All photos by Larry Cohen of TLC Baltimore
Within Baltimore’s powerful community of activists, Tawanda Jones is a guiding light. She’s been calling for justice and police accountability since July of 2013 when her brother, Tryone West, died in police custody. West, a forty-four-year-old man, was pulled over for allegedly doing a u-turn and as witnesses attest, dragged out of his car by his hair, tased and violently beaten. He did not survive. In an all-too-familiar pattern, the officers who pulled him over, Nicholas Chapman and Jorge Omar Bernandez-Ruiz, evaded indictment and criminal charges. Every Wednesday since, for the last 144 weeks, Jones has gone to a different location in the city to hold a protest—dubbed West Wednesday—demanding justice for her brother and, she says, “for all victims of police brutality.” Her rallies, which bring out different voices, have become a hub and connecting place for human rights activists and many in the city fighting apartheid conditions and police brutality.
During the Light City festival, Jones held her rally at McKeldin Fountain against the backdrop of Luminous Intervention’s commemorative installation on victims of police brutality. A core group of Baltimore’s activists merged with those who’d come out for the leisure and entertainment and the festival became a platform for more than just art; it was a merging point of the city’s disparate communities: some fighting the status quo; others enjoying it.
This particular West Wednesday rally was also significant for another reason: only one day prior, Abdul Salaam, a Baltimore resident and West Wednesday regular had won a brutality case against Chapman and Bernandez-Ruiz, the very same officers involved in the death of Tyrone West. The resonances between West and Salaam’s cases are haunting. Only two weeks before West died in police custody, Salaam was dragged out of his car and brutally beaten by Chapman, Bernandez-Ruiz and a third officer, Nathan Ulmer. But Salaam’s case happened right outside of his home, in plain view of his neighbors who came out to intervene and film the violence. Salaam believes that the presence of his neighbors saved him from being killed in front of his three-year-old son who was sitting in his car seat at the time. But two weeks after the incident, Salaam recognized two of the same officers’ names in the news in relation to a different case, a case in which a man had died at their hands, the case of Tyrone West.
Tawanda Jones is pleased with the outcome of Salaam’s suit. He settled for $70,00. But his victory is only a sliver of the justice she’s seeking and it doesn’t come without pain. Chapman and Bernandez-Ruiz now have a proven record of brutality. Had they been investigated and taken off the streets after harming Salaam, Jones’s beloved brother might still be alive. Considering that Chapman and Bernandez-Ruiz were allowed to keep policing after wrongfully abusing Salaam, it can be argued that the Baltimore Police Department was permitting the officers’ violent treatment of black men. The cases West and Salaam—black men being pulled over for negligible infractions, then physically harmed—certainly reflect the now well-documented national patterns of racist police brutality.
At McKeldin Fountain Salaam said that his fight was never about himself; it was always about others like him: black people abused by authorities with power. He then spoke about the number of times in his life that he’d been profiled, harassed and beaten by police. As a young black man from New Jersey, there were many incidents when he was arbitrarily shaken down, humiliated and brutalized. “This,” he says, “is a rite of passage in certain communities. That’s what people from other communities don’t understand. And it gets naturalized in our community because it’s a rite of passage.” At the rally he confessed to the crowd that had it not been for the presence of his small son, he might not have been motivated to seek justice. He might’ve done what he did in the past: go home; accept the abuse as a part of black life.
But being beaten in front of his son, he experienced terrifying powerlessness. “It’s something heartbreaking,” he says. “Most importantly trying to live. Then being demoralized in front of your child. Your neighbors.” This terror and the resulting trauma motivated him. Salaam reached out to Jones and he joined her side in vocally demanding police accountability. At McKeldin Fountain he spoke about Jones’ vital importance in this city’s ongoing struggle. “It’s Jones,” he said, “and the people who bring their bodies outside to spaces like West Wednesday, the people who feed the homeless, those who speak up in government assembly and organize in their communities, who are responsible for last year’s uprising.” The implication seems to be that committed activism makes for more powerful activism—the kind of activism that can mobilize a city.
“There’s something special about Baltimore in that concern for these issues continue to grow,” Salaam says. “It’s a ripe community. Important on a national level. What I do not see going on in other cities is the commitment, the politicizing. Involvement in legislation. This is not what Baltimore was three or four years ago. Baltimore has a power to create a better politics. A blueprint for change. Particularly when it comes to police accountability.”
The large crowd at the festival listened as different speakers took turns addressing police abuse and this society’s troubling willingness to accept such abuse as normal. Police officers on duty lined the crowd. Different speakers shared stories of their personal pain after losing family members to police violence. Many spoke about their gratitude for the moral guidance of Tawanda Jones. Jones herself told the story of her brother’s death and, as she always does, she spoke candidly and honestly about her suffering. She called on the crowd to think of someone they love and imagine that person being brutally beaten to death. “God forbid,” she said, “but you would fight too.”
Behind her, images of the light installation floated over the pillars of the fountain: faces of victims of police violence. Tyrone West was central, flowers ringing his illuminated portrait. People put candles at the base of the fountain. The installation became at once a shrine and site of protest. Within the crowd, you couldn’t tell the difference between activists and audience. And maybe in this case there was no difference. Maybe the people who were drawn in to see this spectacle of art found themselves quietly implicated; not unlike witnesses who become responsible after being drawn in by a spectacle of injustice.[/text_output]