Baltimore would be a different place if black and poor residents got the same kind of forgiveness from Baltimore police that Anthony M. Derlunas II just did.
His arm raised in a Nazi salute, Derlunas interrupted the intermission during a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof” last week at the Hippodrome Theatre by repeatedly shouting, “Heil Hitler! Heil Trump!”
His incendiary behavior during a play about the persecution of Jewish families in czarist Russia – coming 19 days after a gunman fatally shot 11 people inside a Pittsburgh synagogue – understandably terrified many in the audience.
Yet after interviewing Derlunas, Baltimore police officers let him leave the theater and return to his hotel. They conferred the gentlest possible designation on the incident, giving the 58-year-old from Harford County a “stop ticket,” which carries no fine.
Kid-glove treatment for what is arguably a hate crime.
This is the same police department that, as amply documented by the U.S. Department of Justice, routinely slaps citizens with “disorderly conduct,” “loitering” or other discretionary misdemeanors for, all too often, nothing more than questioning an officer’s actions or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The 2016 DOJ report documented what black Baltimoreans have known for years:
That BPD engages in “a pattern or practice of making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests; using enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans; using excessive force; and retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally protected expression.”
Put simply, racism is baked into this agency. The Derlunas case illustrates the flip-side of such harsh treatment: Kid-glove treatment for what is arguably a hate crime.
How can we trust the judgment of the department to tell us who is a threat, and who is not?
Jailed for Asking a Question
Consider what happened to Kim Trueheart, a black woman and well-known city activist.
Trueheart wasn’t handled like Derlunas in 2013 when she was charged with disorderly conduct, failure to obey a law enforcement officer and trespassing.
She was handcuffed and spent the rest of the day and well into the night at Central Booking.
What was her alleged crime? Trying to enter City Hall during normal business hours after she had been “banned” from the building. Why was she banned? For alleged “confrontational” behavior.
It was all a little murky. The single instance that the police report cited happened when reporters buttonholed then-Mayor Stephanie-Rawlings-Blake about the I-phone system controversy. Trueheart joined the throng and asked the mayor, “Why are you wasting $400,000 a month?”
A month after her arrest, prosecutors quietly dropped the charges.
We’ll never know how many other people charged with arbitrary misdemeanor offenses for non-violent behavior served out their time and ended up with criminal records.
The Harm in Hate
It’s important for police to get this right because the stakes are so high.
Once a black person is confronted by police and taken into custody, literally anything can happen.
This isn’t an exaggeration – it’s a fact. Freddie Gray was walking down the street when he was confronted by police. In under an hour, an ambulance was being called for him. After a week, he was dead.
Sandra Bland’s death, which officials ruled a suicide, came after a 2015 Texas traffic stop. Eric Garner’s in 2014 came after a police officer approached him outside a Staten Island beauty supply store.
If you watch the video taken in the immediate aftermath of last Wednesday’s incident at the Hippodrome, you will see theater-goers who were fearful, angry and confused. Richard Scherr, a spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration who was in the audience, said he fully expected to hear gunshots after the outburst.
Derlunas claims he didn’t mean to scare anyone and that he was drunk.
He says he was trying to criticize Donald Trump by drawing a comparison to Hitler, not support the president. But his excuses are the least important part of the story. What matters is the damage he inflicted on our community.
It’s never easy to be marginalized – to go through life black or Jewish or gay or trans. You never know when or where your existence might trigger some deep-seated anger or outright violence in someone else. It doesn’t matter if you’re shopping at a grocery store or having a barbecue in the backyard or watching a play.
That unending, low-level sense of unease has been ratcheted up in the last few years. According to the FBI, there were over 7,000 reported hate crimes in the U.S in 2017. The Southern Poverty Law Center says those numbers represent “an uptick of 17% over the five-year high reached in 2016.”
Add to this fear the terrifying regularity of mass shootings. The next stop for the “Fiddler on the Roof” performers is Pittsburgh, a city reeling from the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre.
Protected Free Speech?
The tough-on-crime crowd talk about deterrence for street crime, but lose their voice when the crime is hate.
In the days following the Hippodrome incident, Derlunas went on an apology tour, appearing with his face obscured on several local television stations, offering soundbites to mainstream media.
(The same outlets do not hesitate to publish police arrest photos of people who have yet to have their day in court.)
For me, Derlunas hasn’t done anything to earn the immense amount of cover (and coverage) he’s been given by police and the media. He has not exhibited behavior that indicates he should be taken at his word.
“As reprehensible as those words are, they are considered protected free speech because nobody was directly threatened,” BPD spokesman Matt Jablow said in a statement to the media.
Was Derlunas’ outburst sloppy commentary by an intoxicated Trump critic? Or a clever gambit to hide hate behind the First Amendment?
We don’t know. And neither does BPD because, according to Jablow, the department doesn’t consider Derlunas a threat and will not be monitoring him further.
Sloppy commentary by an intoxicated Trump critic? Or a clever gambit to hide hate behind the First Amendment?
The Washington D.C. chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks anti-Semitism, has asked that charges be brought against Derlunas, acknowledging some inherent legal challenges to doing so.
“While the perpetrator’s comments themselves may constitute protected speech under the First Amendment, his conduct disturbed the peace and stoked fear among audience members, undermining their sense of safety and security during the performance,” regional director Doron F. Ezickson said on Friday.
As the Anti-Defamation League’s request plays out, most likely with no official response, the rest of us can only hope that the “compassionate” treatment of a drunk, disruptive white man by Baltimore police won’t inspire another person to do something worse.
Lisa Snowden-McCray has written for the Baltimore Afro-American, City Paper, Baltimore Sun and was the editor of Baltimore Beat.