Baltimore Police detained three residents Thursday afternoon after they blocked Baltimore Gas & Electric contractors for several hours. The contractors were set to install highly controversial gas regulators in Federal Hill.
Residents from various neighborhoods gathered on Warren Avenue around 7 a.m., standing between the heavy machinery set to drill the street in front of the rowhouses in the 400 block. By the end of the afternoon, there were as many as 20 contractors across the street from them, several police officers and one official from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement.
Claudia Towles from Fells Point, Maggie Fitzsimmons from Washington Hill and Sandra Seward from Federal Hill were detained and charged with interfering with a public utility, trespassing, and failing to disperse from a public place. They are all part of a larger community effort against the utility company’s project to replace more than 11,200 indoor gas regulators with external ones by the end of 2031.
Residents have faced off with BGE officials for months, calling the company out for what many see as a lack of transparency and accusing the utility of padding its profits. They say their communities of mostly historic rowhomes are not fit to have external regulators due to narrow sidewalks that already do not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Residents say they are worried about the safety of external regulators if cars and scooters crash into them. Vehicular damage is a primary cause of serious gas accidents, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration under the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Community efforts recently escalated after Thiru Vignarajah, a former Maryland deputy attorney general, announced eight neighborhood associations will be filing a lawsuit against BGE.
One point of contention has been BGE’s “threats” to shut off gas service if property owners refuse to let contractors install external gas regulators, residents say.
Residents were on Warren Avenue to protest after the utility company shut off gas service to four properties on Wednesday and planned to shut off service to at least one more on Thursday, Vignarajah said.
The residents whose service was already shut off were given notice on Wednesday morning, Vignarajah said, and service was cut off by lunchtime.
Vignarajah said the utility company is violating state law that says property owners should receive a 14-day notice.
“BGE has been doing all the dirty work. I am urging the city and the Police Department not to be complicit,” Vignarajah told a police sergeant who was at the scene during the standoff.
The utility company said in a statement that residents “interfered with our scheduled work.”
“This action put our contractors at risk of injury,” the company said. “We safely stopped work to allow the proper authorities to intervene and we’ll continue our work when it’s safe to do.”
At one point during the protest, a police officer approached the group to ask them to reconsider.
“You guys made a powerful point,” the officer said. ”I hope you guys really understand what the repercussions of this are.”
“Really? I’m the person who is going to go to jail?” said Seward, who was holding back tears.
Police also called in support from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement and Councilman Eric Costello, whose district includes Federal Hill, in an attempt to mediate, according to charging documents.
By late afternoon, police told protesters they would get three warnings, and if they still did not move, they would be detained. Police gave the warnings in five-minute intervals, said Kate Simms, who was part of the protests. The warnings began at 4:20, according to charging documents.
With each warning, police listed what charges protesters faced, Simms said. But when they asked police to elaborate on how they were violating the law, “there was no response,” she said.
Other protesters moved, she said, but Towles, Fitzsimmons and Seward stood their ground. They were placed in handcuffs by police officers around 4:30 p.m. and put in a patrol wagon.
BGE “should not be doing this,” said Simms, the president of the Fells Point Residents Association. “They are clearly bullying people into forcing them to make changes to their homes that people don’t want.”
They were taken to the Central Booking & Intake Center to be processed, charging documents said.
All three were held overnight and released Friday, according to Towles.
After residents were detained, workers were drilling into the ground in front of several houses on Warren Avenue. A city official said the Department of Transportation extended their permit to continue work.
At a press conference Friday, Mayor Brandon Scott said he believes in people’s right to protest, and that BPD only took action after it was explained to protestors that they couldn’t continue to block the construction site.
“They could’ve went across the street. They can protest until the cows come home. They’re never going to hear me say that folks shouldn’t do that,” he said. “But I think if you saw the video, you saw what happened there, our officers, all the staff, everyone out there, actually, acted in a very professional and mature manner.”
Acting Police Commissioner Richard Worley added that police “gave the citizens every opportunity to move” to allow the work to commence, “and we would not have done anything.”
“But they refused,” he said, “and we couldn’t continue to have the work not get done.”
Additional reporting by Dylan Segelbaum.