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  September 25, 2015

Prosecutors Drop False Imprisonment Charges Against Baltimore Pastor

ACLU says remaining charges of inciting a riot are overreaching and could discourage civil disobedience
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STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: It was a video sent to the media construed by some as a message to participants in the city's ongoing protest that tolerance was ebbing for those who wanted to express their frustration with Baltimore's history of heavy-handed policing. Surveillance of a protest led by Baltimore Pastor Wesley West just before the first day of court proceedings for six Baltimore police officers that was touted as proof serious charges against the pastor were warranted.

West, who is pictured here leading protesters into the street, was hit with six charges including serious felonies like destruction of property and false imprisonment, an array of criminal counts that has prompted concerns from the ACLU that police were sending a heavy-handed message that the country's long tradition of civil disobedience would not be tolerated here.

DAVID ROCAH: It seems like they were trying to send some kind of message that there's a new sheriff in town and we're not going to tolerate this anymore, but I would say is there are far more constructive and less inflammatory ways to send the message other than arresting a minister at his church during Bible study. You could just pick up the phone and talk to people.

JANIS: Particularly concerning for David Rocah, the organization's head lawyer, was the charge of false imprisonment, which police justified because West touched an automobile. But now the Real News Network has learned prosecutors decided not to pursue the most serious charges of false imprisonment.

ROCHELLE RITCHIE: We're actually not moving forward with the false imprisonment charge against Mr. West.

JANIS: In an exclusive interview with the Real News Network Rochelle Ritchie, a spokesman for Marilyn Mosby, says her office will not pursue the charge of false imprisonment, while adding that prosecutors did not recommend bail for West, who was released on his own recognizance.

RITCHIE: Actually, in our bail recommendation we did not even consider that charge. And we actually recommended to the court commissioner that Mr. West be released on his own recognizance.

JANIS: It marks a slight change in strategy and perhaps a split with police on how to handle protests in the future, even though the rest of the charges remain active.

RITCHIE: We are going to be moving forward on the other charges, but of course I can't discuss those charges because it's an open and pending investigation.

JANIS: A fact which continues to trouble observers, who are concerned about the right for Baltimore residence to use civil disobedience in a city still torn by the death of Gray in police custody.

ROCAH: The idea behind civil disobedience and the idea I think behind people protesting in the streets and blocking traffic is to say life cannot and should not go on as usual. This is a crisis. We want everyone to understand and feel the crisis that we feel. And so we're not going to let things just happen as usual. That's a perfect--that is, that is part of American political tradition, that is what civil disobedience is all about. That is what political protest is all about.

What seems different about what happened to Rev. West is the nature of the charges that were brought against him, which seem to not match the conduct that he engaged in. In particular, the charge of inciting a riot, which at least from the police narrative is based entirely on the fact that he was vehement and angry in his remarks. But being vehement and angry in your denunciation of police misconduct is not the same thing as inciting a riot, is in fact your First Amendment right, and something that people should be vehement and angry about, in my opinion.

JANIS: We caught up with Pastor West at his church just down the street from Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was arrested and later died.

PASTOR WESLEY WEST: I mean, personally I think that they're trying to keep those individuals that are standing for the community and also being a voice, I think they're trying to keep them [kind of] hush hush.

JANIS: He says the charges represent a long history of government's attempts to quell protests, and the demands that underlie them, for freedom and equality.

WEST: You know what Dr. King said is, injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. And I think this city, with all the pastors preaching, all the activists that have stepped up, I think this city has become a model to other cities that say hey, we're not tolerating what's going on.

JANIS: Two ideas that he says have long been ignored in a city which has bet its future on aggressive police tactics and tax breaks for downtown developers, and rarely pays attention to the majority of the residents who until now have suffered in silence.

WEST: The answer is, and what I want to see, is us come together. And it's not going to take police, it's going to take the blacks, in the black community, to change what's happening in the communities. It's not going to take the police, because they're killing us. The more we put them out there in the streets, the more they're killing us. The more they're keeping us in poverty, the more they're keeping us in prison. [That all] about change. What I want to see is brotherly love. What I want to see is the black community flourishing.

JANIS: Reporting for the Real News Network, Stephen Janis, Taya Graham, and Megan Sherman in Baltimore.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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