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Protesting for Basics

As the Freddie Gray murder trial approaches, activists have started rallying. Here's a guide to protesting Gray's death without getting arrested.
September 3, 2015, 10:50pm
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While most young people head back to hallowed institutions of higher learning, Baltimore's dedicated protestors are preparing to return to the city's Circuit Court for the next pre-trial hearing in the case against six officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray.

At the first pre-trial hearing yesterday, the protestors were cautiously celebratory: The court had denied the defense team's motion to drop the charges against the officers and remove the State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby. "We're celebratory around that, but that doesn't mean we've won," says Sharon Black, a spokesperson for the Peoples Power Assembly, the activist group that organized the rally outside the courthouse yesterday. "We have the September 10th hearings coming up on the change of venue, so we're getting ready for another protest then."

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The protests in Baltimore have been an integral part of getting justice for Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man who sustained a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody in early April. Official autopsy reports ruled Gray's death a homicide. Subsequently, April saw massive protests and riots as Baltimore's residents finally reached their breaking point with the city's violent police. While some have criticized the Baltimore riots as "counterproductive," including President Obama, the strong community action arguably prompted Baltimore officials to finally take measures against the city's police. Several Baltimore residents died in police custody prior to Gray's death. On July 18, 2013, for instance, 44-year-old Baltimore resident Tyrone West died after police stopped him in traffic. Although independent reports show that the police made technical errors in his arrest, the courts leveled no charges against the cops. Every Wednesday his family still holds "West Wednesday" rallies as they fight for justice. Within the past three years, Baltimore residents Anthony Anderson and Maurice Donald Johnson have also died in Baltimore police custody.

We have a constitutional right to march, so we do. We won't necessarily be deterred or intimidated.

Unlike Anderson and Johnson's relatives, Gray's family might finally see justice in court later this year. The next battle is the hearing on September 10th, when the court will rule on the police attorneys' motion to take the case out of Baltimore City. If the court decides to move the case to another city, Black notes, the decision would probably litigate toward injustice for Gray, his family, and his community. In response to this possibility, the Peoples Power Assembly is planning another protest outside the courthouse next Thursday at 8:30 AM. While the demonstration at the first hearing was largely peaceful, authorities arrested and charged a protestor, who goes by Kwame Rose, with disorderly conduct and second-degree assault after the protest moved into the Inner Harbor.

Black advises people interested in participating to know their rights. In general, according to the ACLU's "Know Your Rights" guidelines, the law protects all types of expression in public forums. The rules include parks, streets, and sidewalks but don't count private properties. Citizens need permits for marches requiring street closures and rallies using sound amplification devices. (Certain plazas or buildings may also require permits.) The ACLU notes, "the First Amendment prohibits such an advance notice requirement from being used to prevent rallies or demonstrations that are rapid responses to unforeseeable and recent events." Even without a permit, protesters are fully within their rights if they stay on the sidewalk. When protesters have been firmly able to assert their rights, Black adds, activists "haven't been pushed back or [the police] haven't been able to push us back, because the police department here and the city administration know that we have a long history of protest in our city and we won't be easily intimidated or believe things that are false."

If you're taking photos or videos in a public place, the police cannot confiscate your images without a search warrant. The ACLU, however, points out how the police can ask you to stop taking photos if they believe photography interferes with law enforcement operations. The EFF recommends password protecting your phone before you head to a protest.

"There are no permits in here [in Baltimore] for public demonstrations. Most people don't even know that," Black says. "You don't have to get permission from the police to exercise your constitutional rights. We have a right to march, so we do. We won't necessarily be deterred or intimidated—that gives us a lot of strength and confidence in and of itself. If I have any advice it's that people should remain firm, calm, and know their rights. Of course there's no guarantee that people won't get arrested. There's no guarantee that anyone walking down the street on a normal day won't get arrested. That's just our unfortunate reality right now."