Hey folks! Very sorry for not sharing this info sooner, I posted on Facebook but forgot to make the update here. I’ve got a new policy — if I’m going to be out of town (or opening a show) for 3+ days in a given week, I’m announcing at least a delay. Considering that I spent the last three days at a wedding in the woods (it was so beautiful ;_;), and I’ve been playing catch up for weeks now, just straight up taking a week off for the first time seemed wise. Thanks for your patience.
So, Opal, how was getting arrested? Pretty cool overall, or dehumanizing and in flagrant violation of BPD’s policy which the The Baltimore Transgender Alliance and other advocates worked tirelessly to put into place (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1EZ9L5zm90a3vU2CI7dL7w66rKtChOu77/view?usp=drivesdk)? This week, the fourth and final part of my interview series with Opal Phoenix on her experiences at the JHU Sit-In.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and privacy.
Opal: They put us all in handcuffs. Everyone starts screaming “Opal!” and I’m like “Oh my god.” Jamie Grace Alexander was there, I could see her jumping up and down. It was very beautiful, honestly, to have my community sending me love as I was getting dragged out of this building. They took me to the van with the men and at this point, I’m afraid to be out to these police because of experiences friends of mine have had with police violence, so I’m being very quiet.
They asked me my name and I said [deadname redacted]. But I could hear everyone shouting “she’s a woman, she’s a woman.”
Abby: Ahh, so that’s not necessarily even the choice you were trying to make in that moment, to be out.
Opal: Yeah, I was afraid, honestly, I was afraid of being put in exclusion.
Abby: Ah, rather than putting you in with one side of their population or the other, they’re like “you’re just in solitary the entire time.”
Opal: With my friends, I have the protection of people being a witness. If I’m alone, that’s a higher incidence of police violence. As a child I was placed by my abusive father into a youth jail and spent time in solitary confinement. Over silly things, like a homework thing, I didn’t know what schoolwork I was supposed to do.
Abby: Jesus. How old were you at the time?
Opal: Sixteen. All of this was in my mind before we got arrested, that I’m going to be facing this childhood fear of mine.
Abby: This was your first arrest as an adult?
Opal: Yeah. They take me in the van with the men down to the police station and we’re waiting in a line, and we just stood there for thirty minutes. We’re trying to be light-humored about it, really feeling the intensity of what we just went through.
I get in, they pat me down, I go through that. Then I go and talk to a doctor. The doctor’s asking me what medications I’m on, so I told him “My hormones.” He’s like “What is that?” and I’m like “It’s hormones… for gender dysphoria.” And he’s like “What does gender dysphoria mean?” and I’m like “Uh, I’m transgender. And I’d like to be in a women’s space, I just wanted to talk to someone who was not a cop first, y’know?”
He just kind of ignored that. He got really weird about it, awkward. Then he processed me through, and I went to the next place, which was an interrogation room. There were two men, male detectives, and they had me strip down to my underwear. I didn’t have a bra on, and they’re just looking at me like “What the fuck?” I had to then explain to them that I’m transgender. They’re like “what’s going on with your body” —
Abby: Because you have tits.
Opal: Yeah. They kept calling me “a transgender”, like “Apparently they’re a transgender”. They’re kinda leering at me the whole time. I just felt so, so exposed.
They’re picking through my medications and they’re like “Oh, good thing these aren’t expired because we’d throw them away,” acting like they wanted to throw them away. Then they wouldn’t let me wear the clothes I was going to wear because one had an internal bra and the other was a hoodie, I guess, and the guy was acting like he was just going to put me out in the population without a shirt on. But then they gave me this giant Mountain Dew t-shirt.
Opal: Then they walked me up to a bench and cuffed me to that. A woman was processing my address and I had to tell her I’m homeless. Then she was like “You don’t look like a transgender,” and I’m just like…
Abby: Ma’am, please don’t.
