Across the street from Central Booking last night, Baltimore Bloc's Ralikh Hayes is beaming, bleary, and a bit bummed out all at the same time. Earlier in the day, activists connected to Bloc began a fairly baroque dual action at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Baltimore where the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police conference kicked off.
With a protest inside and outside of the hotel that took plenty of planning—and at least one public civil disobedience training session—and a primary action involving activists chaining themselves to an escalator inside, it all went well. But there were 12 arrests. Most of them were to be expected, though some were not—and then there was the overreach of not only police but by FOP members, and an FOP peanut gallery taunting the protest.
"It seems to me that the hotel listened to anything the FOP said," Hayes says as he and a group of 20 or so wait outside Central Booking for jail support. "And if you were recording [the action], you had to go. If you were somehow showing what was happening inside, you had to go."
Titled #StopFOP, the action not only got the attention of the media but had the byproduct of putting the police in a publicly high-pressure moment, just days after the release of a damning DOJ report. In effect, the police response proved the point of the DOJ and highlighted the police misconduct and FOP overreach Bloc and other groups have highlighted for years.
A little after 1:30 p.m., a group of seven appeared at the top of Hyatt Regency's escalator chanting. Four of them chained themselves to the escalator linked through an ornate lock box—a pipe through which people lock themselves together using chains and carabiners—which usually takes hours and power equipment to cut through. Moments after they chained themselves, another activist dropped a "Black Lives Matter" banner inside the hotel; outside, a group of three locked up in front of the entrance (though they did not employ the same ornate lock box technique). Those involved wore shirts that read "Justice 4 Korryn Gaines" and the tubing around the lock boxes had "#STOPFOP" and "Korryn Gaines" written on it.
How they stealthily got into the hotel with the conspicuous lock boxes probably has to do with intense pre-planning, but Otakon, the cosplay-friendly anime fest in town, likely helped.
"There's no way to inconspicuously lock down," Hayes says. "You just need to do it very quickly."
The group inside followed the lead of Tracye Redd, who began chanting "Black Lives Matter" and articulating some of the group's demands, all of which are contained in their statement released not long after the protest began. It calls the FOP a "good ol' boys club," invokes the DOJ report, and says the goal of Bloc and others related groups such as BYP100, SURJ Baltimore, and others is to, among other things, "dismantle the pro-police system of oppression that fosters collusion between the Fraternal Order of Police, the local and statewide police departments, and the state's attorney's office."
Outside the Hyatt Regency, a group of about 60 gathered after first meeting at McKeldin Square, which is where Bloc had publicly said people should gather for an anti-FOP rally. Their energy increased after the swift arrest of three people who blocked the outside entrance to the hotel.
Hayes and others, including Rev. Cortly Witherspoon of People's Power Assembly, spoke to the the group of 60, who chanted and gripped a large banner that read "Free Keith Davis Jr."
At some point, a "Black Lives Matter" banner was also dropped on the skywalk over Light Street.
Meanwhile inside, not long after those blocking the entrance had been arrested, the hotel management along with the police began cutting the chains that tied the group to the escalator. Redd began a seemingly breathless monologue that included chants and anecdotes about police brutality that went on for most of the three-hour ordeal.
"I love black people, what's wrong with you?" he yelled as the chains were cut. The others in the group would repeat his words. At another point, Redd challenged black police officers on the scene and asked how they could work for the police whose practices now, as the DOJ report illustrates, are profoundly racist. He also mentioned the shooting of Sylville Smith by police in Milwaukee on Saturday night.
"Someone just died in Milwaukee. Shot in the back," Redd said, his voice cracking. "Your officers you work for killed Freddie Gray."
Not only were FOP members there for the conference gawking at the scene—and more on them in a moment—but plenty of Otakon attendees also staying at the hotel offered comment.
One Otakon-er who refused to give his name yelled at Redd because he said he couldn't go down the escalator. He said his freedoms were being violated just so the group could express their freedoms.
Another Otakon attendee, Mike Hong, 33, from Philadelphia, said he was a libertarian and was troubled by violations of individual freedoms and specifically identified "police militarization" as a concern of his. He began recording the actions and arrests. After one arrest, Hong told police and FOP members, "You should be ashamed of yourselves."
Once the initial chains were cut, three protesters who were part of the action but not locked in were arrested. In charge was Lt. Charles Clayton Jr., who activists said was unnecessarily violent in how he handled them. Meanwhile, an old man in a blue FOP shirt who refused to give his name was assisting with the chain-cutting. A few other FOP conference-goers who didn't appear to be on duty began operating as semi-security, helping police keep people away from the escalator. One of those was Sgt. Clyde Boatwright—he had a baseball jersey with his last name on the back—the president of the school police union.
