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All Quiet on the Southwestern Front

Though This Year’s Sowebo Festival Was Undisturbed By Police, Resentment Still Simmers

FIGHTING SPIRIT: Unlike last year’s Sowebohemian Arts and Music Festival, this year’s fest saw only minor altercations, such as a fight in which this man was injured.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 6/8/2005

There was just one tense moment during the gloaming of an otherwise mellow Sowebohemian Arts and Music Festival on May 29, when a fight broke out on Hollins Street.

It was a domestic disturbance, a fight between a man and a woman, the same kind of mundane incident that last year brought a mini police riot squad to the festival, resulting in four arrests and reports of abuse by the Baltimore police officers.

As last year’s the festival was winding down, police moved in to clear the streets in a manner that many festivalgoers said was brutal and aggressive. Two rows of police officers with batons at the ready marched into the crowd before a stage on South Arlington Avenue (“Sowebo Beatdown,” Mobtown Beat, June 9, 2004).

“I just saw a swarm of cops come into the area where the audience was,” says Sam Kane, a sound technician who witnessed the melee from his perch on a stage set up in the street. “It was chaos.”

Before the night was over, a man was pinned down and tasered, a pregnant woman was thrown to the ground, festival staff were threatened with arrest, and a shocked crowd was told to disperse or else. All charges against those arrested that day—ranging from resisting arrest to second-degree assault—were eventually dropped.

“You have a gathering of people getting together enjoying each other in one of the roughest neighborhoods and nothing is going wrong until the police show up,” says Jim Hickey, a Sowebo festival organizer. “There is something wrong with that.”

In the week preceding this year’s festival, organizers were anxious, and there was a flurry of phone calls to the mayor’s liaison to set up a meeting with the Southern and Western police districts to discuss security at the event. The organizers were particularly concerned about officers from the Western District, as it was they who marched into the crowd last year, batons at the ready, in response to a “Signal 13” call—police parlance for officer in trouble—Baltimore Police Department spokesman Donny Moses says. Organizers this year took precautions to avoid trouble with officers from the Western again, going so far as to move one of the stages to a new location so that it would technically be out of the Western District’s jurisdiction.

“We wanted to let them know, we don’t have this festival to cause trouble or create riots in the streets,” says Ocean May, the arts and crafts and nonprofit chair for the festival. “We just want people to have a good time, listen to music, and buy some art.”

The days leading up to the festival were particularly irksome for Lauraville resident Jeffrey Smith. Last year, Smith was shocked with a taser gun and arrested for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and second-degree assault. Despite the fact that witnesses say Smith did not provoke the officers in any way, he spent 24 hours in Central Booking on those charges.

“The thing with me is I would never do anything to provoke the police,” he says. “I have a business, a baby on the way. I had way too much to lose.”

Earlier this year, Smith says he met with the city’s Civilian Review Board and a police Internal Affairs Commission, both of which are still looking into the matter. Smith says he is resisting the urge to file a lawsuit against the city over the matter—he says he would be satisfied to see the police department issue an explanation about what happened that day. But so far, he says, that has not happened.

“I know they are not going to come up to me and say they are sorry, but I want to know what they were thinking when they beat the crap out of me,” Smith says.

Moses says that the investigation into the methods used to disperse the crowd at last year’s festival is complete but under review. He says that the festival was coming to an end and officers “were trying to get people to move along a little quicker.”

When told of witnesses’ assessments of last year’s police response as being too aggressive, Moses says: “Unfortunately, the witnesses are not privy to police department policy. A lot of times people think we’re over the top, but that’s just the way we do things.”

Moses says last year’s debacle did not prompt the police department to change its approach to dealing with crowds at city festivals. “If help is needed, officers would show up the same way,” he says. “We don’t anticipate any problems.”

Smith attended Sunday’s Sowebo festival, and he says he did had no problems with the police this year.

“I was skittish the whole time,” he says. “I didn’t expect that.”

Just to be on the safe side, he says, he and his wife and child made it a point to be out of the area well before the festival closed.

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