Opal: Yeah. Like, geez. Thanks. Hi.
At some point I was trying to keep it light, I made a joke like “I’ve got a get out of jail free card in my back pocket,” I don’t know, I was pleased with myself at the time. Then a man comes up to me and says you have two choices, one you can get put in solitary, or two you can go in with the men. I ask him, will I be with other people in the population outside of my friend group? He says they can’t guarantee, and I’m like… actually, just put me in solitary.
And then they didn’t put me in solitary, they put me in with my friends in the first cell, but then in the next cell it was with other people in the men’s population. My friends were really awesome, they had my back and kept it light. Everybody called me [deadname redacted] while we were in there and we just kind of laid low and rode it through.
We just kept waiting. I remember I took a nap for a while. I wake up and they’re like “Hey, you’re all leaving” and I was like “What, don’t we have to go through the magistrate first?”
Abby: It’s been like twelve hours total at that point?
Opal: It was around 4pm. We come out and literally all of our friends are out there doing jail support, cheering for us.
Everyone gives us big hugs and there’s community all around me, there’s cigarettes. And we all just stayed there. We got a group together and people talked about their experiences, we talked about the attacks, that was when we really first processed all the stuff that had been going on, and we decided to do a march around the jail for Keith Davis, Jr. You were there for this, right?
Abby: Yeah, it was a West Wednesday, I came straight from work. It was a really good one [wrote a little about it here: https://one-baltimore.org/2019/05/16/one-baltimore-2-waves/%5D.
Opal: It was so powerful to go into jail, have Marilyn Mosby let us out, and instead of being like “Thank you, Mosby,” we point out that Keith Davis, Jr. she still keeps in prison, to point out that privilege. And then to march around the jail —
Abby: — yelling that we’re going to see the walls come down!
Opal: That day was so intense. It was the same time period that the Mayor stepped down, May Day, the whole city gets hacked. It was so strange for me, it was like I came out of this jail and the whole city’s a different city. And to be out with so much support and love. As a white person, I try to be supportive and stay in the background more, but at the same time, I’m glad that it’s been reported that a trans woman resisted this oppression.
Abby: All sorts of papers were writing about it.
Opal: That was also a very intense thing for me to go through –
Abby: Like, “Now I’m VERY out.”
Opal: Trying not to read the comments…
Abby: Oh god.
Opal: I’m on the street a lot and now I’m also a public persona. Now when I walk in the area around Hopkins campus, the guards are all like “It’s you!” They don’t say anything but I see it, and I spend a lot of time there. I hang out at the park. It’s very intense to A) be trans and homeless and very not in control of your life sometimes and B) be in the public eye. Obviously I’m not a celebrity or anything, but in this town…
Abby: It’s a small town. And now, instead of security guards, it’s going to be armed people with police powers who can do whatever they want. And again, I think people need to realize, one of the officers responsible for the death of Tyrone West was a Morgan State police officer. A university police officer was one of the people who committed this killing.
That’s why they’re part of this national coalition of campuses across the country, that’s why it’s completely illegitimate to try to exclude community members from this decision-making, because it’s the power of life and death over Tyrone West, it’s the power of life and death over you, and over anybody who wanders too close to their border.
Opal: People live right in the Hopkins bubble. I have friends, people living in Wyman Park, who are wonderful people who don’t deserve to be in the situation they are, and I worry about police, armed police kicking them out.
Abby: Yeah, they don’t even have to attack them physically to terrorize them and fuck up their lives.
Opal: Right now, the Hopkins guards aren’t allowed to be like “get out of here”, but –
Abby: — vagrancy is illegal.
Opal: It changes the dynamic. The guards go from a force of helping people to being a prosecution force that can arrest you, put you in jail.
Abby: Or kill you with no consequences.
Opal: When’s the Hopkins jail gonna be here?
