Civil Rights Leaders Increase Pressure on Ocean City Officials at State House Rally

Del. J. Sandra Bartlett (D-Anne Arundel) addresses a rally on Lawyers Mall in Annapolis Wednesday slamming Ocean City police for their handling of an incident with Black teenagers last weekend. Also in the photo (from left to right): Annapolis civil rights leader Carl Snowden; Del. Shaneka T. Henson (D-Anne Arundel); the Rev. Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore City NAACP; and Willie Flowers, president of the NAACP Maryland State Conference. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

Maryland civil rights leaders ratcheted up pressure on Ocean City officials Wednesday, threatening Maryland’s number one tourist town with legal action and an economic boycott in the wake of recent incidents involving the police and Black visitors.

More than 50 activists gathered at Lawyers’ Mall in front of the State House in Annapolis, expressing their outrage and alarm over incidents captured on video that showed police tasing and hog-tying Black teenagers who had apparently violated Ocean City’s ban on vaping on the boardwalk.

Many speakers suggested that the best way to apply pressure on the beach resort was to avoid spending money there. They noted that like all visitors, the Black teens who traveled to Ocean City from Harrisburg, Pa., for a traditional post-graduation beach week celebration before their fateful encounter with police were there to have fun and spend money.

“The frame is on economics at this point,” said Willie Flowers, president of the NAACP Maryland State Conference. “…Let’s take the money off the table. If Ocean City, or any other municipality in this state, doesn’t respect your dollars, then you can spend them elsewhere.”

Later, Flowers said, “that video was a message to boycott Ocean City. We didn’t say that, though.”

The Rev. Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore City NAACP chapter, put it another way, referencing two major summer conferences in Ocean City that attract scores of elected officials, business leaders, government professionals, private-sector vendors, lobbyists and political operatives every year.

“I’m not boycotting,” he said. “But I’m certainly not going to Ocean City for the League of Municipalities. I’m not going to Ocean City for the [Maryland Association of Counties] conference.”

Beyond flexing their economic muscle, the civil rights groups are calling on Ocean City officials to suspend the police officers involved in the incident with the Black teens while a probe is under way, and they demanded that a third party, rather than Ocean City police, investigate the officers’ actions.

Equally significant, civil rights leaders said the town could find itself in legal jeopardy.

Billy Murphy, the Baltimore civil rights attorney, said he had been contacted by one of the youth’s families about possible legal action and expected to hear from others.

“We’re going to file every possible legal action that the law permits,” said Murphy, who won a $6.4 million settlement for the family of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man who died in police custody in 2015.

“Ocean City has a long, long history of racism and segregation,” Murphy said.

Mo Lloyd, a Black teen, said he and his friends have been struck by the unequal treatment of young people at the hands of Ocean City police.

“Young white people have the privilege to enjoy being publicly drunk,” he said. “They have the privilege to display disorderly behavior. They have the privilege to smoke marijuana in public. But a Black boy vaping faces a taser.”

Carl Snowden, an Annapolis civil rights veteran, said he spoke this week with Ocean City Police Chief Ross C. Buzzuro, who wondered why people were so up in arms about this weekend’s incident.

“My answer was, George Floyd,” Snowden said. “Since George Floyd, our world has changed. George Floyd is not something you erase away because you’re more than a year [removed].”

Because the rally was taking place in the shadow of the State House, several activists spoke about the police reform legislation that the General Assembly passed this year, which is due to take effect in stages between now and 2025. Del. J. Sandra Bartlett (D-Anne Arundel) said even though the reforms aren’t in effect yet, the actions of the Ocean City police appear to violate the spirit of the new laws.

“The legislative intent is clear,” she said. “So, Maryland, you need not wait until July. You need not wait until October. You need not wait until 2025 to express your outrage. Thank God that those young men had their lives spared. But I’m not in any way satisfied by what I saw on that video. We need answers, and I hope they come with haste.”

Also on Wednesday, the Maryland Legislative Latino Caucus issued a statement echoing calls for suspension of the officers and an independent investigation.

“Law enforcement officers are not above the law,” the caucus wrote. “They must be held at a high standard and accountable for transgressions.”

Little, the Baltimore NAACP chief, said the Ocean City police incident “is a sign that it’s going to be a long hot summer.”

“The question for our policymakers is, is this going to be a long hot summer of relief from the pandemic? Or is it going to be a long hot summer of police brutality?”

Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.

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Josh Kurtz
Founding Editor Josh Kurtz is a veteran chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He was an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, for eight years, and for eight years was the editor of E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill. For 6 1/2 years Kurtz wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz regularly gives speeches and appears on TV and radio shows to discuss Maryland politics.