One Baltimore #17, Voices

9/9/19

Everyone needs access to both their own voice and the voices of others. I think a lot about how the City Paper (RIP) used to provide me with invaluable perspectives on what was going on in my town. While worthy outlets like The Real News Network, Baltimore Brew, Baltimore Fishbowl, and Baltimore Beat have stepped up, none of them truly replace what we lost when our printed alternative weekly folded. Part of my impetus for starting One Baltimore was to recreate the feel of a CP column, an individual take on local goings-on that’s part journalism and part journal.

Now, even the 187-year old The Baltimore Sun is under threat. While I’ve had issues with them for some time (reporting police accounts of events without always getting the other side of the story, supporting Larry frikkin Hogan in the last election), the investigative work its writers do is still crucial to covering local, national, and international stories… so, I take it as an extremely grave sign that Chicago-based Tribune Publishing, the Sun’s owner, is looking to gut their union, as outlined by the Baltimore Sun Guild (https://www.baltsunguild.org/news).

When it comes to having a voice, no one needs it more than people who’ve been victimized. Telling the story of who hurt you and how is, for many, a necessary part of healing. It also helps the rest of us stay safe by learning who and what to avoid. That’s why movements like #MeToo are so vital — when predators walk among us and no one talks about them, we’re all potential prey, especially those most marginalized.

Uplifting the voices of victims and shining a light on how they’re silenced is one thing I commend the Sun on very strongly (in some cases, at least). In this amazing piece from 2014 — http://data.baltimoresun.com/news/police-settlements/ — reporter Mark Puente explored the harrowing stories of people who’ve been senselessly brutalized by the Baltimore Police Department. He also dove into how much the city pays in settlements for these atrocities ($5.7 million in the 3.5 years before the publication of the article, and much, much more since then), and the deeply problematic practice of placing gag orders on people receiving those settlements.

When I learned about an upcoming hearing to end gag orders in Baltimore (Monday, 9/16 at 5pm at City Hall), I knew it was a big deal. After consulting with Tawanda Jones, who’s been working on the bill alongside groups like Runners4Justice, Not Without Black Women, and the ACLU of Maryland, I wrote up the background and created an event page (https://www.facebook.com/events/403692626999545/). Let’s review what it’s all about.

For many years, victims of police brutality in Baltimore City have received settlements from public coffers in exchange for their silence. Non-disparagement clauses, aka gag orders, force victims who receive compensation to sacrifice their first amendment rights in exchange.

Thanks to a long legal struggle by Ashley Overbey Underwood, the ACLU, and the Baltimore Brew, these gag orders were found unconstitutional in a landmark ruling this summer (https://www.aclu-md.org/en/press-releases/victory-free-speech-case-challenging-gag-orders-imposed-survivors-police-abuse). However, the case was only won on appeal, and a future judge could find differently. As such, it is imperative that we stop this practice by law.

In July, Council President Brandon M. Scott and other members introduced the “Transparency and Oversight in Claims and Litigation” bill, which would end gag orders in Baltimore, as well as require the Law Department to provide regular reports on cases of police misconduct and discrimination, including amounts of settlements. The bill faces stiff opposition from other city leaders, including the Mayor and City Solicitor (https://www.baltimorebrew.com/2019/07/25/aclu-disputes-mayors-statement-that-baltimore-has-stopped-using-gag-orders-in-police-settlements/).

Ways you can help include spreading the word, attending the hearing and giving testimony, and contacting your Council members, particularly those on the Public Safety Committee, which is considering the bill. The chair is Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, vice-chair is Kristerer Burnett, and other members are Zeke Cohen, Danielle McCray, Leon Pinkett, and Shannon Sneed. Contact information for all of them, as well as a way to look up your district, can be found here: http://www.baltimorecitycouncil.com/council-members.

You can read the full text of the bill here — https://baltimore.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=4068856&GUID=18A56F5F-C8B5-497F-9708-47BB4536C8E5 — by clicking on “19-0409~1st Reader” under “Attachments” near the top.

I’ll end with a voice that I consider to be one of the bravest in all of Baltimore, that of Tawanda Jones herself. For those new to her story, Tawanda’s brother, Tyrone West, was killed by the police during a traffic stop in 2013 (def gonna sit down together and dig more deeply into his story). Every week since then, she’s held a rally/protest/vigil called West Wednesday. We talked about what the issue of gag orders means to her.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Abby: Your family took a settlement in the death of your brother, why did it end up going that route?

Tawanda: I was in charge of his estate, I was speaking not only for my brother but for my family in general. The family of Tyrone West sought true accountability, which was criminal charges, but when Gregg Bernstein, the outgoing State’s Attorney, decided not to do anything, the only thing we were left with was litigation.

The reason why I was really excited about the civil piece was to get all the motions and the facts out. There’s no statute of limitations on murder, so I could continue to seek criminal charges. We got a court date, I was getting ready for the world to see what happened to my brother. A week before, they came in and said we need you guys to mediate and see if you can work it out.

