Black Lives Matter flyers cause tension in Montgomery County

Displaying flyers becomes source of tension in county after Floyd’s death

There have been confrontations between people putting them up, taking them down

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A videotaped interaction between Sokka Asif and a Takoma Park police officer who was removing flyers supporting the Black Lives Matter movement prompted an apology by the city's mayor and police chief over the officer's conduct.

Image from video by Sokka Asif

As support for the Black Lives Matter movement against racism and police brutality spread, advocates and protest organizers posted flyers throughout the county promoting the cause.

In some cases, the flyers themselves became a source of tension.

There have been several documented incidents in which opponents — and a police officer — took down flyers.

The most well known was when a Kensington cyclist accosted a group of teenagers on June 1 on the Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda. The teens were putting up flyers expressing outrage over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

A video of the encounter went viral and was viewed millions of times. The video shows part of a confrontation in which the cyclist, Anthony Brennan III, took flyers from one teenager and forcefully grabbed the arm of another.

Brennan was charged with three counts of assault.

Countywide restrictions dictate that no signs can be posted in the right of way, including on utility poles, trees or other structures.

To post a flyer in any county park, according to Park Police Capt. Jeffrey Coe, someone must get a permit from the park permitting office, allowing the flyer to be posted in a specific location.

While the group of teenagers on the Capital Crescent Trail did not have a permit to put up flyers, Coe said he would not encourage anyone to take matters into their own hands, as Brennan did.

“Due to the climate of everything that’s going on, we would request that they either contact the Park Police or contact the park manager,” Coe said. “We don’t want someone to be watching [a person] take down a flyer and then get into an altercation with that person.”

Coe added that Park Police have the right to take down unapproved flyers. Currently, they are photographing the flyers, documenting the location and sending the information to the park managers.

As the flyers start to deteriorate from weather or get torn or ripped, the flyers will be removed.  Other than that, because of the circumstances, they haven’t been removing any flyers recently, Coe said.

“We have not removed anything at this time,” he said. “We understand everything that’s going on, so we haven’t been going out and taking things down.”

A screenshot of the video of the Chevy Chase woman posted by Instagram user _stephhowell_

Another video, posted to Instagram, showed an argument in the Village of Martin’s Additions in Chevy Chase, over flyers that supported Black Lives Matter.

Stephanie Howell, a woman who was putting up flyers, confronted another woman who had taken some of them down.

The woman who was taking the flyers down said they were “defacing government property.” Howell filmed the interaction as she chastised the woman for trying to diminish a social movement.

The video has been viewed more than 62,000 times since it was posted a month ago.

According to Village Manager Niles Anderegg, Martin’s Additions has no rules on posting signs or flyers in the right of way, other than restrictions on posting on road signs, which could create a public safety hazard.

He added that utility poles are owned by the utility and not in the purview of the village.

“Since there’s no regulation at this point … there’s no enforcement mechanism either,” Anderegg said.

Howell told Bethesda Beat that she was surprised to see the woman taking down posters in broad daylight on a busy street.

“I’m not a confrontational person, but I felt the need to go say something,” she said. “I knew I’d always regret it a lot if I didn’t say anything.”

Howell, who is a quarter Black, said she took the woman’s actions personally. “The message she was sending was incredibly disrespectful,” she said.

After many of the posters that Howell hung were removed, she and a friend later used a ladder to hang them out of reach on utility poles.

“I had put up probably 70 posters and in less than 24 hours, there were only 10 to 15 left,” she said. “[Racism] is an issue in our own backyard. I’m not glad that it happened. But I’m glad that it got the attention that it did. … I’m hopeful that the community will make changes and open their eyes to what’s happening.”

A screenshot of the video of the Takoma Park police officer posted by Instagram user fathersokka

Another video gained attention on June 2, showing a Takoma Park police officer removing a Black Lives Matter flyer from a lamppost.

A woman noticed the officer taking down signs and videotaped it as she challenged what he was doing. The officer told the woman that it was illegal to post the signs. The video has been viewed more than 25,000 times.

Subsequently, Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart and Police Chief Antonio DeVaul apologized for the officer’s actions. DeVaul called the officer’s behavior “dismissive” and “unacceptable.”

In an interview with Montgomery Community Media, DeVaul said, “The discussion was about flyers, but it’s not about flyers and everyone knows that. It’s more about what is going on in this country.”

While it was previously illegal to post flyers in the right of way, City Manager Suzanne Ludlow used her emergency authority to suspend this restriction the morning after the incident.

“When gatherings of more than 10 people were banned, it makes it really difficult for people to express their views,” Ludlow said. “It didn’t seem like the right time to be saying you couldn’t put signs up.”

Ludlow is considering reinstituting the sign ban now that Montgomery County is in Phase 2 of reopening, and small crowds are allowed to gather again. The Takoma Park City Council can change the ordinance before she reinstitutes it.

She said lifting the ban has not caused any significant problems, and the enforcement was always tricky.

“One of the things that was always contentious is that we’re not supposed to pay attention to the content of the sign,” she said. “It’s a very difficult ordinance.”

Staff writer Briana Adhikusuma contributed to this story.

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