The return of Joseph Kent, 'MLK with tattoos and gold fronts'

City Paper

During last Friday’s celebrations after Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that all six officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray would be indicted, activist Joseph Kent reintroduced the song that defined the #BaltimoreFerguson protests in which he was so prominent in the fall. “I got a feeling, I got a feeling, somebody’s trying to hold me back, and there ain’t gonna be no shit like that,” Kent sang, the crowd of a couple hundred joining in. It was a moment of transition symbolized by the song. Earlier in the week Lil Boosie’s ‘Fuck the Police’ was the most commonly heard song sung by protesters.

A few days earlier, on April 28, CNN had filmed Kent getting arrested in dramatic fashion after curfew by what appeared to be police and National Guard forces.

He was released from custody the next night as Don Lemon interviewed Kent’s lawyer, Stephen Beatty, about him on CNN.

“He was sitting in the box, no one was paying any attention to him, until about five minutes into the interview. Then they rushed his release,” Beatty told City Paper.

Kent was charged with violating the curfew and Beatty thinks the charge won’t hold up. “The governor’s order expressed no penalty,” he said. “How can you charge someone for something and then come up with the penalty?”

Indeed, the order states: “Violation of the foregoing provisions constitutes a misdemeanor and violators are subject to arrest,” but it does not specify a penalty and “the statute governing each misdemeanor in Maryland provides the sentence for the crime,” in the words of the website criminaldefenselawyer.com.

The dramatic video of Kent, and a hashtag #JosephKent that followed, ensured that by Friday, Kent was a prominent figure during the celebrations and protests that followed Mosby’s announcement.

Kent is something of a mysterious figure, however. When I reported on him extensively in the fall, he consistently claimed to be a Morgan State University student, but as Amira Hairston (a City Paper intern) reported in the MSU Spokesman last Wednesday, the university’s spokesperson said “He is not a student and never was a student,” though he was “an intern in a Morgan business program for about six months last year.”

When he first gained national attention as he was swept away on national television, I tweeted out what longtime organizer Rev. Heber Brown III had said of him in the fall—that he was “MLK with tattoos and gold fronts”—and the reverend tweeted back “Yea. Wish, the brother would have stayed connected after the Michael Brown demonstrations here.”

Other activists had said they also had not heard from him and when I had tried to contact him several weeks prior, his number was not working. 

When I asked him where he had been, Kent said he had been working two jobs, one retail and the other at a McDonald’s.

A half-hour before curfew on Saturday night at Pennsylvania and North, where the CVS burned earlier in the week, Kent was singing into a bullhorn, slowly walking and gathering a crowd.

He wore an Anonymous Guy Fawkes mask on the back of his head. The front of his shirt featured a picture of Freddie Gray. The back, one of Joseph Kent.

The crowd around him continued to grow as he called people over. Everyone sang and clapped, but he urged and exhorted and danced. Two women made appreciative, if perhaps objectifying, remarks about his appearance. He is charismatic.

He told the group he was not going to get arrested again. But he read out the legal-aid phone number so people who might can write it on their arms.

Soon, Kent led the group of about 60 down North Avenue, singing the same song. Once they got into Station North, at North Howard Street, City Paper Photo Editor J.M. Giordano and I decided to go back to Penn-North for curfew. When we got to the car, we heard reports from the police scanner that their highest priority was at Greenmount and Preston.

There was a long line of police cars a few blocks up, but just before curfew at Preston, there were no cops and the stoops were full of angry people, a couple of whom were singing Lil Boosie’s ‘Fuck the Police.’

“Fuck this shit, I don’t care about shit!” someone yelled. One of the guys we saw in Kent’s march turned the corner and disappeared into darkness.

As we walked underneath the jail cells, people called out the window. It was a lonesome sound, a heartbroken sound, the true sound of Baltimore under curfew. The helicopters circled overhead.

Closer to the Intake Center, near Greenmount and Madison, police had Joseph Kent himself in handcuffs.

“Hey yo, get this,” he said, turning his face toward us. I stepped forward to film. An officer approached me, waving a pepper-spray canister. “You are going to get pepper-sprayed, get off the street.” I stepped on the sidewalk. The canister was in my face. “Sir, you’re going to get locked up if you don’t follow.”

We argued with the cops for a minute, and we missed part of what was happening to Kent and to the group of street medics and legal observers with the National Lawyers Guild who were also handcuffed now. I called Kent’s lawyer to see if he knew there was a plan for this and I let him know Kent is in jail.

A fire truck and an ambulance pulled up and blocked the view. The street medics and legal observers are led across the street in handcuffs.

The air started to quake with a rhythm coming from the cells up above us. Then there are faint words. “All night, all day, we’re gonna fight for Freddie Gray.”

Kent was released Sunday night, and his lawyer Beatty tweeted, “Dropped #JosephKent at home in the Western safe & sound.Penn North & the WD Precinct are all quiet. Lets get some sleep, #BaltimoreUprising!” 

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