• Thu. Dec 8th, 2022

Homeless camp cleanup ends with gas splash, flame and tasing

ByDebra J. Aguilar

Oct 9, 2022

A confrontation loomed last night at a homeless encampment under the Jones Falls Freeway, where a dozen people had decided to stay despite an earlier agreement to leave before the start of Baltimore’s Sunday Farmer’s Market.

Uniformed police waited at the intersection of Saratoga and Gay streets to remove the tents – the city would clear the area at midnight, they warned.

As the time approached, some camp residents began moving their tents and other belongings onto the street, placing metal barriers there and dumping garbage and food on the roadway. Other campers were quietly packing their things into shopping bags and suitcases.

As officers and a reporter watched, Alonzo Coley walked in a circle around the tent he had placed on Saratoga Street, pouring what appeared to be gas from a red gas can onto the road.

He then positioned himself inside the tent and lit a lighter.

The police intervened.

A group of nine officers approached Coley who rushed out of the tent, clutching the gas can. The officers tackled him to the ground and shot him with a Taser. The gas may be nearby. An officer kicked the lighter.

Alonzo Coley, his tent surrounded by a ring of splattered gasoline, briefly lights a lighter. (Shen Fern)

“Why do you all have to be so violent – why?” Lawyer Christina Flowers yelled at officers after they held down Coley, 33, to the ground.

An officer had pulled Flowers by the arm away from the entrance to the tent where they had first confronted Coley.

When asked if Coley was being arrested, Major John Webb declined to say.

“He’s in our custody at this point, that’s all I can say,” Webb said. “We are assessing his mental state.”

(Police radio transmission tweeted by @MolotovFlicker indicates police believed Coley showed a cigarette he lit with the lighter.)

Baltimore police surround Alonzo Coley after tackling and Tasering him.  (Shen Fern)

Baltimore police surround Alonzo Coley after tackling and Tasering him. (Shen Fern)

Tired of being “ridden on a bike”

It was the violent end to a dispute that surfaced on Thursday when the city issued a notice saying the area was to be cleared the next day.

Residents of the encampment responded Friday by erecting barricades on Saratoga Street at North Gay Street, blocking traffic.

The conflict would have been resolved. After discussions with the city, the group had agreed to temporarily move across the street to a vacant private parking lot.

City officials, along with the police, came in at noon yesterday and cut the power, according to Flowers, founder of the Belvedere Real Care Providers Network.

But Flowers and others said the residents of the encampment at some point changed their minds and decided to take a stand.

“They don’t want to feel like they’re moving from one temporary facility to another every time there’s an event,” said Jason Rodriguez, deputy executive director of People Empowered by the Struggle.

What the camp looked like before it was emptied.  Below: Police line up on Saratoga Street.  (Shen Fern)

What the camp looked like before it was emptied. Below: Police line up in Saratoga. (Shen Fern)

camp coley 7

Previous protest

Rodriguez said some people felt burned by the way an August protest outside City Hall, also organized by Flowers, unfolded.

Tents for about 28 people had been set up on War Memorial Plaza. Mayor Brandon Scott and other elected officials were due to preside over the annual back-to-school backpacking event the following day.

The group agreed to go to shelters and a spokeswoman for Scott said they would be connected to social services.

Last night the group said things did not work out well for these protesters, many of whom ended up on the streets.

“Shelters are not suitable for people with mental illness. Or people who want to manage their own lives,” said Reverend Andre H. Humphrey, commander of the Baltimore Trauma Response Team.

“They want hardcore rooms – not shelters,” said Humphrey, who was on hand to monitor the situation.

Coley, speaking with The drink before being detained by police, said he qualified for “rapid relocation” assistance due to multiple disabilities and was staying at the Days Inn.

But after a while, he said, he was “locked out because I was filing a lot of complaints”. He started sleeping in his van, but said he couldn’t stay there because “the weather has changed”.

“They’re in ‘occupy’ mode. They’re tired of being pushed around,” Rodriguez said.

Housing need

Homeless residents continue to be underserved despite the $90 million in federal Covid-19 relief funds the Scott administration has pledged to spend to buy hotels and fund other programs to help mitigate, Flowers says. crisis.

Homeless people currently live in at least 10 encampments around the city, they and others say.

Over the years, previous city governments have closed or attempted to close encampments along the downtown JFX corridor, reducing available space in a coveted area that is protected from the elements.


After public outcry, Young administration drops plan to clean up homeless encampment (11/16/20)

10 takeaways from the homeless junkyard near the town hall (01/27/18)

Another homeless camp under JFX to “clean up? Or “cleaned up?” (01/04/13)

Humphrey said protesters were upset at the loss of space which was “a haven out of the rain”.

Lawyer Christina Flowers confronts the police.  (Shen Fern)

Lawyer Christina Flowers confronts the police. (Shen Fern)

Before last night’s standoff with Coley erupted, BPD’s Webb told the encampment group they could occupy the Saratoga Street sidewalk outside the farmer’s market area.

“You can have this whole area next to the sidewalk, but not this area,” he said, pointing to where, in a few hours, vendors would be selling produce, flowers and prepared meals. “This is the permanent Farmer’s Market area.”

The street was also off-limits, Webb said. “You cannot close the road because of ambulances, fire engines and emergencies. I’m not going to make the citizens wait because the road is blocked.

“I’ve been waiting for housing for years,” Coley retorted.