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Protesters gather Wednesday morning outside of Baltimore City Circuit Court. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Protest, muted and small, accompanies Freddie Gray hearing

Concerns about large protests went unfounded as pretrial hearings for the six Baltimore police officers charged in connection with Freddie Gray’s death began on Wednesday.

Baltimore police, city officials and businesses expressed concern that large protests, like the city experienced in April following Gray’s death from injuries suffered in police custody, could flare up as the case moved to the courtroom. In April, initially peaceful protests devolved into rioting on two nights that resulted in roughly 400 businesses throughout the city being damaged.

At a news conference on Wednesday night, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake praised police officers for handling demonstrations in a respectful manner while still enforcing the law. She also praised those protesting for upholding Baltimore’s reputation for peaceful demonstrations.

“It is totally acceptable to have vibrant and energized protests, but to also be respectful and to stay within the boundaries of the law, and that’s what we saw today. Today’s actions were peaceful, respectful and an example of democracy in action, and it shows people what Baltimore is really about,” Rawlings-Blake said.

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Protests remained small throughout Wednesday morning as 35 to 50 demonstrators chanted and gave interviews outside of Baltimore Circuit Court as hearings prepared to get underway.  The protest was organized by groups, such as Peoples Power Assembly, and was aimed at voicing opposition to motions seeking a change of venue, recusal of State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby from the case and the dismissal of charges against the officers. Motions seeking to dismiss the charges and for Mosby to recuse herself were denied.

The protesters, who were greatly outnumbered by members of the news media, stood at the northeast corner of North Calvert and East Lexington streets. They carried signs and took turns talking over a loud speaker chanting slogans such as: “We want justice. We want peace. Jail the police.”

Shai Crawley, 20, wore skinny jeans, dress shoes and thick-rimmed glasses and milled about the protesters throughout the morning. But what stood out about the East Baltimore resident was that Crawley was carrying a Bible in his hand.

Crawley said he preaches at Gallery Church in East Point and that he believes being a part of the protest is part of his ministry. He said the Bible instructs Christians to care for the least among them and that he felt compelled to stand in solidarity with demonstrators. When it was Crawley’s turn to speak, he turned his focus on the throng of photographers, videographers and reporters in front of him as helicopters circled in the sky above.

“Don’t get it twisted. We are not here to entertain you media folk,” Crawley said.

The protests remained peaceful throughout the morning until organizers tried to march south toward the Inner Harbor. At that point, an incident at Calvert and Pratt streets between a protester, a motorist and the police temporarily turned the situation tense. The protester has been identified in reports by other news media outlets and on social media, but the police did not officially release the name because he was in the process of being charged.

Max Masinter, who works downtown, said he witnessed the incident. He said the protester stepped into traffic on Calvert Street holding a bullhorn, and pretended to be hit by a car. He said when the police approached the man he “flailed” at police, who then handcuffed him.

“This is someone trying to fabricate a story,” Masinter said.

Colleen Davidson, a Baltimore resident and member of the group Baltimore FIST, said she didn’t see the protester get hit by a car. Ssaid the man was surrounded by four police officers, one of whom held a Taser to the protester’s back. Video of the arrest on social media shows an officer with a Taser pushed against the man’s back.

“It took forever to bring an ambulance around,” Davidson said.

According to a statement emailed by police, the protester was arrested for blocking the roadway and ignoring orders not to do so.  Police said that despite reports on social media a Taser was not “deployed” while the protester was taken into custody. One officer suffered injuries while assisting with the arrest, but the wounds did not require the officer to go to a hospital.

“While we respect everyone’s right to peacefully protest, we will not allow people to block roadways,” police said in the emailed statement.

About Adam Bednar

Adam Bednar covers real estate and development for The Daily Record.