One Baltimore #12, World Class

7/29/19

Cities get my blood going. All the people and possibilities, the public spaces and the hidden places, the markets and clubs, the infinite shades of art. I love visiting cities, their streets usually feel like home to me no matter how far they are from here. I especially love the world class ones that hum all night long, Chicago, San Francisco, New York.

Sometimes I get jealous of some of those other cities though. Like their transit. It’s so freeing to go somewhere I’ve never been and to be able to get around well without a private vehicle, so frustrating to know that I can’t do the same at home. Mostly it’s just a feeling of vitality. I want to live in a place of powerful confluences, where things are possible that just can’t happen without bringing together so many people. Isn’t that the point of a city? While mine might be smaller these days than it used to be, I cherish anything about Baltimore that gives me that feeling.

It’s knowing a few places open late where I could get a spicy tofu stew or a fresh chocolate bun at 3am on a weird night. It’s relying on the drag nights, poetry nights, goth nights, comedy nights, genre-bending cross-over nights, and all the other nights to be there. Knowing that I can see Mozart or Beethoven or Bach played by some of the very best people in the world pretty much whenever, because we have rare and amazing arts here. I don’t have to actually take advantage of these things often in order to treasure their presence.

So, while I’ve been wrapped up in other issues for a while now, it’s been a blow to see headlines about the Baltimore Symphony Musicians being locked out of their building and picketing on the street. What on earth’s going on there?

I read through the basics in a few local news outlets, and also spoke with a few sources to try to get the picture. One who was particularly helpful on the nuts and bolts was John Warshawsky, one of the people who formed the Save our BSO group, a great source for what’s happening and how to help. In addition to being a patron of the orchestra, Warshawsky is an attorney who has been providing some pro bono legal services for the musicians (though not when it comes to their contract negotiations with management).

If one is to believe those closest to the situation — advocates, artists, and employees — this is a tale of labor injustice and mismanagement of our cultural institutions. Here’s how I’ve come to understand it:

In September 2018, musicians and the orchestra failed to reach a new contract for the next season. Warshawsky says that management broke several scheduled meetings, and then finally, at the end of October, proposed cutting the summer season, dropping the schedule from 52 weeks per year all the way down to 40 in one fell swoop. This meant that the musicians, already among the lowest-paid of their peers around the nation, would be taking roughly a 20% pay cut. They refused to sign, but kept on working and receiving their salaries.

Help seemed on the way. In the spring, the state legislature passed a bill giving the orchestra $3.2 million over the next two years and setting up a special committee to examine its programming and finances. While it wasn’t clear if Hogan would release the funds (and he still hasn’t… good old Boss Hogg, always kicking us when we’re down), planning for the summer season was moving forward. One person who’s worked at the BSO in recent times and who’s not a musician (they spoke under the condition of anonymity, I’ll refer to them hereafter as Anon), told me that staff had been working for weeks on the shows that were to come.

But then, on May 30th of this year, a surprise announcement — the BSO leadership was cancelling the summer season after all. The musicians were left scrambling, facing three months without pay with no warning. On June 17th, management literally locked them out of the building. The musicians and the community started picketing outside. The pickets are taking place 2-3 times per week, with the next scheduled for this Thursday at 8am (https://www.facebook.com/saveourBSO/photos/a.206296746934659/363686367862362).

So why’d it happen? Are the musicians’ salaries just untenable? Not according to Warshawsky. As others have done in the press (one of several such opinion pieces: https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/readers-respond/bs-ed-rr-bso-blame-musicians-letter-20190626-story.html), he pointed to the fact that musician salaries are only a portion of the overall budget, yet they are the only ones expected to take a major hit. He also criticized BSO management for not doing more to develop donors in Montgomery County, one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the nation, where the orchestra opened a second site in 2005.

Warshawsky admitted that the orchestra itself as an operating entity has lost money year after year, but said that that’s not unusual for an arts organization, that it’s not supposed to live off of annual revenues alone. As a potential source of relief in times of trouble, he brought up the orchestra’s large endowment, donated by people like the late Joseph Meyerhoff, who he called a lion when it came to raising money for the institution. The endowment trust operates as a separate entity, and its investment income is meant to provide stability. Warshawsky pointed to audits showing that over the last two years, the orchestra and the endowment combined grew in value by almost $4 million. That means that the endowment grew so much, it well compensated for all losses on the actual musical side of things.

While some funds in an endowment are restricted, Warshawsky claimed that the endowment trust board has been less generous than it could be, and also has been less than candid. He said that the orchestra didn’t even want to release the audit information to the public at first, but did so under pressure. While in an ideal world one would want to take very sparingly from an endowment, Warshawsky made the point that right now we have a world class orchestra, but if we cut their pay by 20%, we will lose a lot of them. That combined with a shorter season will result in a diminished institution, draining away major donors and leading to a downward spiral that kills the golden goose.

For balance, here’s the official perspective of the orchestra management, which as you can imagine is somewhat different — https://www.bsomusic.org/misc/negotiations-updates/ However you slice it though, it’s a dire picture indeed. So who’s responsible? Let’s hear again from Anon, for an inside view. I asked them, “Who do you hold responsible for what’s happening to the BSO right now?”

They replied — “I think it’s complex. There’s been a huge amount of turnover at all levels of the administration in the past five years. I would maybe look to the board first because they have the most continuity. The same board chair has been in place for a while and eliminated most of the marketing and education departments in 2016 in an earlier attempt to cut costs. It did not go well and those positions were rehired within a year. The turnover ever since has been pretty intense. I don’t think anyone is really thinking about the hidden costs of that amount of turnover in the staff side.”

Seeing Anon mention the board, and particularly the board chair, Barbara Bozzuto, stuck out to me. I’d come across Bozzuto’s name while reading a Sun article about the lockout, and it caught my eye because of a connection to the very first local activism issue I ever took on.

