One Baltimore #19, The Accused

9/23/19

“I wouldn’t raise cockroaches in that place. I preferred working at the animal and medical waste facility. I recall everything being grimy, it was all under-lit… can a building be malevolent? Like, can a building hate you?

Just being in it made me tired in my soul. The inmates are hostile, and the guards have this air of malice, indifference, and contempt. And then you have the building itself, which is ancient and run-down. Where it’s lit well, it’s harsh fluorescent, but mostly it’s dim.

It’s just an aggregate of misery, despair, a melange of human suffering. I hated it, I hated being there, I hate driving by it… I avoid that block whenever possible. It’s a storage facility for humans that we don’t want to think about.

I’ve been in a juvenile facility in PA as an inmate, and I did work for a county facility, and in both of those cases, it was still an institution, but they were both cleaner, less oppressive in a medieval sort of way. They were places you sent and housed people, not an oubliette.”

— My friend J, who did camera maintenance at Central Booking through a contractor.

In September 2018, Shawn Leak was accused of a non-violent robbery and charges were filed. Shawn was dismissed from a job around that time but didn’t know why. They got a new job, only to be fired once again in February of this year, which was when they learned about the charges. This month, over a year later, the charges were dismissed when the accuser failed to produce evidence they’d claimed to have.

Was Shawn innocent or guilty? They’re my friend and they say they didn’t do it, but I’m not actually speaking to that question. Instead, I want to look at what they experienced simply facing an accusation.

In many ways, when it comes to Baltimore’s criminal justice machine, this is a non-story. Shawn wasn’t beaten, held for months, forced to scrape up exorbitant bail, or anything like that. They just took a stroll through the system. And yet, when they told me about it, I could see the visceral horror that the memories elicited. Below is our interview, edited for length and clarity.

*

Shawn: My name is Shawn Leak, I’m 27 years old. I guess if I had to give myself a title, I’d say that I’m a community-building activist, organizer, and artist. I come from Washington, DC, I rep my city wherever I am, and I’ve been living in Baltimore for a little over a year now.

Abby: How’s it treating you?

Shawn: It’s been an interesting little rollercoaster… Baltimore is slowly but surely growing on me.

Abby: I’m glad to hear that! I wanted to talk about your experience going through Central Booking. It’s just such a dark and traumatizing place from everything I’ve heard, and I wanna get more people to look at that. So… what was it about?

Shawn: Long story short, I got caught up in some mistaken identity stuff. There was a warrant out for my arrest that affected my employment. After months of trying to figure out a way of rectifying the situation without turning myself in, because I have solid proof that it wasn’t me, I just gave up and was like, “You know what, fuck it, if this is the process I have to go through, I’m gonna have to go through it.”

I willingly turned myself in, and surprisingly, I had an easier time than I know the average person has. The officers that I was interacting with, they were kind of like, “Damn, sorry you gotta go through this…” But still, yeah, it’s a shitty-ass, unnecessary-ass process, it just… it fucking sucks, man.

Abby: So what was the process?

Shawn: I had to turn myself in to the district where the warrant was issued, and then they took me to Central Booking. From the moment I was in the paddy wagon, “UGH, germs!” ’cause I’m sitting in this metal box and I’m seeing blood smears —

Abby: Oh!

Shawn: — on the chairs and stuff across from me. I’m like “Y’all don’t clean shit out, no? Y’all just leaving DNA, ok… germs…” So, the whole ride, I’m like, “I wonder what other bodily fluids I’m sitting in!”

Abby: Are you shackled at this time?

Shawn: Yeah, I have flexie cuffs on, ’cause like I said, they were kinda sympathetic, and I was like, “Yo, can I not have the bracelets…” And I know, especially as a Black queer person, that is not typical whatsoever, but thank god, that was my experience.

Abby: Was that the first time you’d been arrested?

Shawn: Yeah, as an adult, as something not attached to activism. So, we get to Central Booking, and then, while we had to wait for the guards to come and open two sets of jail doors, that’s when it got real to me —

Abby: “Oh shit, I’m going inside.”

Shawn: I’m going to jail and it’s not just gonna be some quick… when those first set of metal door closed behind me, I’m like… fuck, I’m going through this for realsies, I don’t have a whole team of people —

Abby: — waiting outside to bail you out.

Shawn: Right. At this point, nobody knew, because I got up one morning and I was like “fuck it, let me take care of this shit.” I didn’t realize that I was gonna have to go through the entire process.

Abby: Ohhh, you thought it was maybe gonna be more like a paperwork situation…

Shawn: Yeah, or I thought at the most it would be a quick in and out.

Abby: So the doors close, now you’re inside.

Shawn: Yeah, and I can’t even explain it… you walk in and you’re aware of the cameras, you’re aware of these thick-ass metal doors, you’re aware that you literally cannot go any-fucking-where or do any-fucking-thing without being told. If you had any hope of having some type of freedom in any part of this process prior to then, all that shit was just stripped the fuck away.

You have people who are not all there mentally for various reasons, whether they are off their psych meds, whether they are off of their drug maintenance meds, whether they are withdrawing, it’s just so much going on! And then you got people like myself who are just like… I just gotta go through this process.

