Although many Baltimore leaders are adept at paying lip service to the movement to protect Black lives, they still have a long way to go in their efforts to confront the systems that work together to kill Black people.
This was apparent in the way Baltimore’s Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and Mayor Brandon Scott marked the one year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of former police officer Derek Chauvin.
On May 25, Commissioner Harrison told a group of residents and activists who gathered near Johns Hopkins University for the one year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder by police, that the Lord put him in Baltimore to make a difference.
“I’m here because I was called by God to be here.” Harris, who has been commissioner since 2019, told attendees.
At the event, Harrison, like a lot of officials all across the country, sought to make Floyd’s violent and public death the exception to policing rather than the rule. Harrison, a police veteran of 30 years, called Floyd’s death “a shock to the conscience.”
During the event, attendees said the names of victims of police brutality all over the country. They said Floyd’s name, of course. They said the names of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner. They said Freddie Gray’s name, but the killings of Black people in Baltimore did not stop with Freddie Gray, and there were others before him. They did not say the name of Tyrone West, whose sister Tawanda Jones has been calling attention to her brother’s death and police brutality since 2013.
Baltimore has already gone through all of this. The one year anniversary of the 2015 Baltimore Uprising arrived with similarly milquetoast panels and town halls and those played out a lot like this George Floyd event. A moment where the revolutionary fervor was fully absorbed by those in power, taken from the people that understood why Baltimore had to rise up, and replaced by reform and accountability talk that played well to news cameras.
But very little has changed in Baltimore since Gray’s death. The police budget continues to grow. The department remains under a federal consent decree and refuses to reckon with one of the country’s most egregious police scandals, in which the BPD’s Gun Trace Task Force was shown to be robbing residents, dealing drugs, and planting evidence.
Just this week, Kevin Jones, the sergeant who oversaw the corrupt unit in the months leading up to their indictment, was promoted to chief of patrol.
Harrison took some time to tell the crowd who came out in honor of George Floyd, a feel-good story about a police department that has failed to reckon with its own racism and corruption.
“This is what we now call the greatest comeback story in America,” Harrison said.
“The greatest comeback story in America” is the Baltimore Police Department’s 2019 recruitment campaign slogan, by the way.
Meanwhile, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott released a statement on the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death.
“The murder of George Floyd last year provided a gut check for the nation and forced leaders to reimagine the future of public safety and policing,” Scott’s statement said. “Since then, leaders have successfully made strides to improve transparency, integrity, and accountability, but there is much more work to accomplish.”
As he often does, Scott said the right things. And it seems as though he actually means it, though many also bristled at how the statement mostly focused on good governance—how Scott is “committed to approaching public safety as an urgent public health matter” and how “the Baltimore Police Department is addressing long-standing racial and gender disparities in their ranks by issuing a new strategic framework to advance equity.”
This, as Battleground Baltimore’s Lisa Snowden-McCray noted in a deep dive into Scott’s mayorship, is Scott’s approach: running the city “at a basic level of competency” and at the same time, trying to address “a rising, progressive call for bolder action from dedicated activists.”
“Everyone must accept the moral challenge to be better and do better, and ultimately show Gianna Floyd that her father did in fact change the world,” Scott’s statement concluded.
Immediately, many pointed out that Scott’s budget increases the police budget by $28 million dollars. Others noted that Scott, while ready to declare “George’s life mattered,” has been silent about the ongoing prosecution of Keith Davis Jr., a Black man shot by police in June of 2015, later charged with a homicide, and prosecuted four times for the same crime (and likely to be prosecuted a fifth time). Davis Jr.’s case has become a local and national activist cause due to the sheer amount of prosecutorial misconduct and police corruption surrounding the case and the advocacy of Davis Jr.’s wife Kelly.
After Commissioner Harrison spoke, Battleground Baltimore took a moment to ask the commissioner a couple of questions.
When Harrison was asked about the growing demands across the city for Baltimore to defund the department, he said the budget was out of his hands, that he had no control over it.
“There are no operational increases,” Harrison said. “What you’ll see when we do our budget presentation, it’s all things that are out of our control, like pension and healthcare and stuff like that. So there’s no extra money going to the police department for operational costs. It’s just things that are beyond our control that happen in all city agencies.”