In 2008, Marc Steiner was abruptly fired from our local public radio station, WYPR. I was upset because he was their one contributor really focusing on local justice issues, and I became more incensed when I read that he’d been crucial to founding the station, and that he’d been kicked out unceremoniously, with no warning (sound familiar?).
Though the community’s protest about Steiner’s firing came to nothing, I remembered the name of the board chair of WYPR at that time, the person responsible for the whole thing — Barbara Bozzuto. I started to see her last name everywhere I went, thanks to the local activities of the Greenbelt-based real estate company started by her husband and now run by her son (https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-kelly-column-anthem-20170623-story.html).

Is Bozzuto really to blame? I asked Brian Prechtl, a BSO percussionist who’s been with the company for thirteen years. His take was that she has to be held accountable for the present situation, because a lot of the debt that the BSO has accumulated happened under her watch. And not just as board chair, he explained — she ran the orchestra while it was between CEO’s, during a time when it ran up millions in debt. In his opinion, the BSO’s current CEO, Peter Kjome, is just there to carry out the wishes of the board.

I asked Prechtl why he thought the board was doing this, when he and the others to whom I’d spoken had made it clear how damaging it was to the long-term prospects of the orchestra. He paused before continuing.

“In my heart of hearts, I think a lot of people on that board are there because they feel like they’re supposed to be,” he said. “I don’t hear the passion for the mission and vision of the orchestra.” People don’t give, he said, because you need money, they do it because you inspire them, and that’s not happening under this leadership. “The board of the BSO doesn’t seem to realize what their mission is,” he continued. “We are not for profit, we’re a philanthropic organization… we’re here to make the world a better place.” Not recognizing that, he concluded, was the root of the board’s problem.

Anon also pointed to more problems with the management of the BSO, including long put-off vendor bills, fears of lay-offs amongst non-musician staff despite promises to the contrary, and poor pay, benefits, and representation. They said that while they had been really excited to work for the orchestra at first, they were angry and felt that working there had affected their mental health, calling the current situation, quote, “a shit show.” It’s a set of sentiments echoed by a lot of my friends about their jobs these days.

Meanwhile, the lockout continues. The management says it will end in September, but both Warshawsky and Prechtl the percussionist find this unbelievable, since a new deal has not been reached. I asked Prechtl about the impact on his life. He said, “I have personally lost over $19,000 in income I’ve had to restructure all my bills putting off anything that wasn’t immediately due. House repairs have been delayed and medical procedures that were not covered by insurance have also been delayed. I was not able to secure out of town orchestra work this summer due to commitments I had made to OrchKids [a music program for Baltimore City kids] for the summer and being available for negotiations and media work related to the lockout.”

While there are many deeply pressing issues that deserve our attention in Baltimore these days, I believe that preserving our world class institutions is one of them. Once lost, they will not be so easily regained, and losing them adds to the downward spiral that degrades the region as a whole. In addition to joining the picket line, learn about other ways to support the musicians at http://www.saveourbso.org/.

On Friday, 7/26, a little more than four years after he was shot in the face by police, the state succeeded in their fourth attempt to get murder charges to stick to Keith Davis, Jr. There were many, many irregularities in this trial, as well as information to which the jury was not privy, and #TeamKeith is doing everything except throwing in the towel. Please save November 14th, the date of his sentencing hearing — let’s pack the room. Now is the time to support Keith and Kelly Davis (https://fundrazr.com/FreeKeithDavisJr), because when there’s no justice, there’s just us.

Thank you to the generous and dedicated folks who provided input for this column. All of them gave me a great deal more material that I couldn’t cover here for space reasons, so look up other articles or reach out directly to learn more.

#SaveOurBSO #BaltimoreSymphonyOrchestra #BaltimoreSymphonyMusicians #FreeKeithDavisJr #OneBaltimore

Cultural Events of the Week: In addition to protesting on the street, the BSO musicians are keeping busy in the community, playing in the Charles Center subway station (4:15-5:30pm tonight, Wednesday, and Friday only, https://www.facebook.com/events/378306306160900/) and at the Hopkins medical campus (for patients, families, employees, and friends, first free concert is this Wednesday at 1pm https://www.facebook.com/saveourBSO/photos/a.206296746934659/364421991122133).

Green Event of the Week: There’s a lot to know when it comes to taking care of young trees, and there’s no better way to learn than by doing. This Wednesday, join Blue Water Baltimore for a one-on-one volunteer experience where you pair with a staff member and help care for our urban forest. Trees cool down the city, and dang we could use that right now. https://bluewaterbaltimore.org/events/greenup-07-31-2019/

Song of the Week: Götterdämmerung by Richard Wagner

Holy gods, ye heavenly rulers! / Have ye ordained this dark decree? / Ye who have doomed me to anguish so dire! / Ye who have sunk me so deep in disgrace! / Teach me such vengeance as ne’er was revealed! / Stir in me wrath, that may never be stilled!

Musicians and supporters picketing the BSO on 6/17/19, the first day of the lockout. Credit to John Warshawsky, used with permission.

A Tile for CASA from OB

I’ve got a proposition for y’all! CASA (*amazing* local immigrant services/advocacy group) is building an education & employment center in Highlandtown (in a cool old theater) that will serve 11k kids and adults annually. It would be a *really* great thing for Baltimore. They’re selling engraved tiles to raise funds, get one with me.

I almost got one of the lil $100 tiles, but then I realized that at the $750 level you get a BIGASS paver, two feet by two feet! Dang! And it’d be right out front of the building, where tons of people will pass it every single day! That’s too good a deal to miss, especially for a good cause!

So here’s the deal — I’ll chip in $250. Y’all chip in $500. The tile will read:

From the readers
and the writer of
www.one-baltimore.org,
with love and solidarity
for the CASA community.

It juuuuust fits in the character/spacing requirements. And I already checked if it was too obnoxious to include a url and the organizer said it was cool.