It’s crowded, it’s loud, and then the first cell I was put in was, like, seven of us, and it was an interesting bunch, it was like all of those different types of people that I just described in one little tiny… probably, my room [where we were conducting the interview] was definitely bigger —

Abby: Oh shit, this is not a large bedroom as they go. You can stretch your legs out a little bit, but —

Shawn: Not in that holding cell… so yeah, you have this one lady passed out, and you could tell she’s homeless or whatever, and then she’s also high out of her fucking mind and is like, withdrawing and shit, she’s wrapped around the base of the toilet, just passed out. And her body odor, it was a lot. And then you’ve got her friend who is slouched, taking up literally an entire section of the only seating area along the wall and I’m like yo, can you watch your feet, I don’t want to have to hit you out of reflex because your dirty ass feet touch me ’cause you shifting in your sleep, like why you even stretched out, people are trying to sit down.

Abby: So it’s not ringed with benches so everyone can sit…

Shawn: No, no, it’s very cramped, it’s like you get in where you fit in. And then it’s freezing fucking cold, which kinda thank god, because, uh, germs every-fucking-where, but also, you look up and you see the ventilation, and nah, cold air is not a saving grace because it’s filtrated through wads of toilet paper and jail toilet water that has been thrown up there to stop the air flow… so yeah, like, germs… germs!! Germs. I was literally sitting like [holds body tightly], “Don’t touch me, I won’t touch you, if it’s anything other than my person it belongs to this facility, I don’t want it any more. I’m gonna burn these clothes once I get out of here!”

After umpteen fucking hours, and maybe three rounds of the holding cell shuffle, I finally see the first Commissioner.

Abby: How long do you think it had been at this point?

Shawn: There’s no window, if your cell ends up somewhere not near a clock, then you can’t tell what time it is. I feel like a good five or so hours? They had just finished up lunch when I had got there, there was a few leftovers they were able to give me.

Abby: What was it they give you?

Shaw: You get four slices of bread. I wouldn’t call it bread but they call it bread. It was just the driest… I could karate chop it, like hi-ya, crack. A tube of this thick-ass peanut butter and a tube of some thick-ass strawberry jam, and both the jam and the peanut butter are super cold, so yeah, how are you spreading that on this damn near crumby bread. And then, they have this little snack-sized package of dry sunflower seed kernels with like regular table salt just sitting in the bottom of the bag. You get one little kindergarten carton of orange drink.

Abby: And after five hours, you get to see a Commissioner?

Shawn: Yes, and this first Commissioner literally just asked me if I wanted a public defender or not. I waited five hours for someone in business casual attire to ask me if I wanted a public defender or not and process the paperwork. I waited five hours for that.

I went back and I didn’t see the next Commissioner until two or three o’clock in the morning. I briefed my public defender on the situation. You’re sitting in this little box, there’s plexiglass between you. They’re sitting in their office and you’re on the jail side, and they speak to you through the intercom, they ask you two or three questions.

She went over my information and was like “Since my client has turned themselves in, we’re asking for them to be let out on their own recognizance until the trial date,” and of course the Commissioner had no other choice because I don’t have a previous record. But yeah, I turned myself in at nine o’clock in the morning, and I did not finish that entire process of being through Central Booking until five or six in the morning the next day.

Abby: And you’re still in limbo?

Shawn: Yeah, there’s this process where you have to check in with a pre-trial officer. You might as well say you’re on probation, similar rules apply. I have not been able to be gainfully employed, because every time an employer pulls up my record, it shows that I have an active criminal warrant, because I’ve not been able to go to trial yet.

Abby: When was it you turned yourself in, back in April?

Shawn: Yeah.

Abby: And July was supposed to be your trial, but you went in and found out it was postponed?

Shawn: Yeah, because of the holiday. The new arraignment date was supposed to be August second, but because I’ve been in pre-trial status for so long, that has to get re-reviewed, which pushes my arraignment back to September twentieth.

[we sigh deeply together]

Abby: Fuck.

Shawn: Big fuck.

*

Even though the charges have now been dismissed, in order to have an unbiased shot at employment, Shawn has to get them expunged, which can take up to 90 days. In the meantime, they’re hustling hard to get by. You can find ways to follow, donate to, or hire them for dog-walking here: https://linktr.ee/itsshawnnow

#TearDownCentralBooking

#FreeKeithDavisJr

#OneBaltimore

Cultural Event of the Week: Abdu Ali is one of the biggest names in Baltimore’s music scene, with a sound described as a “phantasmagoria of Rap, Free Jazz, and Avant-Garde electronic music.” Catch Ali at the Ottobar with a whole mess of other artists this Friday night!
https://facebook.com/events/725827504555037/ / http://www.theottobar.com/e/abdu-ali-73055726645/

Green Event of the Week: Repairing the everyday items in our lives can feel like a lost art, but it’s one of the simplest ways to reduce our impact on the planet. In a world of planned obsolescence, save your dollars and some carbon at the Fix It Fair, hosted by the Station North Tool Library and the Enoch Pratt Free Library this Saturday and Sunday.
https://facebook.com/events/204681463813176/ / https://www.stationnorthtoollibrary.org/fixitfair 

Song of the Week: “Rhythm Nation” by Janet Jackson
This is the test, no struggle, no progress (Lend) / Lend a hand to help your brother do his best / Things are getting worse, we have to make them better / It’s time to give a damn, let’s work together / Come on now / People of the world today / Are we looking for a better way of life? / We are a part of the rhythm nation

A selfie provided by Shawn.

