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ACLU: police seizure of protesters’ Rec Center sign “spectacularly improper”

Police: group was "impeding" pedestrian and vehicular traffic flow

rec center protest2

Baltimore City Police load protesters’ large, wheeled “Rec Center” sign onto a city trash truck.

Photo by: Fern Shen

Baltimore City Police today threatened to arrest members of a group protesting the privatization of city recreation centers, and then seized the group’s large, wheeled sign, throwing it into a city truck.

The blue-and-red plywood sign said “Rec Center” and “ A Great Place to Grow.” A group of about 25 people advocating more funding for rec centers had been trying to roll the sign along a city sidewalk to a late afternoon “Schools not Jails Recreation Occupation” protest in front of City Hall.

Asked what law the protesters were breaking, city police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said “the sign was removed because it was blocking the free flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic.”

Listening to an account of the event, and looking at photographs shot by The Brew, a civil liberties attorney called the explanation the city is offering via Guglielmi  “pure unadulterated horsehockey.”

“It is impossible to imagine anything more clearly protected by the First Amendment,” said David Rocah, staff attorney for the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The police action seems spectacularly improper.”

Keeping up a brisk pace, the group had been wheeling the rec center sign on the sidewalk along Holliday Street which (aside from police, protesters, media and a homeless person sleeping in a doorway) was deserted.

Asked why he was stopped in the sidewalk blocking protesters' way, a smiling Maj. Robert L. Booker Jr. told them it was because he wanted to cross the street. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Asked why he was stopped in the sidewalk blocking protesters' way, a smiling Maj. Robert L. Booker Jr. told them it was because he wanted to cross the street. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Less than a block from City Hall, Maj. Robert L. Booker Jr. stopped them. He positioned himself in an especially narrow part of the sidewalk, blocking their way.

“You’re blocking my way,” said Mike McGuire, who had just moments earlier been using a cordless drill to attach the sign to its rolling base.

“I’m not blocking the way, I just want to cross the street,” Booker said, smiling and not making a move to cross. McGuire told him there was a crosswalk at the end of the block but Booker, still smiling, didn’t move.

Mike McGuire asking Maj. Robert L. Booker Jr. to stop blocking his path. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Mike McGuire asking Maj. Robert L. Booker Jr. to stop blocking his path. (Photo by Fern Shen)

It was pretty clear what was about to happen.

Nearly a dozen armed SWAT team police were closing in from the street – the only place McGuire and the protesters could go if they didn’t want to plow into a completely stationary uniformed Baltimore City Police major.

The two green city trucks were there, at the ready.

“Shame! Shame! Shame!” the protesters chanted. “We’re active citizens exercising our free speech rights. You look absurd!”

Part of Tougher Stance on Occupy

Also present today was city police SWAT team supervisor Maj. Anthony Brown, who presided over a police action Monday in which workers dismantled a small symbolic red school house that the Schools not Jails group and the Algebra Project and Occupy Baltimore members had erected.

The city SWAT team had seized the group’s large tent, throwing it in a city truck along with trash. Maryland State Police arrested six people during that Martin Luther King Day protest, including McGuire, and charged them with trespassing.

Rec Center sign, after police seized it from protesters, being removed by city workers. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Rec Center sign, after police seized it from protesters, being removed by city workers. (Photo by Fern Shen) he trash.

(The denouement of Occupy Baltimore’s encampment at McKeldin Square also featured SWAT team and sanitation workers. That protest lasted 10 weeks.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seems to be acting swiftly now to prevent any form of protest that involves a potentially troublesome structure.)

As they did Monday with their tent, protesters today gave way and allowed police to take their sign. “Secure the structure!” a SWAT team leader said.

(There’s a war of words here. Earlier police had told McGuire that his “structure” was illegal and anyone who assembled it would be arrested. McGuire had replied “It’s not a structure, it’s a sign on wheels.”)

With cameras and camcorders recording the scene, police today threw the mock rec center on top of the heap of garbage in the truck. “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” protesters chanted at the police. “Boo, Brown! Boo, Brown!”

“Police Should have Arrested Themselves”

McGuire was especially angry afterwards and said he planned to take legal action.

“I had an implement of free speech taken from me, on my way to a protest about the privatization of rec centers and we were on the way to City Hall,” McGuire said, adding that such a setting is “a sacred area of free speech.”

Police on Holliday Street, positioned between protesters and City Hall. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Police on Holliday Street, positioned between protesters and City Hall. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Asked to explain why police were seemingly preventing a legitimate public protest, Guglielmi said, “They have a right to demonstrate as long as they do not pose a threat to public safety.”

Why did Booker block the group from moving forward? At that point, Guglielmi said, they were already blocking pedestrian traffic. How so, if they were moving rapidly? “Because the sign was so large,” he said, “if someone needed to move around it it would be difficult.”