Opal: I have a friend who, right after this incident, wanted to have me stay with them. They were going through a surgery, I was going to help them recover and take care of their dog, but it was in the Hopkins bubble. All the guards are kind of set up on a grid, right? Well it just so happens that two of the guards are posted right outside of my friend’s house every day.
So I went to go visit my friend after all this, and after I leave the guards started harassing them and blocking their path, messing with them. And I recognize those guards. I ended up not doing that for my friend, I didn’t want them to be targeted. I know I’m not the only one who’s finding it hard to exist, all eyes on you because Hopkins is angry at you.
Abby: And meanwhile they’re stuffing their pockets with millions of dollars of ICE money! Fucking ICE… no, you’re traitors to humanity at that point, and that’s what I think of Johns Hopkins University administration at this point. JHU as an institution, full of amazing students and cool teachers, does a lot of interesting and important things –
Opal: I’ve met some amazing people from Hopkins! Even though I’m fighting this thing that’s destroying my neighborhood through gentrification and violence, I found a lot of beautiful people there. I think it’s a struggle we can win, if we can build a city-wide movement of students, get them working together with unions and local activists, we can really build a coalition.
Abby: THAT would be Hopkins being a force of good in Baltimore. And it’s within reach, but I don’t know how you pry out somebody like a [JHU President] Ron Daniels. If anyone is reading this who can fire Ron Daniels, please do so! Can’t hurt to put it out there.
Anyway, I’m so, so glad about how it turned out. You took a risk and it worked out. Mosby could’ve made a different political calculus.
Opal: This also showed me who was good in the city, too. Like, [City Council Member] Zeke Cohen called me after all that and apologized on behalf of the city about how I was misgendered. That is meaningful.
Abby: I really do appreciate that. Somebody in the city has to say that it’s not ok when BPD does something wrong. Yeah, we may not really control this agency and everybody knows that, but we still have to take some accountability and point it out and talk about it.
Weird to end my interview with my friend the anarchist by praising a politician, but there you have it! Thank you so much for following along on this journey. I really didn’t expect it to take this long, but there’s so much story here. And I only looked at one slim slice of it, through one person’s eyes.
Here’s a fun update — Daniel Povey, the professor who attacked the sit-in, was fired, woo! https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/08/12/johns-hopkins-fires-professor-over-clash-student-protesters-he-says-he-has-no
And as a reminder, the sit-in achieved its goal of open dialogue with the Hopkins administration! Both students and community members are welcomed this Thursday evening: https://www.facebook.com/events/2486769098245718
Cultural Event of the Week: Rahne Alexander is releasing her first book, “Heretic to Housewife”, a collection of essays that’s already winning awards! Rahne is one of the founders of the Charm City Kitty Club, that theater group I talk about from time to time, and is just an amazing artist and person overall. This Thursday at Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse.
Green Event of the Week: This Saturday night, Guerrilla Theatre Front presents the Garbage Bag Ball at Creative Labs, which aims “to show the ways we can all have an impact on a better ecological future – and have fun & party, too!!”
Song of the Week: “Protest Song” by April Maze
No, it’s not too late / No time to hesitate / I said it’s not too late / I said are you sick and tired / Of being taught these lies / Come join our hands / And together we rise / Sometimes you gotta make a sacrifice
Come with me once more, friends, to the JHU Sit-in. It’s 4am on Wednesday, May 8th, 2019. The sounds are those of spirited singing, hushed talk, passionate chanting, and breaking glass.
A refresher: Johns Hopkins University succeeded this year in its bid to pass legislation empowering it to form its own private police force. In reaction to this move, as well as to the fact that Hopkins has millions of dollars of contracts with U.S. Immigrations & Customs Enforcement, students staged a sit-in at the campus’s main administration building in early April.
Their demand was simple – a meeting with university president Ron Daniels to discuss their concerns. He refused. They stayed put.