Outside, not long after arrests inside began, Hayes consulted with Baltimore Police Lt. Col. Melissa Hyatt and Lt. James Rhoden. Hayes asked for clarification on the "formal charges" the people outside—stressing he was not in charge of the action inside—would receive.
"Hyatt said 'This is your warning...this is private property. Because it's private property, you'll only really get one warning,'" Hayes says. "So, we moved everybody to the public side."
Hayes told the group of 60 outside the Hyatt Regency that they should move to the sidewalk.
Inside, hotel security and the police worked with the fire department to cut the lock boxes, ultimately using power tools, which took about an hour. There were more arrests in that time—the most egregious being the arrest of Payam of Baltimore Bloc.
Payam had been live streaming the protest. And though at one point he poured water into the mouths of the chained activists, he was not directly involved in the protest. Police asked Payam to stay behind a line, and then a man shoved Payam hard toward the area he was told not to stand in. Payam confronted the man, who claimed he didn't do it.
"He just put his body up against me," Payam said.
Once Payam was behind the line, Lt. Clayton approached him.
"Let me ask you this, sir, do you have business here in the hotel?" Clayton asked. He then reached toward Payam.
"Don't touch me," Payam ordered.
"Do you or do you not? Do you have business here in the hotel?" Clayton repeated. Then a moment later he said, "Okay, now you're trespassing."
Payam, who never answered the question, asked, "Why are you asking me when there's a bunch of other people recording?"
Payam then placed his camera in front of Clayton, who swatted the phone to the ground and arrested Payam.
"Why am I being arrested and everybody else gets to film?" Payam said. "People are trying to arrest me for some bullshit."
Other FOP members watching began yelling and applauding. One yelled, "Baltimore Bloc."
The man who nudged Payam denied doing so, though many there observed it. The Baltimore Brew's story on yesterday's action says the man "shoved up against" Payam. The man told City Paper he was at the hotel "for Pokemon"—maybe he meant "Otakon"—and denied being a police officer, though many there accused him of being with the FOP, including Payam.
"[Payam] was targeted," Hayes says. He also adds that Payam "was not in an arrestable role" at the protest on purpose: "He should have gotten a warning, which would have allowed him to remove himself. Other people inside that were with us managed to exit because they got that warning."
As Payam was moved into the elevator, he asked for someone from Bloc to come into the elevator with him, and a man in a yellow polo shirt that read "Baltimore City FOP3 Political Action Committee" got in front of the elevator and shoved two activists. Not long after, when another activist, Brendan Orsinger, attempted to get near the elevator to record another incident, the same yellow shirted man threw him against the wall.
The yellow shirt refused to provide his name to City Paper. Eventually, he stood near a few other FOP conference attendees who shouted at police and hotel security that City Paper reporters and others there were trespassing.
Moments later, Orsinger was arrested for trespassing. During Orsinger's arrest, reporters and legal observers were told to move back by Larry Taylor of the Hyatt Regency and another staffer who refused to give his name, preventing anyone from viewing the arrest.
Along with those few FOP members who played a significant and, as the Baltimore Brew said, "heavy-handed" role in policing the protest, other FOP members jeered at protesters and applauded during arrests.
"I got a report that one of our folk who locked down was called 'nigger' by multiple FOP folks because he was a black man with chains," Hayes says.
Though at least one FOP member who didn't provide his name said that he admired the action.
"That's dedication," he said. "A night in jail, a day in court."
At a press conference not long after the arrests, BPD Media Relations Chief T.J. Smith referred to the protest as "an act civil disobedience." Smith also said "there were no other issues or violence associated with this incident"—"violence" presumably did not include the FOP members' actions. On Monday afternoon, Smith told City Paper that the BPD "confirmed that [the yellow shirted man is] in fact an active member of the BPD" and that "the entire situation is under investigation."
Around 5 a.m. Monday morning, all 12 of the activists had been released and were given citations for trespassing while two also received "failure to obey" citations.
This afternoon, Brian Kuebler of ABC 2 confirmed that Lt. Victor Gearhart, no stranger to controversy, had sent an email to the deparment warning conference attendees to "expect more bad behavior from the THUGS Of BALTIMORE."
Commissioner Kevin Davis suspended Gearhart for the email, sources told Kuebler.