One Baltimore #18, The Comptroller

9/18/19

Last Thursday, Councilman Bill Henry was kind enough to sit down with me to talk about his run for Baltimore City Comptroller against Joan M. Pratt, who’s held the position for the last 23 years. Full disclosure, I’ve known Bill for many years thanks to his volunteer work in the local arts community and from working together occasionally at my day job.

I’m actually holding a Meet & Greet for him at my house this Sunday, 9/22, from 12-2pm! Snacks and drinks provided, email me at bmore4borderjustice at gmail dot com for the address.

We covered a ton of ground in our talk, including:

  • His childhood in Govans, growing up with a network of civil rights activists and local elected officials,
  • Why he ran for the House of Delegates at the age of 22, while still in college,
  • How he then worked for various politicians, in non-profits, and as a consultant, before spending 12 years on the City Council, and
  • Some of the legislation he’s most proud of from his time in office plus the most frustrating things about our system.

Below is a small portion of our conversation, focusing on what the heck the Comptroller does anyway, and why it’s time for a change. Read the full transcript of the interview here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1fTGyb_nhjdqmLCLQR0HSwIhJQqyQLXnaE-f2rXl8Cdw/edit?usp=sharing

*

Abby: What made you decide to run for Comptroller?

Bill: I had announced to my constituents back in 2016, if I got re-elected, this would be my last term, because I introduced a charter amendment on term limits, and even though it didn’t pass, I still believed that three terms for a council person is enough.

Abby: Give a fresh blood a shot!

Bill: And last fall, I was looking at the Comptroller’s office and what I realized was, there’s a lot of wasted opportunity there. The Comptroller is actually a very powerful position, much more so in many ways than definitely any individual council person, and in some ways, even more so than the collective power of the council in terms of their access to information.

The City Council has oversight over the agencies but they’re really very challenged by what information they have. Whereas with the Comptroller’s office, whenever an agency wants to spend money, it has to be approved by the Board of Estimates, which means you have to send a detailed memo to the Comptroller’s office explaining what you wanna do and why.

Abby: Yup, I’ve written a number of Board of Estimates memos.

Bill: Right, so here’s the thing, if you think about all the information that goes into a Board of Estimates memo, and then you think about the paragraph summary that actually shows up on the Board of Estimates agenda, that paragraph summary is all the rest of us see. Now, you could say that the purpose clause of a bill is like the paragraph summary on the Board of Estimates agenda, because that purpose clause is all that shows up on the City Council agenda.

Abby: Yeah, but I figured out how, on the City Council website, to look at the full text of a bill, because it’s all about what it actually would do in detail.

Bill: And not just the full text of the bill, but you can go on to Legistar, the tracking database, and you can also see everything else in the bill file, all the agency reports, amendments that were passed, if people have written letters in support. But on the Board of Estimates, the only information… if you wanted to find out about when was the last time we put out a contract to dredge Druid Lake, the way that you would find that out on the Comptroller’s website would be to click on the scanned-in PDF of last week’s Board of Estimates agenda, look in the table of contents, and if it’s not there, go click on the week before, and if it’s not there, go click on the week before, and keep doing that for the last three or four years until you find it.

Abby: Holy shit.

Bill: Because there’s no database. And even when you click on that PDF, all you’re seeing is the summary. All that back-up information that agencies put a lot of work into is just sitting in a file in the Comptroller’s office where only they have access to it.

Abby: So, I take it one of the things that you’d be interested in doing as Comptroller is increasing transparency.

Bill: Oh my god, yes. That is… it is such low-hanging fruit. The City Council has had Legistar online since 2006. That’s 13 years that the second floor [of City Hall, where the Comptroller’s office is housed] has seen the fourth floor [of City Hall, where the council members have their offices] doing this and gone “ehh.”

Abby: So, the Board of Estimates is the Mayor, the Comptroller and one other person?

Bill: Five people on the Board of Estimates, the Mayor and the Comptroller, the Council President, they’re the three elected officials on the board, but then the City Solicitor and the Director of Public Works also sit on the board and that is why the city is the way it is, because they both work for the Mayor, so…

Abby: Oh, so the Mayor ends up having, like, three votes out of five. So the Comptroller, my understanding of that role is that they’re in charge of financials for the city…

Bill: The Director of Finance is really the CFO for the city, the Comptroller is more responsible for being the financial watchdog. The Comptroller sees everything that the Mayor and the administration are doing, and it’s the Comptroller’s job to go “Hey… this doesn’t make sense.” And one of the problems we’ve had for the last 23 years is our Comptroller never says, “Hey…” Previous comptrollers went to the media and said, “Hey… did you see what the Mayor is trying to do here?”

Abby: Ah, so there was a much more public facing role to the office.

