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Mobtown Beat

More on the Charles Village Election Night Arrests

By Jeffrey Anderson | Posted 11/5/2008

While 240,000 Chicagoans convened at the site of the 1968 student riots, and as the streets of Washington D.C. filled with thousands peacefully celebrating Barack Obama's election as president, Baltimore police arrested 15 among a crowd of about 300 in Charles Village for disorderly conduct.

Among those arrested at the corner of 33rd and St. Paul streets this morning at approximately 2 A.M. were two Johns Hopkins University professors, a Baltimore City school teacher, a freelance journalist and a number of area college students, according to news reports and interviews of witnesses and an arrestee. All of those arrested, including one man who was zapped with a stun device, were released around 9 A.M. without charges. Earlier today City Paper posted a YouTube video made by a witness to the event, and The Baltimore Sun posted a story about the arrests to its web site.

Baltimore Police spokesman Sterling Clifford told Sun reporters that the arrestees ignored instructions from police, and that the officers did what was necessary to maintain order and safety. A witness to the incident, Matthew Weinstein, Baltimore Region Director of the nonprofit group Progressive Maryland, shot video and filed a written complaint with Northern District Commander, Major Ross Buzzuro. "I write to complain about what struck me as an overly harsh reaction by Northern District officers to the spontaneous celebration that took place tonight at 33rd and St. Paul Sts.," Weinstein wrote to Buzzuro, in an e-mail he shared with City Paper.

Weinstein, a 16-year resident of the neighborhood, observed a crowd of young people, mostly Johns Hopkins students, gathering on the northern corners of the major intersection chanting "Obama" and "Yes We Can." He saw a "phalanx of Northern District officers" close off St. Paul Street north of 34th Street, march into the crowd with instructions to disperse and begin to arrest people. "Why couldn't a more lenient approach have been employed, given the unusual circumstances?" his complaint states.

No such incidents occurred at the historic gathering of a quarter million people in Chicago's Grant Park, where violence marred the 1968 Democratic Convention, according to Jenifer Martinez, director of media affairs for the city's Office of Emergency Management, which oversaw joint operations conducted by police, fire and transportation officials. "There was nothing out of the ordinary," Martinez says of the event. "We're very excited."

In Washington D.C., the streets erupted with the kind of jubilation usually reserved for when the Redskins win a Super Bowl--minus the overturned cars and vandalism that has marred such events in the past. "It was just everybody celebrating," says Officer Israel James of the Metropolitan Police Department. "No disorderly conduct, no burning tires. Everybody just came together and was into the election."

A City Paper reporter walked from the U.S. Capitol down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House shortly after Obama's victory speech ended, around midnight. Car horns blared and loud cheers echoed from all directions as revelers walked, ran, skipped, and crossed the streets at will. Security guards, Capitol Police, and D.C. police stood watch over federal buildings, private buildings, and city streets. Out front of the FBI building two men in flannel shirts and trucker caps stood stonefaced, text messaging from their cell phones. At Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street, a block from the White House, folk legend Joan Baez was spotted wandering around in an exotic-colored bathrobe, along with a man wearing a tiger print robe. "It's a cheetah print," Baez explained, when approached by City Paper.

Across from the White House in Lafayette Park, known as Peace Park, a crowd of several hundred roamed and cheered and crowded up against high metal gates on the north side of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., where a pair of armed guards stood in the street looking back at them. People snapped photographs, smoked cigarettes and talked into their cell phones in a variety of languages. "It's like a party and it's not stopping," gushed a young co-ed in an Obama sweatshirt. "This is what it's gonna be like!"

To the north along 14th Street, where riots in the late 1960s following Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination raged and burned out entire city blocks, traffic came to a virtual standstill. Music pumped from car speakers, people stood up through car sun roofs, hung out car windows, and jumped out to run in the street. Homeless men, hookers, and workers getting off their night shifts wandered among the exuberant masses on the sidewalk and in the streets, as police presence was seen, but not felt.

In Baltimore, however, ACLU of Maryland staff attorney David Rocah says his office has received complaints from some of those arrested on election night. He declines to discuss specifics, but says the First Amendment protects spontaneous celebrations of the type that occurred all over the country last night. Rocah says he is troubled by such developments amid a celebration of "one of the most important events in American history." Adds Rocah, "I'm not aware of another city that had police throwing people into paddy wagons. People do not have the right to just do anything they want, but the appropriate response is to move the crowd to a different location where it will not cause a problem. That is what police in well-trained police departments are trained to do."

For more videos by Matthew Weinstein go to youtube.com/citypaper

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