Tile orders are due in ONE WEEK, on Wed., 7/31! You can paypal me at macroglossus@gmail.com, or, if you’d like to use another service or hmu in person, just PM me. Let’s do thiiiiis.

If people offer to donate more than $750, we can do another, smaller tile too!

CASA is an exemplary model of how to uplift and organize your community and supporters. They’re doing so, so much right now, including fighting and frustrating ICE. Whether you can support them financially or not, def. check them out.

If you wanna order your own tile for yourself, your beloved, your business, whatever: https://wearecasa.org/campaigns/baltimore-capital-campaign

One Baltimore #11, A Single Life

7/22/19

What happens next week in the Clarence Mitchell courthouse at Fayette & St. Paul could save or end the world. It makes sense to believe that if you’re Kelly Davis, and your husband’s future hangs in the balance. It’s a weirder thing for some random person like me to believe, but I do, with all my heart.

In the Talmud, it says, “Whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved the whole world.” That passage is one I’ve thought about often in relation to Keith Davis Jr.’s case, and it’s taken on a meaning for me beyond the metaphysical. It’s like this —

The endless trials to which the state has subjected Keith following his shooting by the police have been a shocking miscarriage of justice on many levels. You can read about it as I laid it out (https://one-baltimore.org/2019/06/17/one-baltimore-7-keith-davis-jr/), or as Brandon Soderberg did last week in the Baltimore Beat (http://baltimorebeat.com/2019/07/17/dumb-luck-or-a-cover-up-day-one-of-trial-number-four-for-keith-davis-jr/)… I won’t be mad if you choose him, he’s been published in The New York Times, Vice, Rolling Stone, and a ton of other places, plus he’s writing a book on the Gun Trace Task Force, so he REALLY knows what he’s talking about.

All of this has taken place within our so-called justice system in Baltimore, which is widely known for its depths of unjust, racist violence. Here’s the 10-page summary of the 163-page DOJ report (https://www.justice.gov/crt/file/883371/download), but if you want the real quick version:

“(1) making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests;

(2) using enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans;

(3) using excessive force; and

(4) retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally-protected expression.”

So much more has become public since then. Officers routinely planting guns and drugs, as well as stealing and selling them. The State’s Attorney’s office alerted many times yet still relying on those same officers’ testimony to put people away. The corruption is KNOWN, yet the system remains in place, increasing the deadly chaos of our streets rather than ameliorating it.

If Baltimore is ever to have justice and peace, something major has to change, and Keith Davis Jr.’s case could be the making of that change. This is a man who was shot in the face by cops, one of whom has since been connected to interstate drug trafficking and illegal guns. He’s been persecuted through five consecutive trials, with more and more wrong-doing by the state uncovered each time, more contradictions, more evidence withheld and mishandled. This is a case in which they left a murder uninvestigated so that they could instead pin it on an inconvenient man they couldn’t seem to kill, despite leaving him to literally rot in jail (he was denied healthcare, and had to change his own stinking bandages) with a bullet stuck in his neck for TWO YEARS that doctors had been ready and eager to remove.

What does all that tell us? That this is a man who can take down massive numbers of the people responsible for DOJ findings #1-4 above… IF he is exonerated and given the chance to fight them.

We all know that this problem is much, much bigger than Charm City, that it recurs across the states. Is it possible that as goes Baltimore, so goes the nation? Of course. History shows us again and again how one domino sets off the chain. If a system like ours can be successfully fought and forced to change, at the very least it will help the efforts of others.

So while I’m by no means saying that it’s a foregone conclusion, I can see clearly a scenario in which Keith’s freedom helps bring justice to Baltimore, and justice in Baltimore helps bring justice to the nation. And that’d mean we have a chance, a CHANCE to save the planet.

I’ve worked in environmental policy for over 14 years, and I feel confident saying that —

  1. Without swift and massive changes within the next 5-10 years MAX, people alive today are going to witness the ascent of one of those rare big spikes on the ‘Mass Extinction Events’ graphs that scientists make based on the fossil record, instead of just one of the small ones, and
  2. Those changes cannot come without justice.

We cannot save the habitability of the planet without justice. If you don’t want our lives to get a lot suckier and for the next generation to deal with some real Mad Max bullshit, then the number one priority before you is justice.

What the hell do I mean by that?

The people who profit from the systems that must be changed in order to save the planet — let’s call them the 1% — refuse to do it. The only POSSIBLE way to stop them is to build more power than them, and that means uniting a much larger portion of the 99% than has ever stood together in this country before. That means working across the lines of skin tone, nationality, gender, and class, truly becoming partners in each other’s struggles.

The first step of working with someone? You HELP THEM. Imagine that you’re in a war, and you look over to see that your buddy is in a shootout. Do you immediately move into position to support him because A) you love him, B) they’ll be after you next, C) it’s your duty, or D) all of the above? The correct answer is D, but any of them will do. What you don’t do is ignore it. There’s no unity, no partnership that way, certainly no victory.

So yes, I believe that saving Keith Davis, Jr. could save the world, literally, which means that losing him could doom the world, literally. It’s a strange thing to believe that and to go about my normal life, spending most of my days just a couple of blocks from where his trial unfolds.

So far, I’ve taken off one day to be there, the first day, Friday, July 12th. When I learned it would only be pre-trial motions, I figured I’d see nothing of real import, but boyyyy was I wrong.

Meet Deborah Levi, Director of Special Investigations for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, Keith’s new defense lawyer. I was in awe, y’all. She had a huge book in front of her jammed with colorful pieces of paper sticking out the sides, from which she quoted case law like a Rabbi quoting scripture, as easy as breathing, never missing a beat.