When Harrison was asked about Keith Davis Jr., he said he didn’t know anything about Keith Davis Jr.
“I’m not familiar with that one. So I don’t know that I can speak to it,” he said.
While the May 25 event for Floyd gave Harrison a chance to make a case for himself and provided those who attended a moment to reflect and mourn, the second Baltimore Taxpayer’s Night on May 27 gave Baltimoreans a chance to say what was on their mind: “Defund the police” and “Free Keith Davis Jr.”
“I love Baltimore so I must speak out and urge you to reduce the amount of money we are investing in policing while ignoring the root causes of violence,” Dr. Gwen DuBois, a primary care physician who lives in the Mount Washington neighborhood said.
This Taxpayer’s Night gave resident’s an opportunity to speak to the Baltimore City Council and followed a previous Taxpayer’s Night in April that was directed at Mayor Scott. At that April event, due to the efforts of Organizing Black, nearly 100 people from across the city called in to demand the police budget not be increased. May’s Taxpayer’s Night went similarly.
“That the City of Baltimore has to scramble together on two nights to say something and hope that it changes is not a participatory process,” Rob Ferrell of Organizing Black noted, before stressing that residents in Baltimore want more of a say in how their tax money is being spent.
Organizing Black’s demands are that the police budget be reduced by $100 million. The overwhelming majority of speakers at May’s Taxpayer’s Night event not only called for defunding the police (only two people who spoke praised the department), but also called attention to Keith Davis, Jr.
“These trials have resulted in two mistrials and two overturned guilty verdicts. They have cost the city of Baltimore an estimated $1.2 million dollars,” said Bilphena Yahwon, who has been advocating for Davis Jr. for years. “It is clear that Baltimore residents are directly paying for the unjust prosecution of a police brutality victim.”
The day after dozens of residents declared “Free Keith Davis Jr.” or some variation of that sentiment during Taxpayer’s Night, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office announced additional charges against Davis Jr.
The announcement came in the form of a Friday news dump, released around 6 p.m. on May 28, heading into Memorial Day weekend. He was charged with attempted murder due to a stabbing in jail last year. The charges arrived just a couple of weeks after Davis Jr.’s previous conviction was overturned.
Davis Jr.’s growing supporters argued that the timing of the new charges were suspicious and explained that the incident from over a year ago, was in self-defense.
On the day the new charges were announced, Keith’s wife Kelly spoke out.
“Marilyn Mosby is continuing to be vindictive and retaliate against Keith. Keith is now being charged with attempted murder on a detainee who threatened my life and attacked him,” Kelly Davis said on the day of the new charges. “I just want the city to know this is what we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with this powerful woman who continues to use the criminal justice system she is supposed to be shepherd of, to attack Keith, a police brutality victim.”
“Free Keith Davis Jr.” Rally
On Tuesday, June 2, a group of over 50 supporters gathered outside of the Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse to call attention to the ongoing prosecution—and as defense attorney LaToya Francis Williams said, persecution—of Davis Jr. and more broadly, to the all-encompassing cruelty of the prison system.
“This conference is to show you all that Keith Davis Jr. is not just the case,” Yahwon told the crowd. “Keith Davis Jr. is not just a ward of the state. Keith Davis Jr. is not just a property of a prison. He is a father, a loving father.”
Yahwon again mentioned the economic cost of continuing to prosecute Davis Jr.
“We are saying not only drop the charges against Keith Davis Jr. But that no tax money, no tax payer, none of us should be implicated in the filing of the state,” Yahwon said.
The event highlighted the voices of young Black people in Baltimore, as well as educating attendees and passersby about the harmful impact the criminal justice system has had on people in Baltimore and how deep its roots go.
Nineteen-year-old activist Solomon Mercer, noted that Davis Jr. has been prosecuted not once, but five times by “a Black woman herself,” referring to Mosby. Then Mercer asked the question that many Baltimoreans have been asking themselves as they watch, year after year, public officials saying the right thing but rarely doing the right thing.
“How can you claim that you want to change your city and change our system, but do nothing to change it?,” Mercer said.