Abby: How did the mediation process go?

Tawanda: They had us in one room and the attorneys of the killer cops in another room. I knew it was taking a toll, I didn’t want my brother’s kids to go through that, to hear all the details of how their father was tortured, including my Aunt who I call my Mom — every time we talked about it, she would get sick to the point she passed out. I had to go through all this, look each killer cop in the eyes, hear what they did to him, it made me sick. So with that laying on me, I did not want to settle out, but they wouldn’t have to go through the torturous thing that I went through.

When I was supposed to sign on the dotted line, I was like “What’s a non-disparagement deal?” “Oh, there’s certain things you’re not going to be able to talk about but we can craft the language, we know you do West Wednesdays, we’ll set certain things that you can and can’t say” and I said “No, take me off, they murdered my brother with no problem, you’re not going to silence me, take me off.”

Abby: Did people try to dissuade you from that choice?

Tawanda: The attorneys of the killer cops were trying to convince me to stay in it, and I’m like no, oh no. You cannot put a price on anyone’s life, that’s priceless, period. For them to try to sway you to take these figures and all that, that’s disgusting.

Abby: This kind of goes without saying, but I imagine that money would have changed your life.

Tawanda: Oh yeah. I’m struggling like hell, but I would rather do that than not be able to say stuff about what happened to my brother, nothing could stop me from doing that. They could offer me all the money in the world and that would not have swayed me any from letting people know that these are killer cops and they need to be in a cell block, period.

I took 50 grand out of my money to get my brother’s body exhumed to show that he was brutally murdered. They wouldn’t have been trying to negotiate if I hadn’t done that. I let my brother’s body speak for itself. I spent all the money I had and now I’m a broke woman. I’m a teacher, you know teachers don’t get paid nothing, I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul every day.

Abby: I know that other people who’ve signed gag orders have spoken to you, how many would you say?

Tawanda: I’ve spoken to at least 60 families. Before all that happened, with me and my family doing West Wednesday, I would have people personally reach out and say thank you for having that space, we would like to come out, because we’re gagged we can’t but we’re sending you lots of love. So when I had my news conference saying I refused to take the settlement, that’s when a lot of families reached out and said thank you, they said they wished they could turn the hands of time.

It’s sad that families should have to feel bad for taking money they’re *owed*. If I was murdered and the people who murdered me belonged to the state that’s supposed to serve and protect us, they better take care of my children because I won’t be around to do it. I can’t take care of my brother’s children, for them to have to bury their father, that is devastating.

I promised my family that I’m going to hold those officers that murdered our loved ones responsible. I gave them my word and I’m always going to hold to my word. I can’t bring back my brother but I will always seek accountability, transparency, and true justice.

It’s sad that they tell you not to say anything, but then they put on the news immediately that a family settled out with them before they even receive the funds. The families have to wait until months later but immediately they’re broadcasting it.

Abby: And the officials can still speak about the situation, even when the victims can’t.

Tawanda: Absolutely, everybody can but the families that are suffering in silence. That’s exactly why I’m working diligently with the ACLU and that’s why I’m praying that on September 16th they do the right thing and put it in black and white.

I was happy to meet with the Mayor, Jack Young, the City Solicitor, Judge Andre Davis, as well as Lester Davis [Chief of Communications and Government Relations]. They said that they believed that gag orders weren’t right, that truly touched my heart and gave me a lot of respect for them… but however, to make sure a family does not suffer in silence, we’re doing everything about it.

*

Reminder: We’re still gearing up for the Baltimore Welcoming Committee​ events this week ( https://one-baltimore.org/2019/09/03/one-baltimore-16-welcoming-committee/) in response to the Republicans coming to town, and we just found out that Trump will be making an appearance on Thursday night! Right now our biggest concern is raising more $$ for printing costs and to build a guillotine. If you can donate even $5 or share, it would make a big difference. This is the link: http://paypal.me/WorkersMarch Thank you!!

#SaveOurSun

#EndTheGagOrders

#JusticeForTyroneWest

#FreeKeithDavisJr

#OneBaltimore

Cultural Event of the Week: After a long period of renovation, the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Central Branch is having its grand reopening celebration from 11am-4pm this Saturday, featuring activities, authors, performers, and more!

https://www.facebook.com/events/2324966071155084/

Green Event of the Week: It ain’t easy being a city bird. Pigeons and seagulls do well, but many other species struggle to find the food and nesting sites they need. You can help! Tonight at 5:30pm, Patterson Park Audubon Center is holding a free “Intro to Bird-Friendly Gardening” class at the Orleans Street branch of Enoch Pratt.

https://www.facebook.com/events/1211934045656116/

Song of the Week: “Break the Silence” by Killswitch Engage

If we can’t break the silence (can we survive?) / Search inside yourself (announce your life) / We must break the silence / Now we are alive / Silent no longer / Make this world take notice / The change is in our hands / The battle has just begun

A flyer for the gag orders hearing, picturing Tawanda Jones.

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