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Friday, 01 May 2015 00:00

Playing Tough: Baltimore's So-Called Justice System Takes Revenge On Those Questioning Its So-Called Justice

Written by Abby Zimet | Common Dreams

Ruthlessly wielding its power over those who dared to take to the streets to challenge it, Baltimore judges and other law enforcement officials have come down insanely hard on protesters, suspending habeus corpus to prolong holding uncharged suspects, setting wildly excessive bail amounts - $500,000 for the 18-year-old kid widely seen smashing the state in the form of a cop car, and disappearing at least one peaceful activist, on live TV yet - abuses that in fact help shine a spotlight on the venal, broken system that sparked it all.

Maryland’s new GOP Gov. Larry Hogan quickly set the tone for the city's punishment phase when he effectively suspended the state’s habeas corpus law, which limits detention without charge to 24 hours, in a legally questionable move he said was “necessary to protect the public safety” - thus providing a handy mantra for the abuses that followed. Most of the over 230 people picked up in the streets had been languishing in jail in reportedly harsh conditions - overcrowded, no beds, no phone calls, no or inedible  food -  without charges or police reports to explain why they were there. The backlog was made worse by the inexplicable closing of three of four district courts for no apparent reason.  On Thursday, legal pressure forced the release of over 100 suspects, about half of those held. Officials were unrepentant: A top cop defended the "legal arrests for acts of violence," and a top jail official insisted he was "not aware of any problems whatsoever."

Once suspects got to court, things got Orwellian. A $50,000 bail was requested for Antonio Jackson, a father and warehouse worker charged with holding a pair of stolen tennis shoes; when his lawyer objected, it was raised to $100,000. Roselyn Michelle Roberts, a 43-year-old who earns about $60 a week babysitting her grandchild, faced two charges of fourth-degree theft; a $50,000 requested bail was again upped to $100,000 due to two minor pending cases against her. A guy arrested with ten others possibly looting outside a Nike store, whose lawyer said he was just walking home, had bail set at $10,000 by another judge because "the court cannot ignore the circumstances in which he was arrested." A guy charged with theft of 132 bottles of vodka initially faced a proposed bail of $150,000; when his lawyer objected the amount was excessive, Judge Kathleen M. Sweeney lectured him that "taking advantage of a situation is dangerous" before lowering the amount, in her infinite mercy, to a mere $100,000.

In the most egregious case, 18-year-old Allen Bullock, famously photographed trashing the windshield of a police car with a traffic cone, was charged with eight criminal counts, including rioting and malicious destruction of property, and slapped with a $500,000 bail, which exceeds bonds placed on some murder suspects. Bullock, a sanitation worker who technically faces life or more probably up to eight years in jail for what is his first adult offense, was convinced to turn himself in by his parents who, his mother explained, “wanted Allen to do the right thing.”

Also not right, and downright surreal, was the snatching of student and activist Joseph Kent by a SWAT team during a CNN live broadcast. One minute Kent appears walking before a line of cops in riot gear, trying to persuade protesters to go home at curfew. The next minute, a Humvee veers into view and blocks the camera as Kent raises his hands before a phalanx of cops descending on him. Then the Humvee takes off, and Kent is gone. The terrifying spectacle prompted worried rumors, charges of kidnapping and a frantic #WhereIsJosephKent hashtag until a lawyer announced Kent was alive, safe and released. For many commenters, though, "That visual is forever." Noted one, "An arrest should never look like this in a democracy." It does, though, in Baltimore. Said one public defender, "The justice system in this city is broken. This is the story of how Baltimore works.”

So much is broken here - the system, economy, community or any faith in so-called law and order in a city that takes more seriously the busting of cars than the breaking of necks. When Allen Bullock turned himself in, his stepfather said it proved "he was growing as a man and he recognized what he did was wrong.” But he was aghast at the state's response, allowing as how "They're making an example of him and it is not right.” His mother said her son was out protesting because "he said the police were hunting and killing, not serving and protecting." As to smashing cars, she said, “He was dead wrong and he does need to be punished. But he wasn’t leading this riot. He hasn’t got that much power.” Word.

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