As the weeks went on, the sit-in movement proved itself. Over 100 faculty members signed a letter supporting them, and other university groups from around the country pledged their solidarity. The students held meditation sessions, dance parties, yoga classes, game nights, workshops, and more. Community members, also angered and concerned by Hopkins’ actions, began to join in.
Notably, the community support for the sit-in included the West Coalition, led by Tawanda Jones in her quest for justice for her brother Tyrone West, who was killed by police during a traffic stop in 2013. One of those involved in his death was a Morgan State University officer. The sit-in added justice for Tyrone to their list of priorities.
On May 1st, the members of the sit-in escalated their protest. Without causing damage to either property or people, they barred the doors, refusing to allow the Hopkins’ administrators back in to their offices without a meeting. Rather than acquiesce, one week later, on the night with which this week’s column is concerned, the administration sent in the Baltimore Police Department, which swarmed the building and arrested the five people who were inside at the time.
One of those arrested was my friend Opal Phoenix. We spoke last month about why she got involved in the sit-in (https://one-baltimore.org/2019/07/05/one-baltimore-9-a-opal/) and two violent attacks on the protesters (https://one-baltimore.org/2019/07/10/one-baltimore-9-b-opal/). She sat down with me again this weekend to finish the story.
The interview below is lightly edited for length and clarity.
Abby: We’re finally going to talk about the subject I originally wanted to interview you about! Thank you again very much for your time. Where we left off is there had been a rumored police raid on the sit-in, a bunch of people had come out, there had been a physical attack on the students by a Hopkins professor and what we believe were homeless people who were paid.
So it’s been a crazy night, and the information was “go ahead and go home, everyone needs to get some sleep, we don’t know if this [the police raid] is happening or when it’s happening,” so I left. But you stayed in the building with the students, what was that like?
Opal: After the attacks, I was so full of emotion and trying to stay calm. We were trying to get the students who didn’t feel safe out of the building. There was a call for less marginalized people, like literally “white men hold the doors.” And I felt like, as someone who has been through intense situations before, that I should stay there regardless of my identity. Also, I was just so overcome with the brutality of what everyone faced that I wanted to make sure this story was told. That we didn’t just get out of there and there’s no call for accountability, no meeting, no nothing.
We are at the table now. Ron Daniels has finally started accepting meetings, there’s going to be open community meetings about this.
Abby: I saw that! Which was a real bone of contention from what I understand – if it’s a student-only situation or if, because they’re also policing the community, the community should have a say.
Opal: If you’re a community member, look into the Hopkins meetings and come to those, we need to hear from you. [The first of these meetings is on Thursday, 8/15: https://www.facebook.com/events/2486769098245718]
Abby: I forget how many blocks out from the campus their policing is going to extend, I know it’s the whole perimeter.
Opal: Yeah so I just felt, as someone who’s an experienced activist, I guess —
Abby: You are.
Opal: — that I should hold it down. It was a long night, hanging out, telling stories, being nervous, hearing rumors about “ooh are the police coming, are they not coming.” I’m grappling with the fact that I’m trans and I’m going to face arrest purposefully. We all kind of sat in Garland Hall, all five of us, singing protest songs.
Abby: Aw! [singing] “Do you hear the people sing”
Opal: [singing] “Solidarity forever, solidarity forever”
Abby: That’s lovely.
Opal: We sang all sorts of songs and chanted the names of victims of police brutality. We were unsure if the police were coming, but then we saw them out there, they put up barricades. Eventually we kind of heard them megaphone’ing at us but we couldn’t hear what they were saying.
Abby: [singing] “You at the barricade listen to this!”
Opal: [Student, name redacted] was livestreaming, it’s public.
Let’s pause the interview now and look to the video (https://www.facebook.com/TheGarlandSitIn/videos/2014914772148503/), which shows the hour before and during the arrest. We watched it together and I took notes, rather than making Opal recount the whole thing herself.
