Public Safety & Justice

Black Lives Matter Leader DeRay McKesson Arrested as Protests Continue Nationwide

by | July 11, 2016

By Kevin Rector and Tim Prudente

DeRay Mckesson, the civil rights activist who took a top administrative job with Baltimore's public school system after an unsuccessful mayoral bid, was among more than 100 arrested in Baton Rouge amid nationwide protests against police brutality.

Mckesson said he believes his arrest was unlawful and that his actions were in line with his mission, personally and professionally, to "make sure that we all live in the best world possible." City school officials said Mckesson was acting as a private citizen.

"I have a strong commitment to justice and equity across all sectors, namely police and state violence and education, and those commitments are not in conflict with each other," Mckesson said after his release on Sunday.

The deaths last week of two black men at the hands of police officers in separate incidents in Louisiana and Minnesota, as well as the killing of five police officers in Dallas in apparent retribution, continued to resound in Baltimore and around the country.

On Sunday night about 50 people held a candlelight vigil in Federal Hill for the slain officers, and hundreds of protesters who decried the deaths of Philando Castile outside St. Paul and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge marched through downtown Baltimore Friday and Saturday nights.

On Tuesday, two Baton Rouge police officers fatally shot Sterling outside a convenience store in an incident that was captured on video. On Wednesday, an officer shot Castile during a traffic stop as he reached for his wallet, according to his girlfriend, who live-streamed video of the aftermath on Facebook.

Then on Thursday, five police officers were fatally shot and others were wounded during protests in Dallas. As gunfire rang out, crowds of people fled and the chaos appeared on TVs around the country. Dallas authorities said Micah Xavier Johnson, 25, an Army veteran, opened fire out of anger toward white officers.

Karen Walker, a 37-year-old homemaker from Glen Burnie, founded the Facebook group Stand Up For Baltimore City Police after last year's riots following the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered fatal spinal injuries in the back of a police transport van. She organized the vigil on Sunday.

"It's about remembering five officers," she said. "There are kids whose fathers aren't coming home and wives whose husbands aren't coming home."

"I'm not saying all cops are good," she added. "I don't agree with what happened in Baton Rouge and Minnesota."

Wearing blue T-shirts and holding tall, white candles that flickered in the evening breeze, those who attended fell silent as Oliver Groman, who came from Pennsylvania, read the names of those Dallas officers killed.

Teri George, a Northeast Baltimore mother who worries about her son, a 25-year-old Baltimore police officer, held a homemade sign that read: "We stand with you Dallas."

"It's hard as a mom for your kids to go and suit up every day," she said.

Meanwhile, protests were staged around the country.

In the biggest confrontation between police and demonstrators since Castile's shooting, about 100 people were arrested late Saturday in St. Paul during a highway standoff and in other parts of the city. More than two dozen police officers and state troopers were hurt. Police Chief Todd Axtell called the pelting of officers with rocks, bottles, firecrackers and other objects "a disgrace."

In Baton Rouge, protesters rallied Saturday at the police department, the state's Capitol and the store where Sterling was shot. The demonstration outside the Baton Rouge Police Department was tense as protesters faced off with police in riot gear.

Shouting "No justice! No peace!" a few hundred protesters gathered, waving signs as passing cars honked their support. Some drivers stopped with bottles of water. Police tried to clear the road as crowds yelled at them. An officer on a microphone told the crowd they could remain as long as they stayed on the grass and not on the road.

Mckesson, who turned 31 on Saturday, was arrested on one count of obstruction of a highway, which is a misdemeanor, as he was walking along Baton Rouge's Airline Highway. In a widely circulated photo of his arrest, the Baltimore native is seen on one knee, wearing a T-shirt reading "#StayWoke" -- a Twitter hashtag used to urge awareness of the political, social and cultural realities facing minority communities.

Roy Rodney Jr., a Louisiana attorney for Mckesson, said the activist was "wrongfully arrested, excessively charged and overly detained as a result of the exercise of his fundamental and constitutionally protected right to free speech." Rodney urged prosectors to "reconsider."

In a statement Sunday, Baton Rouge Police Sgt. Don Coppola Jr. said the protest near police headquarters turned violent after "individuals from outside our Baton Rouge community" arrived. More than 100 people were arrested and three rifles, three shotguns and two pistols were confiscated, Coppola wrote.

"A Baton Rouge Police Officer had several of his teeth knocked out as a projectile was thrown from the protest," Coppola wrote. "It appears the protest at Baton Rouge Police Headquarters have become more violent as out of town protesters are arriving. Any protest which becomes violent will be immediately dispersed."

Mckesson denied that outsiders caused problems in Baton Rouge. He said he traveled there because, when protesting in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, he and others "made a commitment then that we would stand with [people in other cities] when the time came, and I keep my commitments."

Schools CEO Santelises said she saw Mckesson Friday afternoon and learned Sunday morning of his arrest.

"We have had as a country a tense, tense week, and DeRay is still a private citizen and he was on his time," she said. "This is part of who he is, it's part of what drives him, and it's part of what drives him to move the work for kids."

Mckesson said he planned to be back at work on Tuesday.

Mckesson first landed on the national stage two years ago when he took a leave of absence from his job as senior director of human capital in the Minneapolis Public Schools system to protest the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson.

He founded and leads We the Protesters, a group that advocates policy changes to stem police violence, and has won praise from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Earlier this year, Mckesson surprised many by entering his name in the Democratic primary for Baltimore mayor. He finished sixth in the race -- well behind the winner, state Sen. Catherine Pugh.

He was named to Santelises' cabinet last month. In his new role, Mckesson is earning $165,000 as the city school district's chief of human capital. He manages a budget of $4 million and 56 employees.

Jamira Burley, Amnesty International's manager for gun violence and criminal justice reform, said she protested alongside Mckesson in Baton Rouge. They intended to follow police orders, she said, but police "bum-rushed" and "tackled" him within moments of telling them to stay off the highway.

"Everyone kept saying, 'Why are you arresting him? Why are you arresting him?'" Burley said. "There was literally no explanation."

Protests continued Sunday. Authorities in Baton Rouge say 30 to 40 people were arrested at an unscheduled protest. They were part of a group of 100 to 200 that moved toward Interstate 110 until officers moved them back. For about 90 minutes, protesters chanted "No justice, no peace!" while officers watched.

Finally after warnings, officers in full riot gear arrived corralled and began arresting some protesters, while others fled.

The arrests occurred blocks from a church where thousands of protesters rallied, then marched to the Capitol and back without any arrests.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

(c)2016 The Baltimore Sun

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