Bill: If you knew that DOT had repaved Roland Avenue [which runs through well-to-do parts of town] multiple times in a relatively short span of years and each time had paid millions of dollars to do it… if you’re the Mayor, you’re not gonna go out of your way to play that up, but every time that is done, paperwork goes through the Comptroller’s office.

Abby: And you feel like that watchdog role is not being played by the current Comptroller.

Bill: Not being played at all. And I mean, to some extent it’s a personality thing. Joan [M. Pratt, the current Comptroller] is a very nice lady, she’s very low-key, just as an individual, and she’s not naturally communicative. And when I say that, I wanna be careful about my criticism because I don’t think of myself as being particularly good at self-promotion, compared to some of my colleagues and former colleagues. But when the job itself requires you to communicate information out, I’m happy to do that, and I try. She doesn’t even try.

Abby: One thing I say to people when I’m talking about this race and why it matters is that it doesn’t seem like the finances have gone great in the last couple of decades…

Bill: I think that Baltimore has made a lot of bad decisions, and I have to ask, would we have made better decisions if more of us had been better informed?

Abby: So, aside from the transparency, oversight, public watchdog stuff, is there anything else to say in terms of what you would do as comptroller?

Bill: Sure, so that first thing is modernizing the office and making it more open and transparent. The Comptroller oversees the Department of Audits, that is also very under-utilized.

Abby: Do we have agency audits at this point?

Bill: We do have agency audits, we’ve spent some serious time over the last couple of years putting requirements in the charter as to how many agencies have to be audited and how often. The charter now requires us to audit 16 key agencies every other year, so 8 a year. And my problem with that is the Comptroller’s office treats that as their goal and not as the floor.

We should be auditing specific operations, we could be doing performance audits on specific operations in each agency. How does DOT determine the inspections process for construction jobs? I cannot believe with all the complaints and concerns we’ve had over the last several years that the Comptroller has not done a performance audit on the water billing system.

I don’t usually do Bible or religious things in campaigns, but there’s a story in the Bible called The Parable of the Talents. Are you familiar? Okay, so a master takes two servants, and gives them each of measure of wealth —

Abby: Oh riiight, and one of them buries it, one of them invests it and comes back with more.

Bill: Right, and the one who buried it says, “Look, I kept it safe.” Like, Joan is so the servant who buried her talent. She’s just run it, or technically just kept it running. It hasn’t been run as much as it’s been administrated, or managed, and there’s been no proactivity, no vision.

Baltimore can be so much better than it is, but if we’re gonna be better, we’re gonna have to make better choices, and if we’re gonna run Baltimore differently, in a lot of cases that’s gonna mean we’re gonna have to get comfortable with different people doing things. We have a tendency to just treat incumbents like if they didn’t make a big mistake —

Abby: Right, if you’re just scandal-free…

Bill: We just send them back. Incumbency shouldn’t be about being a default choice. The advantage of incumbency should be, you have an opportunity to show the people what you have accomplished.

Abby: Speaking of scandals, there is one more thing I should mention, and that’s that Joan Pratt is… well, was, I think the store’s closed now… business partners with [former Mayor] Catherine Pugh for many years. And so that was a red flag for me, with Pugh’s scandal. Is there any there-there to your mind?

Bill: I have no idea whether the fact that she was business partners with Catherine Pugh is going to mean that she’s gonna get pulled into any of Catherine Pugh’s legal problems. I do know that I found it troubling that when that issue was raised during the 2016 mayoral campaign, and it was raised on Catherine’s end, because Joan’s already Comptroller, and now one of the Comptroller’s business partners is running for Mayor —

Abby: — and theoretically they’re supposed to be, like, checks and balances on each other, and they have a vested financial interest in each other!

Bill: — and what Catherine said at the time was “I don’t think it’ll be a problem, but I’m happy to just divest my interest in the business,” but then she never did. So, the one thing I would say that I find troubling is it apparently never occurred to Joan that it was also an option for her to divest herself of the business.

Abby: It seems like a pretty strong conflict of interest to me.

Bill: I would think so too.

Abby: Okay, well, we gotta wrap up. Thank you, Bill, this has been great.

*

To learn more about Bill’s race for Comptroller and how you can get involved, visit http://www.billhenry.com or https://www.facebook.com/billforbmore.

Also! The Maryland Trans Resilience Conference is coming up on Saturday, hosted by Trans Healthcare MD and The Baltimore Trans Alliance, check it out! https://www.transhealthcaremd.org/mtrc

#TeamHenry

#BillForBmore

#FreeKeithDavisJr

#OneBaltimore

Cultural Event of the Week: Ducky Dynamo was kind enough to donate her DJ talents to the LGBTQ+ Dance Party Protest we held last week in response to the Republican retreat, and DAAAMNN, we couldn’t have lucked out more, I couldn’t stop moving!! This Thursday night, she’s presenting (you)SB: Open Ducks s2:e3 at The Depot, an open mic night for local DJ’s.
https://www.facebook.com/events/381666649197233

Green Event of the Week: In advance of the UN Climate Summit next week, there is a Global Climate Strike (https://globalclimatestrike.net/) starting this Friday, 9/20, largely led by young people. The Baltimore Climate Strike is being led by Sunrise Movement Baltimore. If you can, ditch work that day, get down to the Inner Harbor and add your voice to theirs.
https://www.facebook.com/events/638718306621576/

Song of the Week: “It’s Money That Matters” by Randy Newman
Of all of the people that I used to know / Most never adjusted to the great big world / I see them lurking in book stores / Working for the Public Radio / Carrying their babies around in a sack on their back / Moving careful and slow / It’s money that matters, hear what I say / It’s money that matters in the USA

The man himself.
Meet & Greet invite, mildly redacted (and yes, I know you can all easily find my last name and I’m being silly blocking it out, idk, just tryna make any trolls do slightly more work).

