On Pennsylvania Avenue last night, silver balloons that spell out “Scoota” reflect the flashing light of police cars. A long line of about 30 police officers block the road. Behind them, transport vans and a militarized vehicle marked “Baltimore Police Rescue.” Officers help each other put on riot gear. Some wear military-colored olive uniforms and carry large neon rifles. White shirts mill about in the back.
The Baltimore Police have just made an arrest and much of the crowd has edged back from the police scrimmage line.
“They didn’t arrest him, they yanked him off the bike,” a young guy who wouldn’t give his name said.
“That wasn’t arrest, that was harassment,” his friend adds.
It is tense but one man, wearing a bright yellow jacket, walks up within feet of the stone-faced officers.
“No,” someone yells. “Come on back, Unc.”
No one knows what to expect. The guy is older and he seems a little drunk. Will they take him down?
He starts dancing. Not quite the 'Bird Flu' dance—the dance associated with Baltimore rapper Lor Scoota, shot and killed on Saturday night—but something close enough that, for a moment it seemed to me, a white interloper, that it could be the Baltimore version of the hippy putting the flower in the National Guard rifle.
As they screamed “Go Unc!” everyone seemed to feel that the gesture was for Lor Scoota, the slain rapper whose vigil has become a standoff between police and residents that hearkens back to the Baltimore Uprising.
“I understand we’re only a year or so away from the unrest of 2015 so whenever something like this starts to stir our collective anxieties run high,” Commissioner Davis said at a BPD press conference held a little after 11 p.m. last night.
But the police didn’t kill Lor Scoota and they have been using Scoota’s murder to garner goodwill in the community—at least until tonight.
Davis called Scoota's shooting on Harford Road and Moravia Road a “brazen murder,” adding that the killer “executed” the rapper and it is clearly a priority murder they want to solve. Over the past day or so, BPD seemed to grasp how beloved the rapper is to the city. T.J. Smith of the Baltimore Police noted Scoota's work in the commuity and framed him as someone looking to make change for good (Scoota was killed not long after he left a charity basketball game against street violence).
Still, the visuals tonight are the same as the uprising with the lines of police, the flashing lights. And there is potential for things to go bad. Partially because we, the press, are present.
“What we’re doing here is we’re trying to stop things from happening that could possibly happen what happened with Freddie,” said Tyree Colion, a veteran rapper who was taking charge of the mourning side of the skirmish and was involved in Sunday's Unity Rally for Scoota as well. “It’s not about the cameras here. It’s not about the rappers here, they’re hurting.”
Ultimately, according to Davis, there are three arrests. The general sense among the crowd is that a vigil was turned into a confrontation because of the police presence.
“They ruined something that wasn’t supposed to be ruined,” Kesharna Horne says of the conflict. She says she’s known Scoota, born Tyriece Watson, for most of her life. She was devastated by his murder on Saturday and helped to organize the vigil tonight which gave West Baltimore a space to mourn and celebrate Scoota's songs.
Horne says she is thankful that everyone came out, but now she just wants them all to leave.
“Get on the sidewalk!” she pleads, again and again as people mill about the area, blocked in by police on all sides.
The skirmish seems to have begun around 7 p.m. when the crowd at the vigil moved into the streets and dispersal orders were announced via helicopter. The crowd who has been peacefully celebrating since about 5 p.m. did not disperse. The police began telling everybody to "go home." By 8:30 p.m. a few dozen officers lined up across Pennsylvania Avenue and tried to clear the streets. There was riot gear. Commissioner Kevin Davis said there was a normal police presence.
“The people who gathered here tonight expected that kind of presence and we provided it. A few people, again just a few, I think we had a grand total of three adult arrests tonight," he said. “Those people who were arrested tonight, those people who chose to throw bricks and bottles at police officers, they did not represent the hundreds of people who gathered here tonight to peacefully mourn the passing, the tragic passing, death, killing of this young man.”
Most of the people in the crowd deny that there were any bricks or bottles thrown. Horne continues to try to get the larger crowd to go so those who really need to mourn can do so.
