Everybody who has ever been to a protest in Baltimore knows Duane "Shorty" Davis; he's the one who often delivers decorated toilets to officials to suggest the government is full of shit ("I use the toilet because the toilet is like, a common denominator," he told me back in July; "it doesn't care if you're black, white, straight, or gay, it takes your shit every day") and in many ways, he's the backbone of the local protest movement—most activists learned how to protest from Shorty.
Everybody knows him with the exception, apparently of these three Baltimore police officers assigned to monitor the Nov. 30 protest the veteran activist helped lead from the Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse through downtown and back again on the first day of the first trial in the death of Freddie Gray.
"Who's Shorty? Where's Shorty?" one officer bellows as he hustles hard up Gay Street. Two other cops trailing behind gently chase the group of 20 or so marchers whose next stop is City Hall.
Thanks to Shorty Davis, and activists Kwame Rose, PFK Boom, and others holding the line to keep protesters close together and on the sidewalk, the group has been for the most part calm. Demonstrators are even obeying traffic signals. The group ambles through downtown, pausing in front of the Gallery and then walking by the Light and Pratt Street Pavilions to stop in front of the World Trade Center for a series of rousing speeches.
There, a number of activists speak, including Shorty, who compares police terror to global terror; Rose, who points across the street to Chick-fil-A and Shake Shack and declares, "that is not what Baltimore looks like"; and Tawanda Jones, whose brother Tyrone West died in police custody in July 2013 and who has been protesting every week since. A relatively new voice, at least to protests surrounding Freddie Gray, is Kelly Holsey, the fiancee of Keith Davis Jr., a man who was shot by police back in June and remains in custody. Alluding to those snarky reporters who earlier in the day wondered why anyone would gather outside the courthouse to protest picking a jury, Holsey points out that even the trial for Officer William Porter is an affront to her and her family. It began pretty much as scheduled while her fiance's trial keeps getting delayed; Davis Jr. remains in jail where he will likely remain for the next several months (the right to a "speedy" trial is loosely interpreted in Baltimore; the average jail time is 38 days but clogged courts leave some languishing in jail for up to two years, according to a Justice Policy Institute report).
Intent on briefly bugging the bougie establishments downtown, the group then marches to Phillips Seafood, and then heads to Power Plant Live.
It is hard to tell if the police are scared of the protesters or angry at them, though maybe those are the same thing. At one point, a nervous officer ran up to the Ripley's Believe It or Not in the Light Street pavilion and told a worker to shutter the window—something of an overreaction for 20 protesters. The Gallery and the Pratt Street pavilion were firmly guarded as well.
And let's talk about the Inner Harbor for a moment. The Inner Harbor is fairly dead in the winter, save for weekends, and is an ugly, cluster of mildly fancy chains and sports bars built for tourists afraid to venture into the rest of the city year round. Shorty and others stressed that the Inner Harbor is one of those places that black Baltimoreans are not necessarily welcome unless they work at one of these places. Back in April, a white man who tried to drive through a line of protesters downtown told me that he respected their right to protest but they should go do it "where they live." That was telling: White Baltimore sees the Inner Harbor as their own. But what is a downtown if not for everybody?
"Invest uptown, divest downtown" was a frequent chant at protests throughout the uprising in April, though on this night the chant could've been "Invest uptown, freak out downtown." On this November night, the Baltimore Police step in near Power Plant Live, preventing protesters and most media from entering the area in front of Leinenkugel's Beer Garden—The Baltimore Sun's Colin Campbell was allowed through for some reason, maybe because he had a nice shirt on. The protesters chant loudly and confront police. It gets heated, as it does when you tell a large group of people "no." A few minutes later, it gets more heated when a white woman in one of the bars runs out and begins yelling at the protesters. This is the second time this evening that protesters are confronted like this—shortly after the protest began, a man in an SUV who all but refused to stop for them to cross the street told protesters, "You guys are blocking the road, get a life."
