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Third Eye

Give a Dog a Bone

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 1/29/2003

Last week about 500 citizens protested city school budget cuts outside the system's North Avenue headquarters. Expecting a media blitz, I didn't go to the rally planning to write a column about it. I went in response to a challenge of sorts issued to the public at the Jan. 14 school board meeting.

"This is a call to action," said Michael Hamilton, head of the Baltimore City Council of PTAs. Urging more parental involvement in the budgetary process, Hamilton talked about the pending Jan. 21 protest. With stated plans to block off North Avenue, the rally promised drama, but, Hamilton said, "it's time for drama, because this is a time of crisis."

As chairman of the People's Plan Inc., a community-based group that organized the rally, Tyrone Powers chimed in, saying that city youth need school leaders and elected officials to better educate them, not "send them to their grave or to prison."

On a less alarming tip, I decided to attend the rally after realizing how bad things had gotten at city schools when my kid, at the behest of teachers, recently asked me to donate copy paper. School officials, gulping over a $31 million deficit, had said they'd likely target costly things like building construction, technology improvements, and possibly even salaries (with teacher layoffs) for budget cuts. But copy paper--cases of which retail for less than $20 at many stores? Uh-uh, I thought. That's going too far.

At noon on a frigid Tuesday following the board meeting, it was an uplifting surprise to find so many people outside school headquarters chanting in unison, "Books not bars!" Besides parents and children, the large crowd included politicos, education advocates, and plenty of grass-roots activists and community groups. The Rev. Al Sharpton--having just declared his candidacy for president--also breezed through to dish out some stirring oratory.

Among the speeches that got the crowd most hyped was one by the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, the pastor of West Baltimore's Empowerment Temple A.M.E. Church. With an impassioned cadence, Bryant quoted scriptures and pinpointed the lack of clergy leadership among the rally participants (organizers from the politically powerful Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, for instance, were conspicuously absent). Bryant downed political sellouts whose modern-day mantra is, in so many words, more "Can't we all just get along" than "We shall overcome."

Bryant's speech--as well as others delivered by men at the predominantly male rally--struck as me powerful but testosterone-heavy. There was a lot of railing against the system, with reminders that racism is America's garden-variety perennial. Tone aside, pertinent questions were raised about why the school system--which, no doubt, former Mayor Kurt Schmoke let go to hell in a handbasket--isn't being championed by Mayor Martin O'Malley, a man who often basks in a national spotlight, who can be charming to a fault, and effective (read: public safety and redevelopment) when he's got a mind to do something.

The consensus? O'Malley had obviously decided against making education his battle. It was ours.

"Alright, people, let's take it to the streets!" cried one rally organizer, signaling to the assembled that the speeches were over. It was time to move off the school headquarters steps and onto the westbound lanes of North Avenue, effectively blocking traffic. "Shut 'em down!" yelled some participants; others, including many gray-haired elders, simply squared their shoulders and locked arms as they started to march, singing, "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around . . . "

For a moment, the show of solidarity was beautiful, refreshing even, given Baltimore's long history of civil-rights and other grass-roots activism. As the front ranks set off, I hung near the back, catching a glimpse of protest signs swaying high overhead and watching TV cameramen scrambling for good shots. The protesters hung a right onto Calvert Street so they could circle the block around the school headquarters, after which the rally would end.

I was about to fall in at the rear of the mass when, suddenly, I heard loud growling and looked behind me to see, about 10 feet away, maybe 20 police officers in riot gear quickly taking up posts along the lanes and concrete island in the middle of North Avenue. The growling? Large attack dogs--two being manned by officers in the street, others in several white vans that, presumably, had housed the officers. Other officers held numerous sets of white plastic handcuffs in their leather-gloved hands.

"You brought attack dogs to a peaceful demonstration?" The incredulous words were out of my mouth before I could stop them, followed by, "Where are the water hoses?" Maybe it was just protocol that necessitated that type of police presence. Maybe school officials or someone else had requested it. All I knew was that I left home angry about there being no copy paper at my kid's school, and now I was angry at thinly veiled threats of a paddy wagon or a rabies shot.

As I stood frozen, eyeballing the cops, them pretty much ignoring me, I heard the crowd looping back around to North Avenue, completing the circle. Fortunately, nothing untoward jumped off, and the rally ended with organizers urging an even greater turnout for another protest scheduled for Jan. 28, after this story went to press. I can't help but wonder if, once again, despite the previous peaceful protest, law-enforcement tactics will again go to the dogs.

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