Informed and Dangerous: Is James MacArthur a Threat?
Informed and Dangerous: Is James MacArthur a Threat?
This article is part two of an ongoing series about incarcerated journalist James MacArthur. The first article (“Informed and Dangerous”, published on January 16, 2013) documents MacArthur's history with the Baltimore Police Department since 2008. It includes a description of MacArthur's extralegal 40-day disappearance in March 2009.
This article focuses specifically on the period leading up to MacArthur's arrest and evaluates the claim that he is a threat to police officers and to society.
Journalist A. F. James MacArthur co-hosted Taxi Talk and reported online as the Baltimore Spectator. A police SWAT team arrested MacArthur at his home on December 1, 2012, and he has been in jail since.
The official reason for MacArthur's arrest was a probation violation. His probation, the result of a plea bargain in a disputed 2009 case, had already expired. Why was a SWAT team, including snipers and a BearCat tank, and numbering more than fifty police officers, deployed to serve this routine warrant?
Police say that officers were at risk of being attacked by MacArthur while arresting him. As evidence for this claim, they cite messages posted on MacArthur's Twitter account, @BaltoSpectator.
Police and several judges have maintained that MacArthur is dangerous. This claim served as justification for a search warrant, following the arrest, which led police to produce a shotgun from within MacArthur's house. (Police also seem to have vandalized the house while serving this warrant, overturning furniture and breaking the front window from inside.)
The apparent “threat to public safety” MacArthur poses is also being used as a justification for denying him bail― an unusual decision for a system which routinely sells temporary freedom to the accused.
When and why did the Baltimore Police Department begin to consider MacArthur a dangerous criminal?
“Ask any officer who's arrested me in Baltimore”
After some hints that he thought he was in danger, MacArthur posted a decisive message on Twitter:
In the subsequent broadcast, titled “My Life Is In Grave Danger,” MacArthur announces his belief that the police might try to kill him. He suggests that he thinks the attack will take place on that night, perhaps even during the show.
MacArthur says clearly that he planned to protect himself. “There's a reason I keep a weapon near me at all times. I'm not paranoid―I'm practical.” MacArthur reads Proverbs 27:12: “'A prudent person forsees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences.' Ladies and gentlemen, the man you're listening to―James MacArthur―is far from being a simpleton.”
MacArthur spoke candidly about surrendering to police:
Michael A. Wood, Jr., an urban policing expert who works for a Baltimore-area police agency— we don't have to say where, it's not important—he's speaking for himself right now: he says "warrants don't go away, so why drag it out?"
Because I need to get the word out ahead of time, Michael, of what's really going on. So that if something really bizarre happens, like you end up being killed in custody. Like it's told: 'oh he was fighting the police—you know how he is, you know how he's constantly talking tough, and he's not afraid to shout at the cops, or whatever... So, you know he was resisting us and accidentally trying to subdue him, you know, he died.'
No. Not the case. I don't resist the police. You can ask any officer who's arrested me in Baltimore. When I'm cornered, when I'm there: Hey officers, you got me. I'm done. I'm a big tough guy. I can fight. I can disarm them! I was trained very well on how to disarm people. I can use their own guns and take them out.
That's not what I'm about. I have respect for law enforcement, believe it or not. Especially when it's done right. But I don't have respect for people who conduct official misconduct, who abuse their power and authority. No, when I'm being arrested, I put my hands together. I get a soft-spoken tone of voice after my anger leaves. And I let them take me.
I was beaten up on my own porch by two Baltimore police officers. My own porch! On E. 43d St., across the street from Guilford, where the million-dollar houses are. Because I didn't show somebody ID.
He knocked on my door, asked me a few questions. I answered them. He asked me some more. I said "goodnight officer I'm closing my door”. He jammed his foot in the door. I said "what the hell are you doing, man? I said 'goodnight officer'! You don't have a warrant, you don't have anything. Leave me be."
He pushed the door open, grabbed me by the shirt, yanked me out, slammed me down on the porch in front of my own house. Him and his partner had their way with me. It was like a cartoon, where the smoke is rising up as the wrestling is going on.