Below is a selection of quotes and moments, timestamped so you can find them yourself if you like. Because Facebook displays the time remaining rather than the time elapsed in their videos, that’s how I’ve done my annotation.
Video opens with Assata Shakur poems. Someone says “I love you all,” multiple voices echo back the sentiment. The students recount why they’re there and what’s happened so far.
1:12:42 Reflecting on the response of the university.
“They are so deeply afraid, the administration, and what are they afraid of? They’re afraid of their own conscience. They’re afraid of their complicity in this violence, they’re afraid of being on the wrong side of history, which they are, which they are proving tonight in their actions.”
“…we’ve been disgusted by the form of democracy that this university thinks it’s taking part in, through lobbying, through large donations that amount to bribery and corruption, throughout this city. This is not what democracy looks like, Johns Hopkins. Your form of democracy, what you claim to be an open conversation and democratic process, that is lies. That is lies. And instead we are here showing you what democracy looks like. Democracy looks like community members showing up for one another. We are all part of this community. We are all residents of Baltimore.”
1:05:03 “These last five weeks of my life have been an honor, y’all, thank you.” “Yeah, thank you.” “There’s no way I’d rather end it.” “Yeah, same.”
“It has been beautiful in this space, not only have we protested these forms of violence, but we’ve created the community we’ve wanted to see. We’ve created this space of mutual learning, protecting one another.”
“What’s going to be important now is for other people to pick this up and continue the struggle. I mean, if this space is closing down and it’s no longer the front line, people are going to need to extend that and carry this forward.”
“Remember what our comrades were saying the other day. In 1986, when this building was occupied in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, they didn’t win their demands until a year after the fact. This is not the end, this is the beginning.”
“We’re standing on the shoulders of other people in the unbroken chain of resistance, not to mix my metaphors.”
59:35 Singing a Spanish revolution song.
57:27 Singing “We Shall Overcome.”
53:52 Singing “Solidarity Forever.”
49:43 “They’re telling everyone outside to evacuate, they’re securing their personal property for quote unquote public safety. We know, of course, that the language of public safety and health has been used since the beginning of the sit-in, and abused and weaponized against the sit-in. And of course, we are also demanding health and public safety. We are demanding health and public safety for the brown and Black community members, on and off campus who will be most affected by this private police force. We are demanding public health and safety concerns to be issued towards the immigrants affected by ICE in this country at its borders, even beyond its borders.”
“We had entered into pre-negotiations, we had entered into discussing what it would take to sit down and have a conversation, and in the midst of that, they broke trust. They were so afraid of speaking to the protesters, of speaking to their own students, that instead they sent in the Baltimore Police Department to arrest them in the middle of the night, when they thought no one was watching, when they thought no one would be here.”
42:28 Showing the list of who opposes the JHU private police force, plus Ron Daniels’ salary information.
41:50 Greeting supporters outside, through the glass doors. “We love our community support, these are students, these are community members, these are staff members and TA’s.”
40:58 Showing off the “Caffeinations & Reparations” sign at the coffee station.
38:10 Looking at signs and art, and at the community library that protesters created with poetry and abolitionist writings. Guitar in the background.
34:37 Talking about the gender neutral signs they placed on the bathrooms. “We’ve faced transphobic violence. We had a counter-protester rip down these very signs and replace them with bible verses. There was a transphobic white supremacist counter protester who punched one of our members.”
32:03 Reviewing the Community Agreements posted on the wall.
25:13 Beating on door outside. Sounds of breaking glass. Singing, “Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?”
The police are cutting through the first set of doors.
“That door’s not locked” “Should we tell them?” “They’re breaking through an unlocked door right now.” “Don’t tell them!” “This is why we don’t need police.” “Who’s destroying property now, guys?” “They could literally walk through that door.” “We should charge them with conspiracy to riot!” “What are y’all doing??”
The singing rises. There is passionate yelling as the second set of doors are cut open — “We have nothing to lose but our chains!”