Announcement & Invitation

Astute readers will already have noticed that the column is running late… I was hoping to put it out today, but at this point I gotta admit to myself and y’all that it’s gonna be tomorrow at this point. Got the interview transcribed but still gotta edit/package it. I’ll reveal the topic, though — Councilman Bill Henry’s run for Comptroller, which I think is super important to Baltimore’s future.

The reason I didn’t just skip this week entirely, considering the non-stop-ness of last week (the Baltimore Welcoming Committee stuff, as outlined in https://one-baltimore.org/2019/09/03/one-baltimore-16-welcoming-committee/, went really well!!), is that I’m actually hosting a Meet & Greet for Bill at my home this weekend, and want to get the column out in time to help promote it! It’ll be this Sunday, 9/22 from 12-2pm, with snacks, sodas, and wine provided.

The original version of the flyer has my irl last name (which is not exactly a secret, but which I’m trying to use less when it comes to the type of writing and activism I do in this space) and my home address, so I’ve blocked those bits out. If you’d like to attend, just email me at bmore4borderjustice at gmail dot com. 🙂 Would love to see you!

One Baltimore #17, Voices

9/9/19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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

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

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

Abby: How did the mediation process go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

#SaveOurSun

#EndTheGagOrders

#JusticeForTyroneWest

#FreeKeithDavisJr

#OneBaltimore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Baltimore #16, Welcoming Committee

9/3/19

A couple of weeks ago, local organizer and activist Cristi Linn asked me if I would co-present on the subject of solidarity with Phil Ateto at a meeting to work on a response to the fact that the Republicans of the U.S. House of Representatives are coming to town for their annual fall retreat this month. I was extremely honored, and collaborated with Phil on how to cover this complex and important topic in just ten minutes.

One of his big points was that while you may not agree with tactics, tone, or messaging used by others, it is imperative that you don’t condemn the people involved if you agree with the ends they seek, because it causes a fracture that our opponents exploit. I focused on Do’s and Don’t’s, like “Don’t use your privilege against others by talking over people, pulling rank via ‘proper’ language, etc.” and “Do recognize that allyship is something you practice, not something you ARE. You will mess up, and you may not understand why or how at first. Accept corrections and advice with grace.” Ultimately our message was the same — we can’t win without each other.

Since then, I’ve signed on to help lead one of the events under the umbrella of the Baltimore Welcoming Committee, an LGBTQ+ & Allies Dance Party on Friday the 13th (spooky!) at 7pm — https://www.facebook.com/events/2397399847247248/. We’ll be on the waterfront promenade adjacent to the Harbor East Marriott, where the retreat is taking place. I’m working on recruiting a DJ (update: got one!), people to help with making banners and flyers, and on donations for things like printing, biodegradable rainbow glitter, materials for a life-size guillotine, etc. (donations can be sent to https://www.paypal.me/WorkersMarch). **Any and all help would be greatly appreciated!**

In addition to the dance party, other scheduled events include:

I decided the best thing I could do this week would be to uplift the voices of some of the fascinating people organizing and promoting these actions. Below are a selection of the responses I received, edited for length and clarity. Thank you so much to everyone for their time!

*

Abby: What got you involved in politics and protest?

Cristi Linn: Occupy was definitely an awakening for me. I always, since I was little, felt that something was not right in our society, like a lot of the things we’re told are legitimate are actually BS, especially around the economy. One thing that never made sense to me was that healthcare is attached to your employer.

Abby: Was that a big issue for you growing up? I think as a kid I didn’t have much awareness of it.

Cristi: I grew up pretty much dirt poor, it wasn’t just like “oh, you go to the doctor.” My mom had Hepatitis C. After my parents got divorced, my dad kicked her off his insurance and she was too sick to get a full-time job. It was very hard to get disability back then. When I was 16, I had braces and I couldn’t get them off, I had them until I was 21. It wasn’t covered because it was pre-existing. I finally had to get a dentist to like yank them off with pliers, my teeth are still crooked.

Abby: Wow, that sucks, I’m sorry. So, was it your idea to have a response to the Republicans coming to town?

Cristi: A lot of people had the idea at the same time, I was one of them. My idea was to make it Baltimore-focused and centered. I was seeing people from Harford, Carroll, Anne Arundel, saying they wanted to come out and protest Trump, protest Moscow Mitch, and not make it anything to do with policy or people who live in the city. I wanted to connect those people with people who are more targeted.

Abby: Anything coming up after this?