“We just want everybody to go home,” she says. “We enjoyed them coming and we thank them but it’s time for them to go now.”
Horne's words echo what was said to a smaller crowd of mourners by Darrell Carter of L & R Studios who raps as 3D the previous day. Carter had helped organize the much smaller Unity Rally at Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue for Scoota the previous afternoon. There, he informed those that showed up that the event would be ending around 5:15 p.m. so that the police didn't break it up and nothing got out of hand. He urged people to go home when the music stopped—and the 100 or so people did, a little after 5:30 p.m.—because "police [will] shut it down either way," hinting that the police could possibly incite violence.
But this crowd was larger today, the emotions more impassioned, and the police presence was far more imposing and unwavering.
Eventually, most people listen to Horne and clear the streets and move back. There's now more than a block between them and the line of police.
Colion walks into that no-man’s land wearing a red shirt and a police commander in a white shirt walks out to join him as the police helicopter hovers above them, momentarily flooding the scene with its fractured light. Both the red shirt and the white shirt were older than the youth they are negotiating for.
Colion had his rap career interrupted when he was locked up between 2006 and 2012, but partly because of those troubles, and local hit songs such as 2008's 'Projects,' he has the authority to clear the streets. But after he helped the police clear the streets, he says, the commander told him he wouldn’t move the police back.
“I ain’t down here for no reason,” Colion, who was also present at the Unity Rally on Sunday, says, helping clear the streets. “I just came from 92Q to help my people in one of my old neighborhoods for one of my little brothers. So what they do from here you gonna see is the design of what they intended to do anyway because we did exactly what they asked us.”
The police themselves don’t clear the streets. More police cars pull up.
And just a moment later, about a dozen dirt bikers ride up and start spinning around in the empty lot where people have gathered to be out of the street. The hat of the lead biker reads YBS, the name of Scoota’s rap crew.
For a moment, they tear around by the police.
The dirt bikers' arrival is ripe with context: Since last summer, the police have been cracking down on dirt biking and an officer pulled a gun out at dirt bikers last August. On Sunday, Baltimore police detective Dawnyell Taylor struck a dirt bike with her car and was beaten badly enough by other bikers that she was hospitalized. Saturday night, the FOP Lodge 3 tweeted a congratulations to Detective Taylor along with the FOP and “The Baltimore Six Defense Team.”
After a couple minutes pass, the dirt bikes are gone and Foxtrot is once again the only roar.
Joshua Harris, the Green party candidate for mayor, seemed to be the first politician on the scene but he was not the last. Even Eric Costello, whose district extends up to one side of Upton Park, showed up. Nick Mosby, whose district starts on the other side of the street from Costello’s, for a little while longer at least, showed up. He knew Scoota and had invited him to talk to young people after the clash between similarly armed police and youth last April.
“Last year you thought he was one of the people to really reach out to—” I ask.
“Oh hell yeah,” Mosby says.
“To bring peace,” I finish. “Why did you ask him?”
“I know his following. I know young folks in the city really got behind him and loved him. One thing about him is he had the ear to the street but also he was on a good path. He really was focused on his music and focused about giving back to the community and giving back to his self. It’s a sad loss.”
Mosby arrived around the same time as Democratic mayoral candidate Catherine Pugh who joined Colion in trying to get the crowd to disperse so that the police could also back off.
“I’m waiting for Miss Pugh to bring back the people that want to leave first. Just give it a little bit of time. We all got here by waves, right, so we gotta slowly bring it back down,” a different commander, who engaged with mourners all night, says.
Eventually, around 11 p.m. that happens and the police begin to depart in waves as the mourners do the same.
As Pugh leads a group of people away from the scene past parked police cars, the man who danced in front of the police steps up to her side.
“Dixon!” he says.
Everyone laughs, even Pugh, who shakes her head.
“Please let me be Catherine Pugh tonight,” she says.
Additional reporting by Brandon Soderberg