By J. K. Schmid, Special to the AFRO
Tawanda Jones, the intrepid police brutality activist and community leader, recently called for a special “West Wednesday” to be held in front City Hall on Oct. 10.
West Wednesday, an ongoing weekly vigil for Tyrone West, the Baltimore man killed in police custody July 18, 2015, remains essentially uninterrupted for 272 weeks. The last two autopsies of West’s body indicate that he died of positional asphyxia, suffocation due to his manner of restraint by police.
“I am the voice of my brother,” Jones said of her central position in the vigil. “They won’t kill him twice.”
The West Coalition, Not Without Black Women, and ACLU Maryland met at War Memorial Park before proceeding to Baltimore City Police Headquarters. The march returned to City Hall and those in attendance were encouraged to tell their stories of encounters with police misconduct and police violence.
One of the central issues the coalition aims to address is the issue of Baltimore City’s gag orders, terms imposed when the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) settle with plaintiffs suing the department of home invasions, beatings and other civil rights violations. As a condition of receiving the full agreed upon payout, victims are forbidden from repeating their allegations to the the media and general public.
Ashley Overbey was awarded $63,000 in a settlement over what Overbey described as a home invasion and beating by BPD officers. Half, $31,500, of the settlement was confiscated by the city after she was found defending herself in writing from accusations in an online comment section.
The gag orders are one-sided. The BPD and the City’s Solicitor’s office, for example, are not bound to remain silent when explaining to auditors where these settlements are going. Baltimore is trending to pay out $10 million in settlements before the end of the decade.
Tawanda Jones refused to be bound by a gag order, effectively giving up a $600,000 settlement offered to the West family.
“They’re not gonna gag me,” Jones said at the Oct. 3 West Wednesday. “I refuse to be gagged. For my own sanity.”
Despite the two autopsies indicating that West was a casualty of improper policing, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby will not press charges against any of the arresting officers, having previously stated there was “no new information and no additional information that would contradict the conclusion of the prior administration.”
On the gag order front, there have been some victories.
The ACLU successfully argued in Maryland Circuit Court for Wicomico County that similar gag orders violate the Maryland Public Information Act. Subsequently, the Local Government Insurance Trust, a legal group that represents municipalities in Maryland that do not have their own in-house counsel, have stricken gag order verbiage from their new settlement terms.
“That’s been a really positive development, and it shows what an outlier Baltimore is becoming in this regard, because Baltimore is one of the only jurisdictions in Maryland–and really across the country–that use these types of agreements on a routine basis,” Deborah Jeon, legal director ACLU Maryland told the AFRO.
Overbey is currently co-plaintiff with Baltimore journalist Fern Shen, who is suing Baltimore City in federal court on First Amendment grounds. The case was dismissed by two judges of the federal district court, but is now being briefed in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. City Solicitor Andre Davis, a retired federal judge of this same court, is expected to argue for the defense. A court date has been set for Oct. 30.
In the meantime, Jones’s vigil continues bravely with no end in sight.
“Please be sure you are there,” Jones told those gathered last week. “Bring a friend, because we all see the foolishness that’s going on.”