Cristi: We’re preparing for the 2020 state legislative session. On 9/25, Represent Maryland is having a legislative forum on the case for election reform [https://www.facebook.com/events/218767339029218/]. The Public Election Fund bill for Baltimore is moving forward, there’ll be a hearing for that on 9/17 [https://www.facebook.com/events/2482152818680228/], we need people to show up and support, testify in favor of it, and call and email the members of the Judiciary Committee [http://www.baltimorecitycouncil.com/committees], especially the chair, Eric Costello.

Ranked-choice voting is a local campaign that has to be allowed by the state, we need to get the city delegation [of state delegates and senators] on board with that. Brooke Lierman introduced it last session, but the old guard is very against it because it would challenge the security of them winning reelection each term.

*

Phil Ateto: I’m trying to get more engaged locally because I feel that’s where we have the deepest relationships and can make the biggest impact. The organization I work for, the Backbone Campaign, is conducive to my activism style because our goal is to empower local groups with high-visibility, artful tactics and teach them to other people so they can go forth and do it on their own.

Abby: How did you get involved in the Welcoming Committee?

Phil: My friend and fellow activist, Cristi, jumped in to form this coalition. I’m looking to get out and light-project messages every night in line with the theme of each day. Thursday is anti-corruption, Friday is human rights, and Saturday is the environment and climate. I’d love to teach people the in’s and out’s of the equipment so they can use it in the future.

Abby: I saw your light projection stuff at West Wednesday [pictured in OB #11: https://one-baltimore.org/2019/07/22/one-baltimore-11-a-single-life/%5D, it’s so cool! How did you get involved with that group?

Phil: I have long respected Tawanda Jones and her steadfast dedication to getting justice for her brother. Around the time they partnered with the JHU Sit-In, I messaged her and said hey, I’m here if you ever want to mobilize this tactic. For the six-year anniversary of her brother’s murder, she reached out. I was out of town, but my partner in crime took up the mantle and made it happen. I was very happy we could show up for her. That’s an example of the kind of connections I want to make.

Abby: Anything coming up next?

Phil: On 9/23 in DC, a coalition is aiming to disrupt the morning commute by blocking key intersections. This is all public, it’s on http://www.strikedc.org. If there’s no way you can be arrested, there are still plenty of roles for you. We can’t afford business as usual. We’re demanding that our government declare a climate emergency. On 9/20 it’s kicking off globally [https://www.facebook.com/events/1752039468427922/]. Plug in however you’re able, go to the website and sign the pledge if you’re in a position to not go to work.

*

Abby: Tell me about ICE Out of Baltimore.

Sharon Black: It’s a coalition of a whole bunch of groups and people who want to work on the issue of the detention camps, both in regards to immigrants and refugees and also prisons and jails here in Maryland. I’m with the People’s Power Assembly, we’ve been in existence for many years and have fought around not only police terror but also justice for Amazon workers, LGTBQ issues, we’re a multi-issue organization.

We’ve called for a demo with the Prisoner’s Solidarity Committee on 10/5 at the Harford County jail [https://www.facebook.com/events/679350922477255/]. Our next target will be on the Eastern Shore at the detention center there, we’re in the process of setting dates for banner drops and getting Know Your Rights posters and leaflets out.

Another major thing for PPA, we have a petition campaign around Amazon. I’m a former Amazon worker. We have been demanding that Amazon divest from any of their technologies that enable detention centers or ICE to target refugees. As soon as we get to a specific number of signatures, we’ll present it to the local management. Here in Baltimore, it’s been horrific for the workers, close to 300 were fired for failure to keep up with production rates that are impossible to keep up with.

*

Abby: Anything coming up after this?

Ben: With election season coming, I want to get more involved with Baltimore Democratic Socialists of America. Elections aren’t the lone answer, but they can improve things, reduce harm. I’m excited on a big picture level because there are gonna be a lot of opportunities to get involved, a lot to fight for.

Abby: I really appreciate you seeing it that way, I do too, but I know a lot of people feel very hopeless and helpless right now.

Ben: We all have those moments when we’re like “fuck everything”, it’s about pushing yourself to keep going. You gotta fight, it’s all we can do. Every day, I try to tell myself to think positive and picture a better future, if not for us then for people who come after.

*

Abby: What made you decide to get involved?

Rebecca Forte: Cristi asked for support from surrounding counties of Baltimore. She already knows me because I volunteer with her work for Represent MD, so she recruited her Anne Arundel activist arm.

Abby: Very cool. Are there particular issues in AA that you all are working on right now

Rebecca: My most recent demonstration was bringing peaches to an Anthony Brown townhall to get him to support impeachment on the record. It took a couple of weeks… but it worked!

*

Abby: What kinds of events has Extinction Rebellion Baltimore been doing so far?

Dominc Serino: In April, XR Baltimore held an Earth day vigil at the monument in Mount Vernon. Since then, our Baltimore-specific work has been more focused on expanding our network, recruitment, coordinating with other activists/groups in Baltimore and planning for the future. However, several of us participated in Extinction Rebellion Washington DC’s direct action in July when we superglued our hands to doors to try to block access to the Capitol building from the House office buildings, to demand that congress take action on climate change.

Abby: Wow, intense! Anything in particular coming up for the group?