Let’s look at what Ms. Levi had to say on that first day about just one, crucial thing — the ballistics-matching evidence, the ONLY thing linking Keith to the murder of which he’s accused other than cell phone tower data (which also places 1,000 other people “at the scene”). Below are my notes from the trial, compiled from various places throughout the transcript and presented in order:

Levi said that in December 2018, she found there were missing pieces of evidence. She went through the discovery process, but the state did not respond at first, she had to ask multiple times. She eventually found that the ballistics test fire for the gun Keith had allegedly possessed at the time he was shot by the police, the thing which supposedly links him to the murder, had not been retained. There was an envelope taped to the gun where it was supposed to be, but it was empty.

She said that:

  • In April, BPD did a new test fire on the supposed murder weapon and found that it did not fully match the first,
  • In May she asked to do a physical examination of the re-test evidence, but received no response, and
  • She then sent two requests in writing, but still never got it.

Levi said that by law, the defense is entitled to that evidence. She said that BPD claimed the defense couldn’t look at it without a prosecutor present. The state responded that it was fine, that wasn’t required – but BPD still wouldn’t let the defense see it. On 6/29/19, they finally got the ballistics evidence.

Then, she said that at 4pm yesterday afternoon, the day before the trial, she received Internal Affairs files on the firearms examiners who worked on the case. That was when she learned that a fellow firearms examiner had accused one of them of being incompetent, and that in response he picked her up bodily and threw her a full eight feet across the room.

Levi went into great detail about the firearms examiner’s office, including how they cheat on their proficiency exams. She learned that BPD hasn’t shared (possibly hasn’t kept?) the examiners’ actual test results, just a report from a reviewer within the department who gives everyone an ‘S’ for satisfactory. She said she found that one examiner, maybe two, had in fact failed their proficiency exam, misidentifying weapons.

Levi said that she and her staff had been up all night trying to figure out how to access this evidence, how to deal with this culture of bullying and incompetence..

“What they’ve done is shifted the burden to provide evidence and put it on the defense.”

“The burden ought to be on the state that’s trying to take someone’s liberty… and, in fact, it is.”

Levi discussed a manager from the firearms examiner officer with “terrible eyesight,” saying “Wagster can’t see” and yet was in charge of making crucial determinations on very fine details of the evidence in this case.

She read through the standard operating procedure for BPD’s firearms analysis, explaining that it’s based solely on the analyst’s experience, and that it’s very subjective and vague. Therefore, there must be scrupulous documentation of how the analysis was done, by law. But that documentation does not exist in this case.

In order to be accredited, Levi said, a lab of this type must have procedures for documentation. In this case, those procedures were broken, and the only documentation done was very, very skimpy notes and photos. All the documentation says is “Casings 1-9 match each other. They all match the gun in question.”

Levi continued, “This was a rubberstamp.” She said that Wagster re-examined the evidence, but because he did the initial report and already testified under oath, he should not be the one performing the re-examination, because of course he would not want to say that the expert opinion he gave before was false. She said that this was a case where one similar tool-mark was enough to claim a match, but a later, dissimilar tool-mark was not enough to disqualify a match… why??

My full notes are here — https://docs.google.com/document/d/1oF1hXNoUsYuWWmOeg36muCrzZ8JUqT_A7-cU8in6CoE/edit?usp=sharing — feel free to copy/paste/share.

Court continues this week, and your presence will continue to remind the state that we are watching. Other ways to follow the case in near-real-time include the indispensable Baltimore Court Watch (https://twitter.com/bmorecourtwatch) and the Undisclosed Podcast (https://www.undisclosed-podcast.com). Tell your friends, especially any in media or politics — they should REALLY, *REALLY* be on this far more than they are.

One crucial way in which justice in our city has been frustrated is via gag orders — those who receive settlements in cases of brutality by the police are prevented from speaking about them. Today, Monday 7/22, in front of City Hall at 4:15pm, Tawanda Jones will stand alongside Council President Scott and Council Member Sneed as they introduce a bill to make such gag orders illegal — https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/MDBALT/bulletins/2525bbf Please join if you can, and contact your own council representative to let them know you support this bill.

#FreeKeithDavisJr

#TeamKeith

#OneBaltimore

Cultural Event of the Week: Ever wanted to try burlesque and/or explore your body and soul? Here’s your chance! Starting this Sunday, Jacqueline Boxx, Nona Narcisse, and Cherie Nuit are running Essential Tease: A Transformative Burlesque Class | Workshop. These instructors are incredible, highly-trained veteran performers who’ve wow’ed around the world, and working with them is an amazing opportunity.

https://www.creativealliance.org/events/2019/essential-tease-transformative-burlesque-class-series / https://www.facebook.com/events/296000817999557/

Green Event of the Week: This Saturday, 7/27, Baltimore Peoples Climate Movement and Sunrise Movement Baltimore are co-hosting a political strategy session on saving the planet that looks very well thought-out and strong, with free food, childcare, and action steps.

https://www.facebook.com/events/370618813811684/

Song of the Week: “Hands Up” by Vince Staples

Payin’ taxes for some fuckin’ clowns to ride around / Whoopin’ n****s asses, scared to man up / Handcuffs givin’ n****s gashes on the wrist / I use to lift my fist to fight the power with / Older homie told me in his day the pigs was plantin’ bricks / In the trunks of n****s’ Chevrolets them traffic stops and shit / Raidin’ homes without a warrant, shootin’ first without a warning / And they expect respect and non-violence / I refuse the right to be silent

Photo: A light projection onto the Northeast Police District station, where the 311th #WestWednesday was held on 7/17/19, the day before the sixth anniversary of the murder of Tyrone West at the hands of police.

One Baltimore #10, Borders

7/15/19

I talked a bit about the Charm City Kitty Club, that queer theater group I’m in, a few weeks ago (https://one-baltimore.org/2019/06/11/one-baltimore-6-pride/). Each of our shows features a variety of artists from our community, interspersed with short scenes around a theme. Back in the late winter, through our usual messy but productive collective creative process, we’d decided that our next show, the one at the end of June, would be about walls. We called it “Claws Up, Walls Down.”

