BPD, nine #AFROMATION protesters settle lawsuit stemming from 2016 mass arrests on I-83

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Still via WBAL-TV/Vanessa Herring

Baltimore police and nine protesters have settled a lawsuit filed last summer, a year out from the #AFROMATION protest during Artscape of 2016, in which 65 people were arrested en masse after a demonstration on I-83 and allegedly held in inhumane conditions during detention and booking.

The police and the city’s Law Department, which defends them, announced the settlement today. The group of nine sued last July seeking policy changes within the department, along with more than $75,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, City Paper reported at the time.

The plaintiffs, some of whom belong to the activist collective Baltimore Bloc, had called for BPD to “develop and enforce policies that prohibit ‘kettling’ protesters, require officers to issue clear warnings to disperse at demonstrations, and give people an opportunity to comply before carrying out arrests.” Their suit also called for a court order preventing police “from subjecting people arrested for minor offenses to harsh and lengthy detention.”

Today’s announcement from BPD promises “improved policies on a variety of fronts, including response to protests or First Amendment activity, interactions with members of the LGBTQ community, and in police misconduct and discipline processes, among others.”

A draft policy for “First Amendment Protected Activity” published on BPD’s website includes language implicitly banning kettling, and explicitly banning officers from singling out protesters or targeting protest leaders, among other changes. The department has also drafted new policies defining discriminatory policing and setting rules for safe detention of suspects taken into custody, interacting with LGBTQ individuals and more.

A Baltimore Bloc member who was a plaintiff in the lawsuit told Baltimore Fishbowl the policy changes also cover “clear standards on what detaining a person should be and should not include”—including not misgendering people and respecting their gender identity—as well as “clear policy guidelines on what it means to give somebody a warning.”

The individual said the fact that BPD is bound by a consent decree limits the department from changing its own policies without first submitting them to its assigned monitor, which also limited the scope of their discussions. BPD’s release noted the proposed changes to department policy are being submitted for review by the monitor.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Debra Gardner, said Thursday evening that her clients were generally “quite satisfied” with the policy changes the department agreed to. However, she added, “They are concerned with whether the policy changes will help to create the necessary culture change at the Baltimore Police Department. That, of course, remains to be seen.”

Baltimore Fishbowl has reached out to City Solicitor Andre Davis for comment.

As for cash compensation, the city is giving what it’s dubbed “a modest monetary award”: approximately $17,000 per plaintiff, or roughly $153,000 in all.

The plaintiff we spoke with said none of those who sued “entered this for any monetary reason,” but added, “the city did injure people… so it was perfectly reasonable to try to institute accountability for the police department in whatever mechanisms are available. One of them is punitive damages.”

The individual assured the money “will be back in the community shortly.”

Baltimore Bloc had organized the protest in July 2016 with City Bloc, and with support from Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) Baltimore, to call attention to a spate of Baltimoreans’ deaths at the hands of police, including Anthony Anderson and Tyrone West, among others.

The group marched from Chase Avenue and Guilford Street through Artscape, eventually onto a ramp to I-83 that was already closed for the festival. Protesters had said police stopped the demonstration by falsely announcing an ambulance was coming, and assuring them no one would be arrested if they moved out of the way.

When they complied, police trapped and arrested them en masse—not just protesters, but also some bystanders, journalists and legal observers, the Bloc member said. Those who later sued alleged they were then detained in “cramped police vans,” with little or no access to water or food and with tightly bound handcuffs, according a statement last year from now-former Baltimore Bloc member Ralikh Hayes.

Baltimore police still deny the narrative put forth by protesters. The agency’s release today mentions their allegations of being “detained in transportation vehicles in deplorable conditions,” but adds, “the Baltimore Police Department denied those allegations and contends, to the contrary, that its officers lawfully arrested protesters who impeded vehicular traffic on I-83 and that arrestees were treated humanely.”

The Bloc member said “dozens of witnesses” can corroborate their version of events.

All those arrested were charged with failure to obey and walking on a highway, though prosecutors dropped the charges days later.

BPD’s release said city lawyers and the plaintiffs engaged in a “peaceful” dialogue and were able to work “collaboratively without court involvement or supervision” on the settlement.

The plaintiff’s assessment was less rosy. They noted Bloc advocates for the abolition of the department altogether.

“For them to pretend that this is sort of a moment of reconciliation is ridiculous. We have nothing in common with the BPD. We want nothing in common with the BPD.”

This story has been updated.

Ethan McLeod
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