activists said they were essentially "trapped" on the ramp and, while not involved in blocking traffic, they were not allowed to retreat once arrests began. Fifty-five adults and 10 teenagers were arrested.

Included among those arrested was City Paper photographer Courtney Hawkins, who was there on assignment shooting the protest. Another journalist and occasional City Paper contributor, M. Holden Warren, was also arrested, along with at least one legal observer. Police initially announced that 20 people were detained but later amended that number to 65. Those arrested were given criminal and traffic citations for "failure to obey" and for "illegally walking on the highway."

Due to the volume of arrests, some protesters were held in Penn Station until they were picked up by police vans, and a number of those arrested spent hours handcuffed in police vans as they waited to be "processed" by police. Several people whose children, friends, or partners were arrested told City Paper the Northern District, where protesters were said to be taken, was unhelpful, simply telling them the police could provide "no information" and hanging up. Others, who showed up at Central Booking when no information was provided over the phone, were threatened with arrest.

City Paper encountered its own problems getting information from the police and our photographer, Hawkins, remained in police custody until 2:20 a.m.

The march comes one day after the Hood2Harbor walk that moved through the Inner Harbor and Harbor East and about a week after two marches: one organized by the People's Power Assembly (where four were arrested) on Friday, July 8, and Operation Shut It Down on Saturday, July 9, organized by Gary Johnson and Terry Simms. All of these actions focused on police brutality, the economic divestment of East and West Baltimore, and the recent police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

#AFROMATION marks a return to in-the-streets protest not seen with this frequency or organization since April 2015 during the Baltimore Uprising. #AFROMATION was full of familiar young faces from Baltimore's protest movement. Among those arrested was Makayla Gilliam, who organized the event and was previously arrested in the Baltimore City Hall sit-in last fall. The #AFROMATION's hashtag and social media presence recalled Gilliam-Price's Formation Week protest at City College High School during Spirit Week this year when she organized students in a series of dress-code violations by urging them to celebrate African-American culture. Also involved in #AFROMATION were Towson University-based activists Bilphena Yahwon and John Gillespie (Gillespie was arrested as well).

Morgan State University professor Lawrence Brown, who participated in the march, said that police were taking people who were not even on the highway into custody. He said that he didn't initially know that protesters were going to take to the expressway, but noted that it was a symbolic act tied to the city's "history of destroying black communities."

"[The highways] are the blood flow," Brown said. "By cutting off the highway, it's like telling the body of the city that hey, something is wrong. I think it's a dramatic tactic to be sure. It's a peaceful one. Militant but very orderly."

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