BALTIMORE (AP) — The overnight sit-in at Baltimore City Hall by young, mainly black, activists exposed the deep divide between the government in this troubled city and a population that has been feeling increasingly marginalized and under siege.
As many as 50 protesters, some of them teenagers, disrupted a meeting Wednesday night where city officials were recommending the interim police chief be permanently hired. The activists said they were upset at their lack of input into the appointment, six months after the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who sustained mortal injuries while being transported in the back of a police van.
Gray's death led to protests and riots and galvanized many in Baltimore who say their city's government has long ignored their pressing needs: safe housing, better schools, a less confrontational police department.
"We're trying to hold the police accountable. Our voices are not being heard and that's disgusting," said Tawanda Jones, whose brother died in an encounter with police in 2013.
The protest erupted with activists chanting, "All night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray!" at the end of a city committee hearing about whether to hire Kevin Davis as the permanent police chief. As attention turned to the protesters in the balcony, the committee below quietly voted to approve Davis' appointment, which is scheduled to be voted on Monday by the City Council. Frustrated at being ignored, the activists refused to leave, in a protest that took police eight hours to break up.
"No justice, no peace. If we don't get it shut it, shut it down," the activists chanted.
The group called for a sit-down meeting with Davis and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and refused to leave until officials agreed to meet a list of demands that included better treatment for protesters, a significant investment in public schools and social services and a promise that police would avoid using armored vehicles and riot gear. The protesters also asked that officers always wear badges and name tags.
Davis tried to defuse the situation.
"I'd like to propose this to you, because we can accomplish a lot more at a table where we can all fit," he said.
"You have our demands, you let all your supporters speak," someone in the balcony yelled back.
"I will be more than happy to meet with your entire group," Davis said.
"Now! This is the space where we can talk," someone yelled back.
Davis eventually left.
Police kept the demonstrators sequestered in the balcony.
After several hours, some of the demonstrators left after being threatened with arrest, they said.
About 4 a.m. Thursday, the demonstration ended with at least 12 of the remaining activists led off in plastic handcuffs and loaded into transport vehicles
"The remaining protesters refused to leave the building. As a direct result of their failure to comply, the remaining protesters have been arrested and charged with trespassing," a police statement added.
Some watching the police operation shouted at the officers: "It is our duty to fight for our freedom! We have nothing to lose but our chains!"
Police said they charged 16 people, including three juveniles, with trespassing. Those arrested ranged in age from 16 to 38.
The complex was largely quiet by 5 a.m.
"All we are doing is peacefully demonstrating. We were disrespected by Kevin Davis. He didn't take us seriously," said Kevin Wellons, 19, who left the sit-in around 3:30 a.m. with several others.
Kwame Rose, an organizer who also left before police moved in, said activists will continue to press for police reforms.
"The politicians, they failed us today," Rose said. "All (Davis) had to do was come upstairs for 10 minutes. All we wanted was for the commissioner to meet the people he's attacking. And now he's attacking us again."
Davis took the interim role in July after predecessor Anthony Batts was fired amid a spike in violent crime in Baltimore following Gray's death.
If approved by the City Council, Davis would earn $200,000 a year under a contract to run through June of 2020.
Three of the committee's five members voted in favor of Davis. Councilman Nick Mosby, who is married to State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, voted against the confirmation, while Carl Stokes, who is running for mayor, abstained.
Marilyn Mosby is prosecuting six officers in connection with Gray's death. After Mosby's decision and the widespread unrest, homicides began to rise and residents in crime-addled neighborhoods accused police officers of abandoning their posts.
Addressing the committee Wednesday, Davis said he remains committed to training officers to actively engage and interact with community members. Davis also emphasized his commitment to "respect and fight for the right for Americans to assemble and peacefully protest."
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