By Jake Stolzenbach and G. Synade Beason
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writers
Dozens of activists, some with black tape over their mouths and others with raised fists, marched to the Baltimore Police Department headquarters Wednesday to protest police brutality and the city’s policy of adding gag orders to financial settlements with victims.
“A poor man’s reality is police brutality,” said Tawanda Jones whose brother died in police custody in July 2013. “It is not about the income, it’s about the outcome.”
Baltimore City adds gag orders to many monetary settlements in police abuse cases. These strict confidentiality agreements silence the victims and their family members, forbidding them from telling their stories as a condition to receive money, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said, adding the police are not subject to the same rule. If the victims do not comply with the gag order, officials said they can lose part or all of the settlement money. Multiple activists groups were present for the rally that began in front of city hall.
“We won’t sit idly by while our community, our brother, our sisters are gagged, forced to not speak on traumas and issues that directly impact them,” said Tre’ Murphy, field operator for the ACLU of Maryland. “Allowing the narrative to be told, and stolen from them that they should be controlling themselves. We won’t allow that anymore.”
Politicians offered their support.
“My commitment is that I will support any legislation that will end the gag orders, and I think that we need that to happen,” said state Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Democrat who represents Maryland’s 41st District of Baltimore City. “The only way that we are going to fix what is wrong in Baltimore with policing is civilian led policing, and we have to do that legislatively.”
Before the march began, cries for justice echoed across the War Memorial plaza from the activists’ megaphone. The crowd voiced anger, frustration and worry. Some wrapped themselves in police caution tape. Others held signs.
With most of the activists wearing white T-shirts saying “FORCED SILENCE CONDONES POLICE VIOLENCE,” they silently marched roughly 1,000 feet to the police headquarters. Some had their arms raised in the air. Many taped their mouths to symbolize the results of the gag orders. When they reached their destination, the activists ripped off the tape. Jones led the marchers as well as the rally in front of city hall.
“She (Jones) is fighting not just for her brother, but she’s fighting for somebody else’s son,” explained Ted Sutton, a Baltimore activist. “She’s speaking up for somebody else’s brother so they won’t die unjustly.”
Jones noted, “The city takes tax paying dollars. We pay them to serve and protect us.”
Jones’ brother, Tyrone West was 44 years old when he died on July 18, 2013, during a traffic stop in Northeast Baltimore. Police and witnesses’ versions of the incident conflict with some saying West fought with officers while others said officers beat West to death. However, the medical examiner’s office ruled that West died because he had a heart condition that was exacerbated by the struggle with police and the summer heat. The West family won a $1 million settlement from the city and state in July 2017.
Jones started “West Wednesdays,” a coalition meets every Wednesday with activists and allies to end police abuse in Baltimore. This Wednesday marked the 272nd week of West Wednesday.
“They [Baltimore City] are trying to gag us,” Jones said. “They are gagging families, families are suffering in silence.”
Other groups represented were Not Without Black Women and Runners4Justice.
Activists insisted that the gag orders allow police officers to continue conduct that resulted in tax dollars being paid to victims. The victims and their families complained that if they speak out against the police, in efforts to reduce abuse, then their monetary settlements could be affected. Families must weight the decision of taking the money or sharing their experiences, activists said.
Ashley Overbey was held up as the perfect example of their complaints. Overbey was arrested and allegedly brutally attacked by police after calling about a breakin at her home. She was arrested on six criminal charges that later were dismissed. There was a gag order agreement set in place in which the incident was not to be publicized. The Baltimore Sun published a story about Overbey and the $63,000 settlement. However, Overbey responded on The Baltimore Sun website to false statements by the public about the incident.
City officials insisted Overbey’s response violated the gag order and paid only half of the settlement owed to her. Overbey’s lawyer, the ACLU and others are fighting to help her recover the money, officials said.
“People are so scared to talk. People hand me cards in which they have written down their story,” said Jones. “They are so traumatized and victimized that they can’t talk about it. You’re forever suffering from post traumatic stress and then they place something over your mouth so that you can’t talk. If you can’t talk you can’t breath.”
Meredith Goode, spokesperson for ACLU of Maryland, said the activists have jointly worked to systematically eliminate the gag orders, which force families to trade their First Amendment rights for a monetary settlement. Gag orders silence victims, denying valuable victim input in police reform efforts and causing history to be lost when people cannot tell their stories. Besides the rally, Goode said she also was involved in planning a letter party in which people came to write letters to Baltimore City Council President Jack Young.
The groups have developed a list of demands for Baltimore City officials, including the Mayor’s office and Baltimore City government. In addition to ending the gag orders, officials also called for the City Law Department to release information on previous gag orders, and to require the Baltimore City Council to hold a special hearing on gag orders as they also declare past gag orders null and void.
“We are specifically focused around gag orders on police abuse victims,” said Goode. “The gag order is a free speech issue that particularly impacts black and brown people and women who are left to deal with the impacts of social traumatization.”