Baltimore Police are getting ready for what looks like a riot by having officers dressed as Robo Cops with riot gear and black Humvees.
The police are training to face disfranchised and impoverished black youths, who are awaiting the first of a series of verdicts in the killing of teenager Freddie Gray, who died last spring while in police custody.
There is a tense situation brewing in the city of Baltimore as police officer William Porter awaits the verdict of the jury, accused of the death of Freddie Gray. He is the first of six officers charged with the manslaughter of the young black teenager, who died after getting restrained and suffering spine injuries while in police custody.
The judge in charge of the case has instructed the jury to break the deadlock they have reached and continue their deliberations towards a unanimous verdict.
The Guardian reports:
At Druid Hill Park, not far from the location where skirmishes between police and high school students broke out last spring after news spread of Gray’s death, police from surrounding jurisdictions in Maryland performed drills, dressed in full riot gear and accompanied by humvees, according to Devin Allen.
Allen, whose photo of the unrest in the spring was put on the cover of Time magazine, documented police drills at the park. “They were ‘learning how to push the crowd back’-type drill,” Allen told the Guardian.
— Mike Schuh WJZ (@MikeWJZ) December 16, 2015
TJ Smith, spokesman for the Baltimore police department, told the Baltimore Sun this is “not the visual we want to portray”. But it is one of a number of conflicting messages coming from officials that are pitting them against activists.
A letter from the CEO of Baltimore schools sent to parents Monday warned: “Like Mayor Rawlings-Blake and city police officials, I am very concerned about the possibility of civil disorder following the announcement of the verdict.”
CEO Gregory Thornton’s letter is indicative of an attitude that has taken hold in the more powerful parts of the city that makes protest, not violence, the opposite of peace. The letter drew broad criticism from the ACLU and student activist groups for its equation of protest with vandalism and other criminal activity.
The ACLU of Maryland wrote its own letter in response: “The school system’s letter assumes that students would engage in violent acts, assumes that students only want to express their emotions, not rational views about the conduct of police and lack of accountability, and it misses an opportunity to affirmatively engage students who want to be politically engaged on these issues.
“Baltimore City is experiencing a historic moment,” the letter continued. “Yet the school system’s letter creates a sense that the school leadership does not want students to talk about the issues raised by Freddie Gray’s death or how the justice system is addressing it. The school system’s letter could instead foster constructive conversation about those issues as part of students’ civic education.”
A Baltimore student activist organization called City Bloc issued its own response to Thornton’s letter.
“While we appreciate the school system’s effort to keep students safe, we, the students of City Bloc, feel that Thornton’s stance will inevitably stifle students’ political agency and freedom of speech,” the group’s letter said. “By equating student walkouts with ‘vandalism, civil disorder, and [other] forms of violence,’ the BCPSS has characterized students’ voices as inherently violent and destructive to the city that we all are tasked with protecting.”
A number of students in this group were arrested in October when they occupied city hall in protest over the confirmation of Kevin Davis as police commissioner.
Davis recently canceled all leave for city police officers through 18 December in preparation for any unrest following the verdict in the Porter case.
At a recent talk to a community group, Davis said his department was “the most prepared police department in America in the event of another disturbance”.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen and I don’t mean to be a prognosticator, but I think where we are with our training and equipment and experiences has us in a different place.”
But much of that equipment is riot gear that provokes protesters. The shields and helmets and batons are, in many ways, symbolic of the city’s preparation.
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