"Damn, where'd you come from," a man who just walked out of the Baltimore City Detention Center back in early June asked as he filled a plate with pit beef, watermelon, and vegetables and then—"Thank y'all, bless y'all."
"We're doing like Jesus did," activist and chef Duane "Shorty" Davis, who had set up a table and grill across the street from the jail on this Friday in June, told the man.
Not long after, another guy walked out of jail—he didn't need any food, just a phone to call someone to pick him up. Someone else wanted some smokes and he got some. It was getting dark.
Two hours earlier, Shorty, along with Brian Dolge, a frequent face at activist events, began setting up this combination jail support action, mini-block party, and, come nightfall, movie screening.
Dolge invited a number of people out for the event including some "liberals from the county," he explained, as he laid out a table full of bags of chips, oatmeal cream pies, and other snacks.
The jail support element of the evening—posting up near Central Booking and offering aid to those fresh out of jail—happens weekly by the Jail Support Collective, usually every Sunday. And this is similar, though not related, and Shorty is often part of that, but that night they also screened Ava DuVernay's 2016 mass incarceration documentary, "13th."
It was the first installment of Dinner and a Movie, a guerrilla movie series organized by Shorty and Dolge and held around the city throughout the summer. Dolge referred to the projection of a documentary damning the prison system on the side of a jail as "an art project."
Shorty is no stranger to art-as-activism. He frequently leaves decorated toilets around town in protest and between prepping some beef for the block party, showed off one of his latest creations: a portable medical toilet covered in photos including an image of a howling Donald Trump on the bowl and a rather puffy-looking image of Baltimore City Police Department Commissioner Kevin Davis on the side. Over the next two hours, the crowd grew and a number of people just out of jail got food, a phone call, or a cigarette.
Once it got dark, the screening began, first with a series of music videos, including Chicago rapper Vic Mensa's '16 Shots' music video about the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald by Chicago Police, and a video by local rapper Son Of Nun, for his song 'It's Like That.' And then "13th" began, its opening sequence projecting the words "EMANCIPATION" and "FREEDOM" on the side of the jail; it was incredibly moving. The movie continued and a few more people just out of jail stopped by, got fed, and sat on the curb and watched. Shorty and company were soon all out of cigarettes but there was still plenty of food.
A man named Mike stopped his S.U.V. and watched from his car and his friend, enjoying a massive joint, stuck his head through the moonroof to watch.
"So they want to get rid of prisons?" he asked.
Mike's friend explained, in a distinctly stoned and colloquial way, the prison-industrial complex and that this shit was complicated. Mike's concern here though, was street violence. He mentioned he was near the Memorial Day cookout shooting in 2016 where five were shot. He talked about "retaliation" and how people shoot people over drugs or beef and then eventually "somebody's mother" gets shot.
"But the police don't help much either," he said. "But some people need to be taken out of society."
He watched for a while and talked about how he's been trying to get more educated on his own time and talked a whole lot about Nikola Tesla and then drove away—he had to pick up some friends.
As expected, the police showed up about halfway through the screening and told Shorty and Dolge they can't project the movie. Shorty offered the cops food, they declined and a few in attendance including myself, began recording the interaction. The police told people they couldn't record, which is not true.
"Oh, you're recording me too sir?" one officer asked me.
She turned her back to my phone. Another officer put his hands over his face. Eventually, the cops went inside and then another officer came out and insisted they can't project. Dolge pulled up a document on his phone and argued that there are no laws against projections. The officer, frustrated, told them they couldn't sit on the wall near the jail and watch.
"Get off the wall y'all," Shorty yelled and the small group obliged. He also asked the group to make sure they "don't drop no garbage" and told them to make sure they clean up. The cops went back inside and Shorty was a little frustrated but mostly victorious—he pulled it off.
"They got mad about a movie, we offered them food, 'Kumbaya' shit, and you see where that gets you—nowhere," he said. "They hate when they can't bully you, they don't know how to take it out here when you record them either, it's their Achilles heel."
He smiled and thanked the crowd and looked in the direction of a few freshfaced white college kids and said, "Thank y'all for your whiteness!" This would've played out differently if there weren't white people here.
The screening continued without incident. Shorty said he'd probably not do it at the jail again, not because of the cops mind you, but because the "symbolism" of projecting it on the prison is nice and all, but he "doesn't like asking black people to come to jail" for an event. This one time here will do.
Last Friday, Davis and Dolge screened "13th" on a wall near the Eastern District Court on Wabash Ave.—it was their fourth screening of the summer and the third time they screened "13th" (the third installment was a showing of LGBTQ gang documentary "Check It"). About 15 people showed up and that particularly public screening—right on North Avenue and on Artscape weekend—got the attention of plenty of people who walked or drove by.
Before the screening, Davis framed it as specifically in opposition to Mayor Catherine Pugh and Commissioner Kevin Davis' recent support of a one year mandatory-minimum sentence for those in possession of a gun even if it their first charge.
"All you doing is regurgitating O'Malley's stop and frisk," Davis said while he set up his grill.