The ACLU’s Rocah called these explanations “utter nonsense.”

“It was the police that were impeding the traffic flow – perhaps they should have arrested themselves. They were breaking the law,” Rocah said. “People have a right to assemble and protest and there is no requirement to get a permit as long as they are obeying regular traffic regulations and staying on the sidewalk.”

Rocah said “it sounds to me like the Baltimore police trashed the First Amendment in addition to trashing that sign.”

A Pointed Play Session

Before the police confrontation, the group managed to accomplish some of its original purpose: to highlight their support for city recreation centers. Some played jump-rope,others enjoyed hula hoops and several tried their hand at juggling.

Saying that many rec centers are underused and in poor condition, the Mayor has said the cash-strapped city must cut $400,000 from the rec center budget and supports a consolidation plan that involves closing some centers and privatizing others.

The group assembled today said that plan shortchanges city youth who need well-funded centers nearby their homes.

The PAL [Police Athletic League center] in my neighborhood closed so I went to my grandmother’s house and used the Greenmount rec center,” said Nicole Cheatom, a youth coordinator for the Algebra Project. “I couldn’t believe how bad it was.” She said the roof leaked and there weren’t enough chairs for everyone to sit down.

“I played basketball and when it was raining we’d say, well, let’s go to the rec center,” she recalled. “But you could only play half-court. One side you couldn’t use because the roof leaked on it.”

She said she supports putting money into all the rec centers, not just a consolidated few: “People need these in the communities where they live, not far away where they can’t get to them.”

At War Memorial Plaza, jump rope and juggling were meant to highlight the importance of rec centers for city kids to play. (Photo by Fern Shen)

At War Memorial Plaza, jump rope and juggling were meant to highlight the importance of rec centers for city kids to play. (Photo by Fern Shen)

 

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  • Balt Observer

    More idiotic stunts by the Occupy movement strictly intended to get them into the news. Tell me, how does jumping rope and juggling at the War Memorial Plaza help the rec centers? How does parading around the streets of Baltimore with a huge, unwieldy sign help the rec centers? I’m sure Occupy was pleased, though, that their pet media outlet, the Brew, was very obliging in covering their foolish stunt.

    • esgee

      speaking about an issue IS how you get things done in this world. getting onto the news is part of bring awareness to issues….creating dialogue. it’s exactly how you get things done. the fact is, that the cops here were playing silly immature lunatic games with them. they did nothing wrong, they exercised their free speech and they believe in what they are doing. hey, what are YOU doing to help anyone but yourself? why would you be down on someone trying to help this city’s kids? do you have stock in the new detention center, or are you a cop? i mean really. go complain about some rich a$$holes, not these people. get some perspective.

    • Ktrueheart

      Balt Observer please take your un-American views straight back to your homeland … you obviously don’t like America or our constitution.  Please leave and take your twisted logic and dictatorial mayor with you.

    • morejailsfewerschools

      I can’t remember what you were doing this week to help the youth of Baltimore……we need your guidance on this issue.  Please advise.

      • Balt Observer

        morejailsfewerschools,

        Thanks for your earnest and non-hostile reply. Today I was actually volunteering and mentoring some 9-15 years olds. No lie.
        I suggest that instead of engaging in silly media stunts, the Occupiers should volunteer and mentor at-risk youths in these rec centers. Have any of them actually done this? If they REALLY cared about helping youths, they should be doing this, right?

        Put your money where your mouth is. Get in the rec centers and help some youths. Or is that too low profile for you Occupiers?

        • WK

          Hey Balt Observer, maybe you better do some research before you spit something like that out.  You might find out that some of them do volunteer and work children and teens.  Have you ever heard of the Baltimore Algebra Project?  If you read the whole article, and I’m assuming you have, then you would now that they were very much involved in this.  Now, you better sit down for this…some Occupiers even work for BCPSS (gasp).  But in all seriousness I’m very glad that you were mentoring some 9-15 year olds the other day, you seem like an ideal mentor for today’s youth.

    • Eileen4Peace

      Balt Observer, Occupy Baltimore may not have all the answers, but they’re asking the right questions. Why are we closing neighborhood rec centers for lack of funding at the same time we’re building a multimillion dollar youth prison?  Thank you, Occupy Baltimore, for your creativity in finding peaceful ways to call attention to injustices in our city.  I’m shocked and saddened that police would shut down your peaceful protests.

      • http://www.plan8.tv Roanhouse

        on top of that a privately controlled and operated youth prison. Prison Industrial Complex JOY and HAPPINESS for Baltimore “anti-social” youth.