Shorty, Rose, activist Payam, and others step in to calm the group, discouraging demonstrators from engaging with the yelling woman. The march moves on but then stops in front of Ruth's Chris Steak House where protesters stand and leer through the window at people eating expensive steaks. A 16-year-old protester, who earlier on had gotten into it with the man in the SUV, slams his sign against the door of Ruth's Chris Steak House, rattling the door.
The 16-year-old is a relatively new face, or at least now a much louder voice. Full of adrenaline because he had the chance briefly to say what he wanted to say to the police at Power Plant (he quoted Lil Boosie: "without that badge, you're a bitch and a half") and to navigate the Inner Harbor unfettered, he lost control.
Shorty, who had started the night's march in front of the courthouse by telling everyone there that they can't "act out" if they were gonna march, interrupts the 16-year-old's moment of knuckleheaded glory and pulls him away. He lectures him for hitting the door and then pushes him into the small crowd of protesters to keep police from nabbing him.
Presumably, this is why a little further into the march, the police begin looking for some guy named "Shorty" who someone told them was leading the march.
They catch up with Shorty on Gay Street. He chats with two officers and dangles a copy of the Constitution in front of them.
"I wanna help you," says the officer who asked for Shorty.
There is concern that the group might try to take 83, which has happened in the past. Shorty jokes that they had no plan to do that but now they're giving him ideas.
The officer goes on: "We can block traffic, we can block intersections to help you accomplish your goals—"
"We want you to peacefully march," another officer interrupts.
"We've been peacefully marching," Shorty says.
"No, no, no, we never said you wasn't. I'm just saying I'm trying to help you accomplish your goals," the first officer says.
"Y'all don't need to help us do anything, we got in under control," Payam says.
"We all right. I appreciate your offer," Shorty says. "But my momma told me how to cross the street."
"Your presence—" Payam says.
"Is complicating things," Shorty says, finishing Payam's sentence.
Then Shorty tells the police to get him a Starbucks coffee and walks away.
Arguably, this group is nothing more than a slightly rowdy two dozen or so people walking around the Inner Harbor and that happens every Friday night when boozed-up, tapas-filled tourists scream and laugh or sports fans stumble from the stadiums to nearby bars.
Whatever the protesters are doing, they should be doing something, else it seems.
When this protest first gathered in front of the courthouse a little bit before 6 p.m., a sheriff walked over and told Shorty, who was speaking through a megaphone, that they couldn't be out there without a permit. The sheriff asked for a permit. "We got a permit for the sidewalk," the sheriff informed Shorty. "You have the right to protest, but you cannot use the bullhorn. It is interfering with the judge and what he is trying to do."
"They just make up rules around here," Shorty told the early crowd and waved the Constitution. The sheriff walked away in a huff and muttered, "it doesn't give him the right to disrupt that court."
As City Paper reported last week, the Baltimore City Sheriff's Office obtained permits limiting areas where protesters may assemble during the trials, according to spokeswoman Major Sabrina Tapp-Harper. "They can have a protest at any time," she told City Paper's Brandon Weigel over the phone. "But the thing is, during the time when the courthouse is open, we don't allow them to obstruct the courthouse or stand on the courthouse steps." When the sheriff confronted Davis and the group, however, it was almost 6 p.m. and court is only in session at Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse until 4:30 p.m each day (last Friday morning, the fifth day of William Porter's trial, JC Faulk, Shorty, and PFK Boom were confronted by almost a dozen sheriffs and asked to stand behind a blue line near the courthouse because of the permit).
The script the police are working with is out of date. Things are different than they were this time last year when activists walked through Baltimore in solidarity with Ferguson, Missouri and briefly traversed 83 and it isn't really like the protests that popped up that first week following Freddie Gray's death either. Namely, this Nov. 30 protest isn't in the streets. And the group is stopping for red lights and everything. They are listening to what Commissioner Kevin Davis has been saying about not marching in the streets.
The group moves on to City Hall where some activists give speeches, then the march returns to the courthouse and wraps up. As the group disperses, Shorty hands the young, mildly apologetic 16-year-old protester who almost got the whole group in trouble $10—cash to get home or grab some food or something.
Quiet settles on the city. "This was just a test run," Shorty says to the group of invigorated protesters.
Additional reporting by Brandon Weigel.