Kwame and the Commish: Activist and top cop exchange words during protest

Activist Kwame Rose and Interim Baltimore City Police Commissioner Kevin Davis stood face to face this morning as a small crowd of protesters chanted and members of the media muddled about, setting up a confrontation almost as fierce, and interesting, as the one going on inside the courthouse.

The protests surrounding the change-of-venue hearing in the case against the six officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray really began last night, when the police announced they had arrested Pastor Westley West at his church in West Baltimore. He was charged with inciting a riot, because he stood in front of a truck at last week's protest.

It seemed to me like further evidence of something I'd been thinking about for a while—that the ouster of former Commissioner Anthony Batts was a coup perpetrated by FOP 3 and its leader, Gene Ryan. Davis, it seemed as I read the police account of the arrest, was making sure he showed the troops he was not Batts and that he would accept no First Amendment bullshit if it inconvenienced motorists.

Though it took police a week to arrest West, Kwame Rose—the young activist who came to public notoriety when he yelled at the mustachioed goof Geraldo on national television—was arrested during last week's protest. And in many ways, the action outside the courthouse this morning centered around these two new leaders, Davis and Rose.

Rose has been criticized as being erratic and a bit unpredictable. As another activist pointed out, he is only 21 years old. But something had changed in Rose between last week's protest and this week's. Last week, Rose claimed he was hit by a car, though others questioned that claim, saying, instead, that he faked the accident (he was charged with making a false statement to officers). This week, he was a leader, making sure, as the smallish crowd marched around the courthouse, that none of the protesters got in the street. "Sidewalk, sidewalk, sidewalk" became his own personal chant as everyone else went through the familiar refrain of "All night all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray" and called to keep the trial of the officers on the city.

At one moment, Rose physically positioned himself between a line of police and the protesters as they were marching by. When Commissioner Davis arrived on the scene, Rose immediately approached him. The two stood only inches apart in the pouring rain. "Respect our right to protest," Rose said. "So please can you step away. If you as a leader are really about community policing, I need you to set an example and have no police here."

Rose went on to say that the protesters walked on the sidewalks and followed all other rules.

"You can stay out here as long as you want," Davis said. "You can protest as long as you want."

He kept talking but I couldn't make it out because Rose began to talk over him. "Do you know what you did last night, you know what you did last night? You went home and slept in your white privilege last night and you let your officers pick up a black man in a black church. So can we just get you to respect our rights, please?" Rose looked like he was desperate for a split second, bending his knees, widening his eyes, holding out his palms. "And step away from us."

Another officer approached.

"I don't need talking to no police. I'm talking to you because you're in charge. Y'all've got charges against me and you know they’re trumped-up charges."

Rose went on to say that he and Davis had a personal relationship and that he had Davis' cell phone number.

This was one of two conversations between the two men today.

A little later, Davis was standing with Morgan State University professor and activist Lawrence Brown. Davis said, "I'm standing out here with you guys, I understand."

"That's what we mean," Brown said. "Not standing out here but actually making policy, making changes in the way police police protesters" and African Americans (the exact audio becomes unclear because the protest organizers, the People's Power Assembly and Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, continued to talk on the microphone).

"Talking is fine," Brown continued.

"I think talking is step one," Davis said.

"No," Brown said.

"It is step one."

"No, what is step one is getting Reverend West out of jail," Brown said, "because he didn't do anything. Then clear Kwame of his charges, he didn't do anything. And then start a criminal investigation of the police who killed Tyrone West and Anthony Anderson."

In a moment, Rose approached and asked Davis to publicly clear him of charges. Rose said, "Your officers told me they were going to target me and told me they were going to fuck me up. Officer 897, he looked me in my eyes and said, 'Yo, if I ever see you out of this uniform, I'm going to fuck you up. And I always have my badge on me, I mean my gun on me, and I can shoot you and get away with it, because ain't nobody care about you.'"

After another moment, Davis' handlers led him away. Eventually people began to chant "Commissioner go home."

Davis referred to all of this at his afternoon press conference with the mayor, where he said he would rather have people chant for him to go home than chant wondering where he is. He began his remarks by thanking the protesters and said he had listened to, and met, their demands. When asked what those demands were, he said, that conversation was the first step (though Brown had entirely disagreed with him on that.)

A reporter said some leaders claimed he had not ever met with the protesters—which is something that the PPA crowd said on the megaphone even as Davis talked with Rose.

But the most interesting moment of the press conference came when Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was asked about FOP head Ryan's statement that the settlement in the Freddie Gray case presumed the guilt of the officers and showed the mayor's lack of support. She pointedly called such remarks "trash" and said they demonstrated Ryan's willingness to mislead the rank and file "instead of being a leader."

Davis was left standing there in his white shirt while one of his masters dissed the other. It seems pretty clear that he is in office as a result of exactly this kind of rhetoric from Ryan, which caused the mayor to fire Batts and bring Davis on in the first place. But the mayor could also sack him without Ryan's help.

Right now, Davis seems to want to have it both ways—playing tough, arresting West at church a week after the event, based on surveillance video, and acting as if he is there to listen to the protesters and be conciliatory.

But that's a hard line to walk. It will be interesting to see over the next few months which way he goes, just as it will be interesting to watch new leaders like Kwame Rose continue to develop.

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