    • LYNNLOPATA4

      i would  have to agree ,they have accomplished not a thing as far as change .the only place that will make changes is annapolis ,they are so stupid that evidently it has nt crossed their minds yet TO GO TO ANNAPOLIS .!!!!NEEDLESS TO SAY IN BALTIMORE CITY WE NEED THE POLICE OUT ON THE STREETS ,KILLINGS EVERYDAY AND OUR POLICE IS POLICING THESE IDIOTS .

  • Unellu

    Close the rec centers and build a shiny new prison–the latter an outgrowth of the former.  What shocks is the philosophy behind these actions.  At first glance it seems that budgetary concerns are driving the decisions about the rec centers.  We need to consolidate, we need to privatize blah, blah.  Well OK.  Shouldn’t the same concerns drive the decision to build a new juvenile jail?  No sir.  We need the mega jail worth several million dollars.  Why?  There is a method to the madness of the policy makers.  “When we close the neighborhood rec centers then the kids won’t have safe places to go to for after school and other physical activities.  They will haunt the streets and learn the ways of the streets.  They will commit the crimes– heinous and petty.  Then we will have to arrest them.  Where will we put them when we do?  We are getting ready for the consequences of our actions about the rec centers.  See, we have foresight.  We are great policy makers.  We are always prepared.”  What hooey baloney!  The best and the brightest do not go into politics today and this is global.  Public disservice seems synonymous with politics.  Citizens need to pay and hire protesters for full time exposure of the corrupt ways of politicians.  I suggest that politicians be levied a tax for protest–10% of their salaries should go toward a protest fund for democracy to be saved from their imbecelic decisions and ways.        

  • proudpinko

    Ridiculous, heavy handed, fascist-but unfortunately not surprising. The Baltimore police have a history of stifling the right to assemble and the right to free speech. There should be a mass convergence on every public meeting of the mayor to put a stop to this nonsense.

  • Ktrueheart

    Peaceful public dissent is protected by our constitution.  Our Mayor must have been tardy the day this fact was taught in law school … remedial classes may be necesssary for this young lady to comprehend this 200+ year old premise of our democracy.

  • Jordansdrums

    Great reporting, thank you!

  • http://twitter.com/BmoreSchools Baltimore Schools

    This is Bmoreschools from Twitter (or Laura). I think what Occupy Baltimore is doing is a good start, but I think a lot of people feel that there’s not much to them other than their physical presence. Camping out and creating large signs does create a visual image that the media can capture, and the repetitive visual image becomes annoying to many, hence the seizure of the sign. Spreading a message is very difficult to do, so I give Occupy Baltimore kudos for getting people’s attention. Without more substance though, nothing constructive and concrete is going to come from the efforts. People have not seen a detailed description of exactly how conditions will improve, and that is what the public needs to see. Creating signs and saying support rec centers more than juvenile jails is a worthy goal, but what are the details…the short-term goals that will create improvements? Rather than complaining that there is a problem, present a detailed solution.

  • Lou Curran, Esq.

    Good reporting.  News to me.  Baltimore Police Department appears bent on using Occupy as an excuse to justify overtime pay for Absolutely No Good Reason.  This is the second known deliberate interference with free speech and confiscation of harmless political speech props in one week.  Mayor SRB needs to make sure BPD command contacts Legal & bones up on the Constitution or we hardworking City taxpayers will find ourselves shelling out for yet another judgment thanks to this boneheaded bumpkin-like behavior!  What can explain this:  redirected job frustration? Out-of-town/Out-of-State residents’ disdain for the very City that employs them?  SRB, give BPD who live in Baltimore City a 10% salary increase! Officers, Curb Your Enthusiasm! – if you can’t respect Baltimore City citizens’ exercise of their Constitutional rights, Turn In Your Freakin’ Badges !! Intentionally costing the City more judgments for violations of civil rights is NOT AN OPTION !! Use your ears and your little grey cells, hear the message of Occupy, understand that fairer economic policies and ending tax breaks for those who need them the least translates into more resources for those who need them most, less poverty, less crime and better salaries for all public employees – INCLUDING YOU !!!!!!

    • Lex Apostata

      The city pays an average of $3.5 million per year to settle lawsuits against the police department. Get properly trained police officers who stop abusing their power (and the citizenry) and you would have enough money to keep the rec centers open.

  • Norris

    Those cops should be ashamed of themselves. I take it none of them have ever read the Constitution.

  • GlenW

    Too bad they weren’t driving a truck with the sign in back. What would City Hall do then?

  • Anonymous

    This is directly connected to the issue of youth incarceration. If youth have nothing to to do then they will start to get involved in bad things. Take a look at this interview with Monique Dixon and Terry Hickey that talks about why they’re building this new youth jail instead of investing in recs and schools for young people.

    Does Charging Youth as Adults Make Baltimore Safer?

    http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=8126

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