A protest at a Baltimore television station turned into a dramatic spectacle yesterday when community organizers and elementary-school-aged children calling for more coverage of youth and community issues were met with five city police cars, joined by an uninvited mayoral candidate and defended vociferously by one of their own. All as cameras from a rival station rolled.
“If young people were out shooting each other, they’d cover it,” thundered Bishop Douglas I. Miles, clergy co-chair of BUILD, outside the offices of WBAL-TV, as children clutching talking points about school construction and rec centers picked their way back down Baltimore’s “TV Hill.”
Nearly 100 people, roughly half of them children from area recreation centers and churches, had come to the station.
BUILD was protesting what they say has been skewed coverage of the Baltimore mayoral race by WBAL and other local broadcast and print media – in particular, the focus on the city’s high property tax rate as the major issue of the election.
“If we did nothing but lower the property taxes, we are not going to have all these people come rushing to move here,” said the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church and a BUILD Co-Chair. “We have got to be talking about young people and youth employment and education and community.”
A WBAL official, meanwhile, defended the station’s decision to call police rather than come talk to the protesters (“we can’t control how many police cars come”) and said the property tax issue is the big issue of the campaign, in part because that’s what the candidates are talking about.
“We cover the news,” said Wanda Draper, director of programming and public affairs for WBAL-TV, a Hearst station. “We can’t go out and say, no, actually these are the issues.”
“Where Are the Reporters?”
BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) has been trying to tip the tenor of talk around the city election with their own agenda. They’re calling, for example, for the building of 55 rec centers and 28 new schools and dollar-for-dollar subsidies uptown that match spending for tourist attractions and other development downtown.
Pushed by the tax-slashing platforms of the leading mayoral challengers, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake recently offered her own plan, which involves using 90 percent of any future slots revenue not for education, but to offset tax cuts.
Media reports comparing the various tax plans have been proliferating. Protesters said city residents care about other issues, especially the 40 percent who don’t own property.
“Saving $3 or $6 a month on property taxes does not make me say ‘Wow,’” said Terra Hiltner, a librarian at Holabird Academy who said conditions there are extremely challenging, with “rooms with no view, rooms that are over-heated, rooms that are under-heated.”
As Miles grabbed a bullhorn and led the way yesterday, she and the others followed.
“Raise our city, raise our youth!” they chanted. “WBAL, come on out!” Miles bellowed.“Where are the reporters?”
Miles tried to call up to the building from an intercom at the sliding gate that stopped their progress. When the gate opened for an exiting car, the protesters went through it.
“If the police come, I’m out of here,” a nervous Kaeon Covington said. Asked why he thought he was there, the 10-year-old said, “To tell them to keep our rec centers.”
“Your Viewers Are Here”
Once the hill had been gained, Miles and about 20 of the children went into the glassed-in vestibule, whose inner door was locked. A security guard could be seen inside talking intently on the phone. Miles used a phone on the wall to ask if someone could come talk to them.
“Your viewers are here!” he announced merrily. Miles said he was told a news editor was coming but it soon became clear that wasn’t happening. “The media won’t cover our youth!” he said, back outside with his bullhorn.
At that moment, mayoral candidate Otis Rolley popped up. “Otis is here!” organizers whispered to each other.
(They later stressed that they did not ask any candidate to come to the non-partisan event. Asked how he heard about the it, Rolley said “someone texted me.” BUILD has been circulating word about the WBAL protest for days via email, Facebook and Twitter. Organizers said they sent press releases to all the major media outlets, including WBAL-TV, on Tuesday.)
Next to arrive was a Baltimore city police car, followed by four more.
“Hey, my man!” the uniformed policeman said to Miles. The protesters were on private property and would have to leave, the officer, whose badge read “H. W. Carter,” told Miles.
“WBAL called the police on our youth!” Miles announced angrily.
The group moved toward the lower lot and organizers gave interviews to the radio and television reporters who had come to cover what amounted to a critique of their work.
So, what did Rolley have to say, the candidate who started talking about a 50 percent property tax cut in the earliest days of his campaign?
“To be fair, I am the only candidate who came out with a complete agenda – on education, on making government more accountable and efficient, on all these other issues – before releasing details of my property tax proposal,” he said.
“I agree with what’s being said here. There has not been enough attention paid to our overall problems, to youth. Only 15 out 141 schools in Baltimore met their annual yearly progress goals.”
As the group gathered in a small park before dispersing, one of the adults supervising the children explained how 17 of them came to be there.
“We are from Sickle Cell Fun in the Sun, a community-based health program at the Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church,” said Efa Ahmed-Wiliams. The children, ages 4 to 13, discussed the protest “in between arts and crafts and health” and voted to participate, Williams said. “We talked about it as a form of advocacy.”
On the phone later, Draper said her main thought as she looked down at the group in the WBAL parking lot was “why didn’t they call me first?” She acknowledged that the newsroom had known about the event, but said they hadn’t informed her.
Draper said the station has covered many of the issues the group thought were being ignored and said they have lots of coverage of the mayor’s race and of city youth.
“This week we featured a 12-year-old who won a city talent contest,” she said. “We just taped a piece on a 10-year-old food critic that’s going to air this Sunday.”
But she also defended the focus on taxes, not only because it’s what candidates are talking about, but because she believes “it drives everything else.”
“Lower taxes brings people here. If you don’t have people in the city you don’t have revenue,” she said. “Whatever you want for the city, better schools or whatever you want, that’s how you get it.”
Asked why no one came to talk to the group, Draper said, “we were having a very busy work day,” and faulted the group for not staying in the lower lot, saying, “we have had a lot of protests here over the years and that’s where they always stay.”