Activists occupy City Hall demanding protest guidelines, leading to 16 arrests

An incredible scene unfolded at City Hall early this morning as 100 or more police, including a large number of high-ranking officers, swept City Hall to arrest and imprison 16 student protesters who had for a few hours occupied a city council meeting room.

Police moved on the building about 3 a.m., with roughly 50 officers entering through a side door about 30 minutes after a small group of supporters keeping watch in front of the building started to break up and journalists on the scene began debating whether to pack up for the night. 

These scenes unfolded just a few short hours after Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis stood in the room later taken over by protesters and told councilmembers and a large audience that dialogue with Baltimore's citizens, including peaceful demonstrators, would be a key part of his administration.

The statements and the beginning of the short-lived occupation came at the first of two City Council hearings to decide whether to remove the interim from Davis. Although disrupted by chants from protesters and punctuated by the occupation, the hearing was a success for Davis, who cleared his first hurdle by a 3-1 vote of the council's appointments committee.

In a statement issued ahead of Wednesday's meeting, protest leaders said they wanted Davis' endorsement of protest guidelines put forth by activist groups. The statement said Davis has a questionable track record in dealing with street demonstrations and freedom of speech issues since taking over from the ousted Anthony Batts in July.

The statement, signed by six groups including Baltimore Bloc, Baltimore Algebra Project, and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, asserts that Davis has in fact overseen a policy of "heightened aggression" toward protesters, and that his nomination by Rawlings-Blake to take over the post of commissioner permanently is "troubling."

After the committee vote, around 9 p.m., activists refused to leave, eventually demanding a meeting with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Davis to discuss their demands. The idle time was spent performing readings and trying to get pizza and water.

Once police moved in, officers formed long cordons leading to idling police wagons, and then slowly escorted protesters ziptied at the wrists one by one to the vans while supporters alternately taunted police and shouted encouragement to those being led away. 

Among those supporters were a handful of protesters who had been part of the group occupying the balcony of the City Council hearing, but had chosen to leave the building before arrests were made. Among them was Kwame Rose, a vocal young critic of the Baltimore Police who rose to prominence when a video of him berating a daunted Geraldo Rivera emerged during the Freddie Gray protests in late April.

After emerging from the building, a visibly shaken and angry Rose began a one-sided verbal confrontation with officers who remained for the most part impassive.

"They don't love you, they'll spit on you just like they did Alfred Evan," Rose told a black officer, referring to a video Rose released this week that led to the suspension of Sgt. Robert Mesner, and appeared to show Mesner spitting on a handcuffed Evan.

"You're here to arrest children!" shouted Korey Johnson, a supporter of the protest who angrily denounced the police as her friends were being taken away. "These could be your kids! You should be ashamed of yourselves!" she said, her voice cracking.

Activist Lawrence Grandpre, who was among those who left City Hall before arrests began, questioned why police had chosen to allow the protest to proceed all evening, then shut it down in the small hours of the morning.

"They've chosen not to meet with protesters, not address their demands, but instead chose to arrest them under the cloak of darkness," Grandpre said.

While protesters' demand for a meeting with Davis and Rawlings-Blake went unheeded, the mayor's chief of staff Kaliope Parthemos was on hand for Thursday morning's events. Parthemos exited the building at 4:20 a.m., while police were still taking out protesters, but did not stop to comment, and it's unknown whether she spoke with protesters before arrests began.

Minors among those arrested were transported to the city's juvenile justic center, while adults were taken to the central booking facility.

As city residents woke to the news of the night's drama at City Hall, broadcast on local news and picked up on several national feeds, supporters took to Twitter, publishing the two facilities' phone numbers and encouraging people to call and demand the protesters' release.

About 9:30 a.m., police announced 16 people had been arrested and charged with trespassing, including three minors.

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