We do cabaret in order to have fun and express ourselves, but, as a group ethic, we also strive to say things that are relevant and that matter to us, to be honest and real. As such, if we were going to tackle the topic of walls in 2019, we knew we’d have to really commit ourselves to doing it justice. We approached it from as many angles as possible, collaborating on a script that in the end covered everything from gentrification to Stonewall to emotional boundaries. I’m really, really proud of it.

I had the honor of drafting the Stonewall skit. In it, modern day reporters travel back in time and interview protesters who are heading to support their friends against the police. I played one of the protesters, innocently exclaiming “wow, so you’re really saying everything is perfect in the future?” upon hearing of the gains we’ve made as a community. This made Kris’s reporter character break and admit that, no, things are very, very not perfect. The skit ends with an admonition from ’69 to ’19 to keep fighting.

The other skit I wrote was a press conference with Lord Walltimore, head of Wahlco Development (shout out to The Bell Foundry). He has a plan to wall in the community gardens for profit, but is hustled off-stage by protesters shouting “Grow flowers, not corporate powers!”

So, that gives you a sense of where my head was at a couple of weeks ago, when the show was days from opening and Opal and I had just decided to go on a road trip to the border for Independence Day. With rehearsals, I had almost no time whatsoever to plan. Opal was busy too. We laid down the basic logistics for our trip, booked a room for two nights, but other than that we were flying pretty blind.

Why the urgency? Well, like I explained before we left (https://one-baltimore.org/2019/06/25/one-baltimore-8-freedom/), on the one hand it was an emotional reaction to the news coming out of Texas about the horrible mistreatment of refugee children, and on the other hand it very clearly connected to the work we’d been doing, the causes on which we’d been spending our time here at home. We left feeling hopeful, nervous, wired, and very much under-prepared.

Driving for a day and a half through middle America without really stopping except when we had to was… well, it was a trip. For several states in a row, nearly every gas station sold bumper stickers promoting building the damn wall, shooting people, Space Force (fucking Space Force??), and, bizarrely, unicorns (I suppose, for the ladies). As two small-ish, gender non-conforming city-folk, we were tense. But the trip passed without incident, and the sky on the plains was breath-taking.

Along the way, we did some research. Friends had given us various leads. I spoke at length with a woman who had volunteered at Annunciation House, a shelter for migrants in El Paso who are being released to US sponsors but who need short-term lodging and care. I also connected with Zackary Sholem Berger, a doctor and JHU professor who had himself been involved with the JHU Sit-In, and who turned us on to #CitizenPresence, a crowd-funded movement to bring people to the infamous child detention center in Clint, Texas, which, along with El Paso, we’d settled on as our destination.

Our first stop was at our lodgings in New Mexico. It was stunningly beautiful there, the land layered from desert to tundra to crags to forested mountains. At night, the milky way spilled across a broad sky bursting with stars.

In our small room, we made a sign and a banner. The sign said “Baltimore for Border Justice”, with a red circle with a line through it around the “ICE” part at the end. The banner we made from a large trans pride flag, on which we printed “Rest in Power, Johana Medina Leon”, in honor of a trans woman from El Salvador who died from lack of simple medical care after a month in ICE custody.

First, we went down to El Paso, to Annunciation House. We didn’t know what we’d find. The website for the House said that all volunteers would need to commit for at least two weeks, speak at least a little Spanish, and submit to a background check in advance. On the other hand, my contact had described a chaotic situation, hundreds of families continually arriving and continually in need of things as simple as running to the laundromat or picking up formula, where anyone could make a difference. Complicating the situation further, we read that things had abruptly changed while we were in transit, with the majority of families now being held on the Mexico side of the border

We weren’t sure at first that we’d arrived. The building was hiding in plain sight, the windows covered, no signs or markings of any kind on the doors. I called the number on the website, and a young volunteer came out. She was pleased to see us, but apologetic that they couldn’t use our help right now.

She confirmed what we’d seen about the sudden drop-off in arrivals. She said that all they really needed at the moment was money (https://annunciationhouse.org/support/house-needs/), but encouraged us to email the volunteer coordinator if we planned to come back. We gave her a wad of cash and went on our way.

Next, we tried to go to the nearby Santa Fe bridge, where migrants are being caged in the desert for weeks at a time. I’d read that a concerned citizen had walked up and actually managed to talk to some of the people there for a good fifteen minutes before being shuffled off by border agents (www.texasmonthly.com/news/border-patrol-outdoor-detention-migrants-el-paso/amp/). Maybe we could do the same.

It wasn’t to be. Google maps tried to take us down a closed road, and in attempting to turn around, we ended up accidentally going the wrong way down a one-way street for a block, and were immediately stopped by the El Paso police. I babbled away at them sheepishly, and they let us off with a warning, but we were spooked. We got some great Mexican food, and then headed down to Clint.

The highway from El Paso to Clint, about a half hour to the southeast, winds along the Rio Grande. It was odd to look to the right and see the city of Juarez across the river, the mountains rising above it. Another world so close, walled off from our own.

Clint was a dusty little town, as ordinary as any of the others through which we’d passed. We got to the detention center around 7pm, the start time of a rally we’d learned about along the way. Again, we weren’t sure at first that we were in the right place. All we could see from the road was a very long fence topped with barbed wire, with beige privacy screening blocking the view beyond.

We parked on the street nearby and contemplated the large compound before us, then walked up. A sign at the front entrance showed us that we were indeed in the right place, though we were the only ones there. We took a couple pictures to mark our presence.

Just then, more people started arriving, fifteen or twenty in total. Opal attached the banner for Johana to the fence, and I stood by the road with my sign alongside others with their own. A number of people gave us those small, supportive honks as they passed. A few blasted longer, less friendly honks at us, with the occasional middle finger or shout.