Dominic: Yes, many of us are planning to support/participate in the Shut Down DC action on 9/23, co-coordinated by XR DC. We also are hoping to coordinate a disruptive action here in Baltimore on 10/7 that coincides with Extinction Rebellion’s day of “Worldwide Rebellion”.

*

#BaltimoreWelcomingCommittee #FreeKeithDavisJr #OneBaltimore

Cultural Event of the Week: [***UPDATE: This event has been postponed, new date TBA***] Sometimes, in the midst of heavy shit, you just need to enjoy some absurdity. And what could be more absurd than “Love on a Leash”, the tale of a woman who falls in love with a golden retriever who turns into a man at night? Catch it this Thursday at Ottobar, presented by Mondo Baltimore, which brings us the finest in terrible films each month, paired with hilarious clips, jokes, games, and karaoke by Patrick Storck afterwards, all free!

https://www.facebook.com/events/475714143210201/

Green Event of the Week: This Friday and Saturday are Household Hazardous Waste Collection days, courtesy of the Baltimore City Department of Public Works. Bring your old batteries, paint, fire extinguishers, etc. to the Northwest Convenience Center at 2840 Sisson Street, and they’ll take care of them properly for you. Info on accepted items and future dates here: https://publicworks.baltimorecity.gov/events/household-hazardous-waste-collection-7

Song of the Week: “Which Side Are You On?” by B. Dolan

Grasp for the straw man, born again cynics / Fair-weather firebrand; spark my suspicion / We knew you were the type to take the fight like a gimmick / And rock the t-shirt when your sweat wasn’t in it / The clock is still ticking for the victim of the future / You’re waiting til’ they look like you to ever choose, but — / Which side are you on? / Which side are you on?

Baltimore Welcoming Committee street team in action — hmu for posters and postcards!

One Baltimore #15, Highs & Lows

8/26/19

They told me in D.A.R.E. that smoking pot would have consequences, but did I listen? Well, at the time, yah, but later, naaahh. And now? It’s finally caught up to me… in the form of a month or so of paid vacation. Well, that and the degrading invasion of my life and body. I can live with it though. For the time being.

It all comes back to the Department car. See, I work for the city government (pretty sure I can talk about this publicly… HR said I could, anyway), and in order to drive city vehicles, like the one four-door Ford that my co-workers and I share to take to meetings, you have to take a stultifying two-day Safe Driver class. In return, you get a special yellow license. I had one for the past seven or eight years.

A couple of years ago, as best I can tell, having that card started to mean something else too — random drug tests. The City drug tests all potential hires at the start of employment, but then leaves you alone after that as long as you’re not having any problems… UNLESS you’re in a “sensitive class”, which now includes people with these licenses.

I found this out when a colleague, whom I’d encouraged to get one of the aforementioned licenses, revealed to me that he’d been tested three times in a year and a half. I was shocked by this, since I’d been around much longer than him and hadn’t been called up once. He’s Black, I’m not — was it a racial thing, I wondered?

But then, this year, I started getting the notices too. The first came back in January. I got through it fine. I should’ve turned in the license then, or gotten a medical card, or something, but I didn’t.

The second notice came last month. I knew there were things I could do to pass. But I had meetings that day, calls to make, and I was just so mad. I didn’t want to have to clear my schedule and jump through the system’s hoops and pretend I was “clean.” It didn’t feel right.

Maybe it was self-sabotage, maybe after so many years of often-frustrating office work I just wanted out, and if I couldn’t bring myself to quit, then letting them fire me would have to do. I don’t know, in the end, why I went in to Mercy Medical and took the test straight, knowing I wouldn’t pass, but that’s what I did.

Our HR rep broke the news to me and my boss a week and a half ago — positive for marijuana. I was suspended without pay for the next five days and would have to see a counselor who would determine when I could return to work.

My boss was distraught for me. I’d just gotten my annual performance review back and it was solid, yet we were told I’d have to be put on a one-year “Performance Improvement Plan” upon my return. I told her it was fine, I was fine, and I was, I didn’t even cry until I got out of the building, and then only for a second, and only out of sheer frustration.

The suspension went by quickly. Then, on Friday morning, it was time to see the counselor from the Employee Assistance Program. The city cares about its employees, you see — those who are found to have a substance abuse problem are given someone to talk to and work with on getting drug-free. It’s only after a second time getting caught that you get fired.

I sat across from the counselor and lied my ass off. Told him I was a very occasional user and that I should be perfectly capable of giving a clean urine sample now (I had a plan).
He seemed like a nice enough guy, quiet, tired. We talked about his role — he’s a licensed social worker who helps city employees through all sorts of problems from workplace bullying to grief. In this case, though, and he said this with a small and bitter laugh, he was playing the role of a probation officer. My heart went out to him as I saw that he wasn’t any happier than I was with this awful little dance.

He told me that he had to refer me to an “intensive outpatient treatment program” for addiction and gave me the number of a place in Towson. Normally they require twelve sessions, but he told me to tell them that I only needed to go for six, since it was just a little pot… I’d have to be insistent, he explained, since of course they get paid for each session.

Two hours, once per week. D.A.R.E. for grownups. They’d test me there. If I passed, they’d forward it to him. He’d then order another test from Mercy, and if I passed that too, I could go back to the office.