20:35 The police enter, with a cameraman. Protesters chanting, “No justice, no peace, no private police! No justice, no peace, no ICE in our streets!” One officer is speaking into a loudspeaker, presumably ordering the protesters to disperse, but he’s not particularly audible over the chanting.
19:08 A man in professional clothing – the vice-president of the university? – speaks into the megaphone, but he is also mostly inaudible. Protesters recount their grievances. Chants of “Shame!”
16:00 Protesters read off the names of people killed by police as the police mill around. Chanting can also be heard outside.
13:35 A police officer hands out packets listing the charges against the protesters.
6:20 The last warning to disperse is given by the police. Protesters chant, “No fear, no hate, we’ll leave when they negotiate!”
3:25 Chanting of Black Lives Matter, very loud and emotional. Police officer tells them they have amnesty and that they can just walk away if they want to leave. One leaves, the rest stay.
2:02 An officer says “You all made a statement, you’ve done a great… you made a statement. You made a statement.”
The video ends with the police cuffing the protesters.
This Sunday, the Hopkins Coalition Against ICE, along with many partners, including Never Again Action, are holding an action to #CloseTheCamps on the Jewish day of mourning of Tisha B’Av — https://www.facebook.com/events/463899701075235/
On Monday, we’ll go back to the interview and look at Opal’s experience being held in men’s prison.
Cultural Events of the Week: Can’t believe — OK I can — that the owners of the Eagle are firing all their staff AGAIN. I don’t know many details, but this is no way to treat employees or the community. The staff have organized a blowout series of events this Friday-Sunday with REALLY good drink deals and a raffle to benefit those about to be unemployed.
Oooh, AND it’s AFRAM this weekend! One of the largest African-American festivals on the east coast, in Druid Hill Park, full of entertainers and activities, and it’s FREE!
Green Event of the Week: Have you heard about the Cherry Hill Food Co-op? They’re working for healthy food access in south Baltimore, with the goal of establishing a member-owned and community-controlled grocery store. Tomorrow afternoon, Saturday 8/10, Sache Jones is giving an outdoor cooking session to support the co-op, in partnership with Black Yield Institute and the Cherry Hill Urban Garden. Learn, cook, eat, socialize!
Song of the Week: “Upon These Stones” by Claude-Michel Schönberg (Les Miserables soundtrack)
Now we pledge ourselves to hold this barricade / Let them come in their legions and they will be met / Have faith in yourselves and don’t be afraid / Let’s give ’em a screwing they’ll never forget! / This is where it begins / And if I should die in the fight to be free / Where the fighting is hardest, there will I be / Let them come if they dare, we’ll be there!
Hey hey hey, apologies for the short notice, but One Baltimore will be delayed this week. I’m on vacation with a bunch of cool people, including some of my very favorite people, and I’m not trying to rush out an underwhelming piece when I’m meant to be relaxing.
I’m real excited about the piece this week tho!! Opal and I finished talking about the arrests at the JHU Sit-in, I just need to type it all up. Not sure if I need one day or a couple days, but I’m very much looking forward to sharing.
In other news, tomorrow at 9am, the City Council will have its first meeting on Councilman Bill Henry’s bill to ban a lot of types of carryout plastic bags in Baltimore City (www.facebook.com/events/2516457541919530). I know it sounds like a small step in some ways and like a big change in others, that it’s easy to see it as not enough or too much.
My take is that we must, we must, we must move past single-use petroleum-based products. It’s not optional We are not the first people to take steps like this, we survived fine without these bags before, they’re clogging our waterways, contributing to climate change, and are a ridiculous, ugly, unhealthy, unsustainable waste. A successful local bill could help pave the way for state action and more.
The writers have worked hard to balance this bill to be fair to small businesses and people on govt benefits, and to protect safety in terms of like raw meat and such. So, if you can, please consider stopping by the hearing and writing to your Council rep. It makes a difference. Thx!
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!
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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