We chatted with the folks around us. People had come from Philly, DC, New York, Denver, Seattle, fellow city dwellers who’d driven or flown here to the desert for the same reasons we had. There was a small crew present from the New York Times. You can see our backs in one of the pix that goes with their subsequent article, “Hungry, Scared and Sick: Inside the Migrant Detention Center in Clint, Tex.” (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/07/06/us/migrants-border-patrol-clint.html).

A border patrol bus passed in front of us, carrying five or six teenage boys. It turned the far corner of the compound and went to a gate, taking them inside. We all hurried to the fence, peering between the screens, and chanted “Estamos con los niños” — we are with the children. It hurt to know that it wasn’t really true, that nothing we were doing would take them away from this place.

Zack, the doctor and professor whom I mentioned earlier, gathered us up in a circle and read poetry into a small pink megaphone. At that point, some people had left, and there were only a dozen of us still on site. It struck me that, of the group, a full quarter of us were from Baltimore.

I sat before the banner for Johana and chanted the mourner’s Kaddish, the ancient Jewish prayer for the dead. And then the most striking thing happened. A young Latinx person came up to us. He said he’d stopped because he saw the flag of our people, something he’d never expected to see here. He’d read Johana’s story on his phone after pulling over, and wanted to stand with us for a minute.

The whole trip felt worth it for that moment. To give hope, solace, and support to one sibling.

With night falling, we headed back to New Mexico. Under the stars, we talked about what we were doing here, what it meant. We got philosophical. As a trans feminine and a trans masculine person, we represented a crossing of gender borders that in other times and places had been considered sacred, indispensable. As opponents of the intersecting discriminatory systems that rule our lives, we fought against the walls and borders of redlining and jails back home, barriers just as deadly and hateful as the ones we’d come to confront here.

Baltimore for Border Justice — in that moment, the phrase seemed to encapsulate the purpose of our very lives, everything we cared about from the most personal to the most universal (and after all, didn’t I start One Baltimore by talking about the border between the city and the county?). We decided to give the name to a new org, possibly to be incorporated as a non-profit, one we’d build upon our return. BFBJ would center the plight of the undocumented, the most deeply oppressed in the time of Trump, but would also focus on racial and gender justice, on mobility and accessibility, on liberation for all.

The next morning, before beginning the drive home, we detoured to the White Sands desert, a strange and magical place that hurt my eyes but revived my spirit. Opal had been there once before, many years ago, and we found a twisted but vigorous tree that she’d sat under then, the place she goes in her mind’s eye when she meditates.

Now we’re back. Now the real work begins, and we’re far from alone. Two nights after returning, we went to Real Talk Tho, The Real News Network’s monthly community conversation, this time focused on immigration policy (will be posted here at some point: https://therealnews.com/real-talk-tho). There we heard a lot of intense and useful things, and gained new local contacts and information. The following night, we went to the 310th #WestWednesday (protest/rally for Tyrone West and other victims of police brutality) to find Tawanda Jones talking about our journey, and encouraging us to come up to the mic to share more about it (thank you!!).

We have a lot of groundwork to lay, a lot of planning to do. One of our first big goals is to get a van and return to the border with a larger crew, with the mission of building awareness and solidarity. If you’d like to join us, chip in, be part of a benefit show, etc., you know where to find me.

We’re also looking more into what we can do here, maybe providing meals and rides to recently arrived migrants at the Greyhound station. If you have a little time, one way you can help right now, no special skills required, is by offering basic court support to detainees going through the legal system. Sanctuary Streets Baltimore is organizing this, sign up at http://www.shorturl.at/kEH69.

Special thanks to those who made this first trip possible!! Before we’d ever heard of a project like #CitizenPresence that’s helping pay people’s way, Jo, Bonnie, J.D., and Shanna sent us money for gas. Charles baked cookies for us, and Dusty helped get us on the road when car trouble seemed about to derail us. Miriam and Alice gave us valuable connections that served as our roadmap. Bethany gave us a bed on the way home, a true life-saver. Thank you, thank you.

Watch this space for more. We’re never giving in, we’re never giving up. We will all be free.

#OneBaltimore #BaltimoreForBorderJustice #BFBJ #FreeKeithDavisJr #JusticeForTyroneWest #WeAreAllSiblings

Cultural Event of the Week: Man, I sure do love all the weird, immersive shit The Peale Center’s been hosting lately, especially the stuff by Submersive Productions, LLC. “Altar Ego is a completely self-contained 45-60 minute multi-sensory experience for a group of up to five people. You are invited to a unique house party to learn more about your “model citizen” Vietnamese-American neighbor, and explore the boundaries between home and not home. There may be ghosts. (Actualized by Kim Le)”. 7/17, 7/20, 7/21.

http://www.facebook.com/events/463942940841842/

Green Event of the Week: On Wednesday, 7/17 at 6:30pm, the National Aquarium is hosting a lecture on youth climate activism by the high-school aged co-founder of Zero Hour, with other young organizers and activists from around the country in attendance. Rad! $15 non-members, $10 members.

https://www.aqua.org/Visit/Activity-Calendar/mlb-youth-climate-leaders

Song of the Week: “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” by K’naan, Snow Tha Product, Riz MC, and Residente

Somos como las plantas que crecen sin agua / Sin pasaporte Americano / Porque la mitad de gringolandia / Es terreno Mexicano / Hay que ser bien hijo e puta / Nosotros les sembramos el árbol y ellos se comen la fruta / Somos los que cruzaron / Aquí vinimos a buscar el oro que nos robaron

One Baltimore #9-B, Opal

7/10/19

Last week, I posted the first part of an interview with Opal Phoenix about her experiences with the JHU Sit-In this spring, in which she describes why and how she got involved. Below is the second part of that interview, covering two attacks on community and student activists.

If you’ve never experienced anything like this, it may sound a bit fantastical. I stand by this account — I have spoken to multiple people involved in each incident, have seen video evidence related to the first, and was present for part of the second. Previously, I omitted information about the attacks from my writings about the sit-in because I was told that it could complicate potential legal cases against the attackers. This concern has now been cleared up, and it’s a relief to be able to speak freely.