Of course, for a full year I’d have to continue seeing him once a month and submit to further tests, covering both drugs AND alcohol (from which I had to sign a contract promising to abstain), and a single positive result would be the end of my employment. He acknowledged that the alcohol thing didn’t exactly make a lot of sense under the circumstances, but y’know: it’s the policy.

He asked me if I had any further questions. “I’m not sure,” I said, “can I think about it for a minute?” He said that was fine, and turned to his computer. I took out my phone and looked up examples of times my plan had failed other people. After ten minutes or so, I spoke up.

“So, I lied to you before. I’m a very regular marijuana user. A bowl in the evenings, often more on the weekends with friends. It’s definitely still in my system [in daily users, THC can remain detectable via urinalysis for months after your last use]. I was going to fake the test, but I’m stressed as hell about it. What do you think?”

Sometimes, he said, at the program in Towson, they watch you give your sample. Ok. Ok, so what do I do?

Well, he said, go to the program. They don’t expect you to be clean at first. As long as the levels in your system are going down over time, you’re ok, and once it’s all out, you can go back to work. In the meantime, did I have PTO I could use? I did, a huge pile of unused sick time.

And so I find myself here, in involuntary paid staycation land. I talked to my bosses, divided up responsibility for the tasks I’d been performing. I asked if I could put the reason for my absence in my out-of-office message, but our HR rep said no, scandalized at the suggestion. “What, are you embarrassed?” I wanted to ask, but held myself back.

I started smoking regularly a few years ago to deal with insomnia. I didn’t realize how much being chronically sleep deprived was messing me up until I wasn’t any more. Thankfully, I’ve worked out some better sleep hygiene habits since then and mostly get enough rest these days without chemical help, but I found that I greatly value how weed helps me smooth out the endless chatter of my thoughts.

It’s been especially useful for writing, for getting to a space where ideas flow and connect. It’s going to be weird, writing the column sober. I can do this, though. I don’t want to, but I can, and I will. For now.

I want to challenge the city policy. Other people have done so in other places, sometimes successfully. Yes, I signed an agreement saying I’d be drug free throughout my employment, no I’m not sanctioned by the state to be using. But if I’m not ever high at work (which I never have been — it would be obvious), if I haven’t been in any accidents, and especially after we’ve chosen as a city to decriminalize this substance… then how is it anything but an enormous waste of time and resources to insist that I DO have a problem, to make me prove again and again that the contents of my receptors pass inspection?

I can take or leave this job, I know I’ll be ok. But that’s not the case for everyone — I’m sure there are a lot of city workers with kids to feed who also find that recreational marijuana improves their lives and helps them get through the stress of life in 2019 without the long list of side effects and the high price tag of sanctioned pharmaceuticals. Maybe we can use this opportunity to make a change — anyone know a good lawyer? I reached out to NORML, they have a list, but I’m open to suggestions.

In the meantime, after the initial shock, I’m actually excited about the next month. While this whole thing is a bit of a nightmare, it’s also a bit of a dream come true. How many times have I wished with all my heart that I just had some room to breathe and think and plan? And now here it is.

Ever since the border trip (https://one-baltimore.org/2019/07/15/one-baltimore-10-borders/), I’ve been doing my best to get the lay of the land locally when it comes to immigration issues. I’ve been out to a couple of trainings with CASA, one with SURJ Baltimore and one with Guerrilla Theatre Front, and I’m having coffee with a really cool organizer soon. People are excited about the idea of Baltimore for Border Justice, we need to move it to reality.

I’m also really excited that these groups are all talking about police issues — local control of BPD is on everyone’s radar. We could be a sanctuary city if we had local control of our police; since they’re a state agency and we’re not a sanctuary state, they currently cooperate with ICE, but that could change this upcoming state legislative session. Now is the time.

#OneBaltimore #LegalizeWeed #LocalControl #BaltimoreForBorderJustice #FreeKeithDavisJr

Cultural Event of the Week: This Friday-Sunday, 8/30-9/1, is the second annual Black Femme Supremacy Film Fest at The SNF Parkway / Maryland Film Festival, featuring over 50 films in a wide range of genres made by Black Femme filmmakers. This year’s theme is “Access”, and the two weekend days will feature special collections by Baltimoreans.https://www.facebook.com/events/1395205353979639/

Green Event of the Week: You know who you might not expect to throw one heck of a party, but totally does? TreeBaltimore, the Department of Recreation & Parks program responsible for growing our tree canopy. TB’s Annual Summer Gathering is this Wednesday evening, 8/28, at the beautiful Cylburn Arboretum, and it’s really worth checking out. Learn, meet cool people, snag free food and drinks, and enjoy live music and art by local performers.https://www.facebook.com/events/2795155570497816/

Song of the Week: “Evolve” by Ani Difranco

Now let’s get talking reefer madness / Like some arrogant government can’t / By any stretch of the imagination / Outlaw a plant / Yes, their supposed authority over nature / Is a dream / C’mon people / We’ve got to come clean

Leonard Spooky Cohen the cat, who’s going to be getting a lot more daytime attention over the next few weeks.