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Sowebo Beatdown

Sowebo Arts Festival Goers Subject to Alleged Police Brutality Mull a Class-Action Lawsuit Against City Police Department

Pablo Fiasco
At Least It Didn't Rain: Numerous Sowebo Festival attendees say they were subject to unnecessary use of force by overzealous Baltimore Police Officers.

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 6/9/2004

By most accounts, this year's Sowebo Arts festival held Sunday, May 30, was a complete success. While rain has dampened many of these annual celebrations of art and music that fill the streets around the Hollins Market, dampness didn't descend on this, the 19th such festival held here.

However, dark clouds of another sort marred the closing of the event, when Baltimore City Police officers moved in to clear the streets in a manner festival organizers and attendees have described as "brutal," "totally irrational," and "outrageously aggressive." Four festivalgoers were taken into police custody; all claim to be victims of police misconduct.

An internal police investigation is underway to examine officers' actions. Meanwhile, victims of alleged police abuse, witnesses, and festival officials have been meeting and organizing to present a solid front in opposition to the department's take on events, and to examine possible legal measures, including a class-action lawsuit.

The Hollins Market area is on the border between the city's Southern and Western police districts. Officers from the Southern District, together with a private six-person security force hired by festival organizers, patrolled the event throughout the day without incident, festival organizers say.

"It was a very, very peaceful day," says Sowebo Festival co-chair Jim Hickey.

Details are still sketchy, but at some point in the evening hours a high-priority, all-points request for urgent backup, known as a "Signal 13" or an "officer in distress" call, was issued by officers at the festival. (Some speculate it might have been in response to an altercation involving a woman and a pit bull that occurred at around 8:30 p.m.)

"Apparently officers from Southern District called a Signal 13, apparently for disorderly crowd," says police spokesman Donny Moses, who could not provide an exact time or further details concerning the signal. "The Signal 13 was later dropped."

The call brought a significant number of Western District officers to the festival, which the officers proceeded to shut down. Sowebo Festival organizers are upset that the police made no attempt to seek organizers' help in closing the event, despite the fact that they were attired in shirts marked staff. In addition, organizers were unable to explain to officers that the festival's permit was good until 11 p.m.

"If they had come to me first, I could have had the stages shut down in under five minutes and the place cleared out peacefully in 20 minutes," Hickey says.

By the time the police arrived in force, some time after 9 p.m., only two of the festival's four musical stages were still up and running. The reggae group Living Proof had performed two numbers at a stage erected on South Arlington Avenue when officers had the sound engineer cut the music. Police then took the stage to tell the audience to disperse.

"From what I understand, they were trying to move people out," Moses says. "People don't like being told what to do, but when it's over, it's time to clear the streets."

Lauraville resident Jeffrey Smith, 32, was among the crowd at the Arlington Avenue stage, and was arrested for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and second-degree assault. The police incident report describes Smith as "loud and belligerent and acting in a disorderly manner," and when officers placed him under arrest, the report says Smith became "combative," striking an officer in the shoulder. He was then taken to the ground and subjected to electric shock from a tazer gun.

Smith dubs the police account "a pack of lies," and has been advised by his lawyer not to comment further to reporters about the incident. A number of witnesses to Smith's arrest describe a scenario in which Smith was the unwitting victim of what they consider draconian police tactics

"There was absolutely no reason [Smith] should have been singled out by police," says Raphael Solano, who was standing next to Smith when the incident occurred. Rather, Solano says police came up behind Smith unannounced and unprovoked and grabbed him by the arms. It would have been impossible for Smith to have swung at an officer, Solano says, since "the police had his arms behind his back from the moment they touched him." Once on the ground, Solano saw Smith being tazered "a couple of times." (Moses says using a tazer gun on prostrate subject is "fine" so long as the suspect is not in handcuffs.)

The next festivalgoers taken into police custody were Charles Village residents Vane Bennett, 27, and his three-months-pregnant fiancée, Keisha Harvin, 29. They had come to the Sowebo Festival with their three young children, aged 18 months, 3 years, and 5 years. Bennett says he and his family had been at the Arlington stage when police ordered the crowd to leave. They were walking west on Hollins Street to their car when police approached them from behind, shouting at them to move. "They yelled in my ear like I was a dog," says Bennett, who responded by telling the officers that he and his family were moving. A brief verbal exchange ensued that ended with both Bennett and Harvin being taken into custody. Bennett says just before the police placed Harvin face down on the cement, he and other witnesses shouted, "She's pregnant! She's pregnant!"

Bennett says he was never formally charged with a crime; he was released from Central Booking the following morning. Once in custody, police found marijuana in a purse belonging to Harvin, and she was arrested on a controlled-substance charge. (Harvin denies any knowledge of the marijuana.) While in police custody, Harvin began to experience vaginal bleeding and was taken to Mercy Hospital, where she was diagnosed with a partially torn placenta. Following treatment, she was returned to Central Booking, from which she was released the morning of June 1.

"I'm sure [my injury] is the direct result of the trauma of being thrown on the ground by police," says Harvin, who spent nearly 30 hours in police custody. The family has secured a lawyer and is evaluating how to proceed.

Janis Budley, 49, of Woodlawn, a longtime friend of the Bennett/Harvin family was also taken into custody that night. Budley says she was "dragged through the street by my hair" by police after refusing a police order to put down Bennett and Harvin's 5-year-old child, who she was holding.

"They just grabbed me up by my collar," Budley says of police. "I was never charged or read my rights." She was released from Central Booking at 11:30 a.m. the following day.

Citing the ongoing investigation of the matter, Moses says he can not provide a departmental position on the situation. The names of the officers involved were not made public and have been blacked out on reports released to the press.

An at-times emotionally charged meeting held at a Hollins Street art gallery on June 3 to discuss the officers' activities at the festival drew some 50 concerned citizens, many of whom witnessed some of the alleged misconduct. Also present was a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union and a pair of police officers from the department's community affairs office. Neither officer knew much about the alleged events, but they took notes during the meeting.

Witnesses were encouraged to produce written accounts of what they saw that could be shared with others, especially those facing charges.

In a city where charges of police misconduct are often racially charged, some pointed out that this does not seem to be the case with the Sowebo Festival situation. There are both black and white victims of the alleged abuse, and witnesses say that both black and white officers were engaged in the misconduct.

The observation led one meeting attendee to conclude, "This is not a black and white issue--this is a problem with the system."

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