Read part one here: https://one-baltimore.org/2019/07/05/one-baltimore-9-a-opal/

Me: So these Hopkins cops are not just going to be patrolling around the students, but also would have jurisdiction over a certain number of blocks outside the campus. You’ve lived in this area, very close to the campus, for a very long time, this is your home. So this was very personal for you, you’re organizing with the students, and they move to take over the building.

Opal: Yeah, I was involved with the escalation. I knew it was dangerous but also I knew it was within the realm of historical civil disobedience.

Me: In this very building, even [https://twitter.com/ar_holter/status/1114972482266697735].

Opal: I left that night [May 1st, the night the students took over Garland Hall] when Tawanda Jones wanted someone to walk her to her car, and that’s when I ran into Tony Millon [this individual was unknown to Opal and the others at the time, but they found him on Facebook later], who was hanging out by the statue. He’s a bulky dude with a beard and a cap on his head. First he says “which side are you on?”, and we’re like, “Justice,” and then we said “No private police.” And he said “With all the rapes and murders in Baltimore City, you’re worried about the police?”

Me: Such a common sentiment.

Opal: One group was trying to talk to him, like “please leave us alone”, and another group keeps taking Tawanda to her car. I’m kind of in the middle of those two groups, unsure of what to do. I see he’s in my friend’s face and I hear him yell “Black on Black crime is the real problem in Baltimore City!” I stepped up to him a little bit briskly and was like “That’s racist!”

He sees me, gets this look of “Waaugh!” on his face, just surprise and anger, and he straight up punches me in the face. I fall to the ground and I look up and he’s fighting my friend. So I jumped up and hit him, and then a big scuffle happens and somehow he pushed his child into me or something and that’s when I backed up, like “oh my god, child.”

Me: So you’re first seeing the kid then? [Millon had his son with him, who appears ~10 years old]

Opal: Yeah, I was like “oh shit, child!” and the kid’s just like “let’s get out of here, let’s get out of here” and I’m like “yes please get out of here” and then he backs up. I see the light come on of his camera and he’s videotaping us.

Me: Right, he creates that weird video [since taken down].

Opal: He’s backing away, and he put that online like “antifa activists are violently attacking me” when literally we were just —

Me: He was the one punching.

Opal: There were punches in defense, I’ll own that, I fought back. Y’know how many times I’ve had men completely flip out on me because they realize I’m trans or some other reason and they feel like their masculinity is attacked? And he’s attacking my friend, so there were a few punches thrown, but at the point of him taking the video we were just like “please go.”

Me: Yeah, it was clear you were, like, herding him away without touching him at that point.

Opal: So that thing happened, and then the night of [the arrest, a week after the night just described], I was at my friend’s house and I see a big emergency post that they’re gonna shut down Garland Hall, so I went down to do support.

Me: Yeah, and I showed up around midnight, because I saw that same post. We saw each other, we hung out outside the building.

Opal: We’re sitting down and eating clementines, it was kind of a cute moment, I was like “this is really nice.”

Me: Yeah! I led some stretching exercises, it was actually a very chill atmosphere.

Opal: I was expecting it would just be a sort of hang out all night thing, wait for the cops to come if it happens. Hang out outside, the people in the building have control. I actually hadn’t really been in that building after they locked it down, I needed a break after the attack.

So I get there, we’re talking, and then I hear this scuffle. I turn around and I see a whole group of people pushing their way into the building. I didn’t know what was going on, so I come closer to see if I can help these people work this out. Then I hear scuffling down below and screaming, and I run down and that’s when I see [Daniel] Povey attacking [student activist, name redacted] with bolt cutters, and [redacted]’s holding onto the bolt cutters.

Me: Who’s Povey?

Opal: Povey is a professor at Hopkins.

Me: Whaaat?

Opal: He’s trying to claim right now that he was counter-protesting because his servers were in there. They got fried apparently, because the school, one of the ways they responded to the shut-down was to turn off the AC, which was very dangerous, really putting the kids’ lives in danger.

Me: Oh man, that would be such a weird addition to this plotline, so to speak, if his life’s work was on those servers and he lost it and attacked you guys.
Opal: That’s basically what they’re trying to claim. But it was obviously… he had like “liberalism is cancer” and other hateful signs.

Me: Wow.

Opal: Yeah. So it’s obvious that he was racist, to me, the way he came in and was attacking [redacted].

Me: Attacking in what way?

Opal: Like, coming at them with the bolt cutters, and [redacted] is holding them and they’re like struggling over them. I think he attacked [redacted] before I saw this too, that’s what [redacted] said, I didn’t witness that part.

Me: And Shawn Leak has attested to being attacked by him too.

Opal: Yeah. And also there was a man with Povey, a bigger white man who literally was punching students, and they have that on videotape. So I grab the bolt cutters and kind of do like a spin maneuver real fast and he let’s go, and with a bunch of people helped push him out of there, deescalated.

Me: And that’s where I can add to the narrative because I was outside the whole time. And I should say, there‘s gotta be at least 6 guards around the building, like 3 on each side, maybe more, on the south and north side. We’re on the west side of the building, that’s just sort of how we’ve congregated. And there’s also ones patrolling around, so this place is crawling with security, and we hear someone screaming inside, a young sounding voice.

We’re all tense, standing around, unsure of what to do, and a bunch of people come pushing out the doors. So it’s this moment you’re talking about, and not a single security guard comes around the corner to interact with this situation. Someone is screaming, a student is screaming, and they just completely ignore it, which is fascinating.

There’s people forming a chain at the door, blocking them, doing a really good job of non-violently keeping these older-looking people from getting back in. Then they [the intruders] sort of set themselves up and start repeating lines in a really weirdly scripted way.

One woman is trying to push back in the building, saying “that’s my baby daddy, that’s my baby daddy.” Another woman is leaning in the doorway sort of blocking the door from being able to be closed without hitting her, saying “you can’t touch me, I’m not touching nobody.” And a guy is standing off to the side, sort of gesturing at the woman who’s trying to push in, saying “back off, she’s pregnant yo.” And they just kept repeating these things, so people are filming but it’s like any moment that you catch on camera that can be edited down to a short video will show something that could look very bad.

Opal: Interesting

Me: More people come out and successfully herd them away, and those of us who were outside, we follow up behind them, like, ok, we’re extra layers blocking these people.

Opal: That woman might’ve been pregnant though. She looked like a woman I saw down in the park, like she was staying there.

Me: I gotta say, whatever this means exactly, they looked homeless.

Opal: Well they were. And they were actually paid by Povey.

Me: Wow.

Opal: Yeah, when people were walking them out, they admitted to being paid. I swear, this man just hired extremely vulnerable people and put them in this fucked up situation. It upsets me because I do a lot of work helping people in these positions, and I’ve been homeless, and it just… it’s disgusting, it’s like bum fights.

Me: Absolutely. No regard for people’s safety, because you know they’ll do whatever you tell them if you have the money.

Opal: Yeah. It was really intense and it’s along the lines of what I’ve read about with the history of Hopkins protests.

Me: And the history of protests in this country in general. People are sent in to disrupt. Talk about paid protesters, there’s much more of a history of paid counter-protesters and infiltrators and people fomenting violence and attacking protest, and that’s what that was.

Opal: A protest where literally all they want is a meeting with President Ron Daniels.

Me: Yeah, and once or twice he’s like “We can do it but it has to be tomorrow morning and you don’t have time to tell anybody!” and they’re like “How about we look at other dates in a few days,” and he’s like “no, no meeting!”

I think it’s important to recognize, for people who might not be as familiar with this situation, that he is doing these extremely transparent, half-assed attempts to manipulate the narrative. If all you’re hearing is that Daniels offered to meet with the students and they turned down that meeting, that’s not technically wrong but it’s an incredible mischaracterization.

Opal: Yeah he does not come in good faith at all. What I’ve gained from this whole experience is an understanding that I’m terrified of Hopkins having a police force.

There’s a story I didn’t tell you about. Back in the early days when they first enforced the whole ID thing, I come in and there’s a student who’s a woman of color and she’s like “hey, they’re not going to let you past them without your ID but you don’t really have to do that anyways. Here’s this flower, I’ll give it to them and you can go past.” When I walked past her, the guard grabbed her by her arm and wouldn’t let her go. Then Isaac yells in the manliest voice possible “get off of her!” and the guy let’s go. He attacked her basically, and that was one of the only incidents I know of where the guards attacked anyone, so the big story there is that students of color –

Me: Students of color are targeted, and that’s why they led the sit-in to be a shut-down.

Opal: Yeah. They chose to shut it down.

Me: That’s what you say in the streets, right, “No justice, no peace, if we don’t get it shut it down,” and the question is, do you mean it or not? What does that look like, to shut something down? This is what it looks like. You can’t occupy something without causing disruption.

*

And that, along with part one, covers about an hour’s worth of conversation between Opal and myself. We actually need to sit down again to cover the thing I wanted to talk about in the first place — the police raid on the sit-in (which occurred just a couple hours after the attack by Povey) and her experience being held in Central Booking. You’d think we’d have had plenty of opportunity to do so on our recent trip to the border, but that was very intense in its own right, and I wanted to wait until a calmer time to grill her further about that traumatic experience.

That being the case, I think the next column will be about our trip… both what happened, and how the issue of border justice connects both philosophically and materially to our struggles here at home… and after that we’ll return to wrap up (for now) the saga of the sit-in.

Tonight, please join us at Greenmount & 33rd at 6:30pm for #WestWednesday, a weekly ongoing protest/vigil for Tyrone West and other victims of police brutality! A serious presence is especially needed now, as one of Tyrone’s killers, Officer Nicholas Chapman, has been seen stalking the protest in recent weeks.

And this Friday, please, please, please be aware that Keith Davis Jr.’s fifth trial for a crime he didn’t commit is starting at the downtown courthouse. If you can make it out to witness for even a single day over the course of the trial (which is likely to be about a month), it would be huge. Thank you to Baltimore Bloc for organizing court support for him, they have all the answers you might want in terms of how to show up and what to expect. https://www.facebook.com/events/281353249417978/

#OneBaltimore #NoPrivatePolice #JusticeForTyroneWest #FreeKeithDavisJr #BaltimoreForBorderJustice

Cultural Event of the Week: A bunch of bands are playing at Ottobar tomorrow night, 7/11, including one of my local faves, Snakefeast. What’s their music like? Hard to describe… hard-on-the-throat doom vocals, killer percussion, a saxophone… I remember, once when I was listening to them play at a show, I closed my eyes and imagined some leathery prehistoric beast soaring above a desert canyon… it’s like that, surreal and haunting and threatening but beautiful.

https://www.facebook.com/events/429049867677239/

Green Event of the Week: Time to learn about the birds and the bees! This Sunday, the Friends of German Park in Reservoir Hill, Reservoir Hill Improvement Council, and St. Francis Neighborhood Center are hosting a bird banding demo, with an optional part where you get to paint and take home a bee hotel. Support citizen science and conservation in a lovely little tucked away neighborhood space.

https://www.facebook.com/events/514005135806433

Song of the Week: “Tear Me Down” by Hedwig and the Angry Inch

I was born on the other side / Of a town ripped in two / I made it over the great divide / Now I’m coming for you / Enemies and adversaries / They try and tear me down / You want me, baby, I dare you / Try and tear me down

Photo: Opal in the White Sands desert of New Mexico last week, just before we headed back home from our trip to the border. It was a very healing place (tho it hurt my eyes… gotta bring sunglasses next time), and was exactly what we needed.