I didn't resist at all. They neve even tried to charge me with resisting. But they beat me up. And I let them. I thought it makes me have a better case. I didn't have a better case... the case got thrown out, from the bogus arrest. But I still had to suffer through that, in Baltimore.
Some of you white people have probably never experienced that. it really is a Black thing you couldn't understand ... Because this kind of crap has happened to Black men in this city for so long. And they're trying to do some more it. That's why there's this bogus warrant out. [Emphasis added.]
After signing off with funeral bagpipe music, MacArthur made himself even clearer on Twitter:
He followed up with a blog post written in the third person as if a journalist were covering the broadcast. MacArthur wrote that by publicizing the case he was hoping “to get more transparency and force Baltimore Police and others in the criminal justice system to be on their best behavior.”
"Are you ok?"
MacArthur got many responses after his distress call. One came from Jeremy Silbert, a Detective in the BPD according to his LinkedIn page.
In August 2012, more than a month after Judge Marcus Z. Shar issued the arrest, warrant, MacArthur and Silbert had this conversation:
Jeremy Silbert made direct contact with MacArthur soon after his announcement.
“No, Jeremy Silbert, I'm not okay”, said MacArthur in the broadcast.
MacArthur also commonly exchanged tweets with Dave Robinette, formerly of the Anne Arundel Police Department. Robinette's Twitter account was deleted later in December.
MacArthur's page suggests numerous interactions between November 28 and December 1. Yet these are not reflected on a mirror for Robinette's account, suggesting, perhaps, that Robinette's tweets to MacArthur were deleted even before the account was.
It seems apparent (from context and from the structure of "conversations" on Twitter) that Robinette made a significant comment to MacArthur moments before his "Grave Danger" show:
“Is this just another paranoid black man, or is this real?”
At least two new Twitter accounts were created to mock and harass MacArthur. A nondescript account called the "Baltimore Hectorer" issued only three messages:
The "fake baltoSpec" account, with user icon depicing MacArthur wearing in foil, reiterated the message that MacArthur was “paranoid”. Messages on this account also suggested that MacArthur was delirious from drug use:
MacArthur himself was online constantly, broadcasting over Spreaker and writing on Twitter and Facebook. He submitted hundreds of individual Twitter messages. He was upset about the warrant and generally took the position that he would respond with force to defend himself against attack.
Note to reader: In Twitter's timeline mode newer messages appear at the top.
After an exchange with Justin Fenton, MacArthur's friendly rival at the Baltimore Sun:
He continued sparring with "The City That Breeds."
Next, towards the end of MacArthur's friday night show, came perhaps the most threatening of all his communications
This message led directly into a conversation with Robinette...
We can only guess what Robinette was writing.
MacArthur's position on police and self-defense resembles that expressed by Malcolm X, whose words sometimes quoted.
Perhaps amazed at pulling through another night, MacArthur began taunting the police.
MacArthur predicted how the police’s case against him would develop. He said in another audio broadcast:
Listen here closely. One of the things they’re going to try to tell you is that they have new charges on me to keep me in jail because I have threatened officers. Let’s be clear: I have not threatened anyone. I’ve said that if my rights are trampled, if my life is in danger, I will defend myself. There are ways to handle it without pouncing on me, without jumping on me, without trying to “accidentally” kill me. And that’s not a threat. Don’t let anyone ever fool you in life, that that’s a threat. Okay? When you’re responding to threats upon you, don’t let someone twist it around and say that you’re threatening them when they’re the ones threatening you... if you remember nothing else from this night, don’t forget that. Because that is a tool of tyranny - where they take your own words and actions and twist it around against you when really they’re the ones that are guilty of what they’re accusing you of.
He goes on to argue that this charge will be invalid:
That’s what they’re going to say (again, back to free speech): “He has made threats against police officers”. Which police officers have I threatened? We’ve gone so far off track in this country that me saying if the police try to do something to me I’ll respond is now a threat. No, you can’t do that. In court of law, the way our law is, there has to be a victim. A victim has to have a name. It’s not a crime for you to express yourself, exercising free speech, to say that you don’t want cops on your back and they need to back off. That’s not a crime, that’s not a threat. A threat would be, you know: “If Justin Fenton slaps me in the face I’ll choke him by the neck”―that’s a joke. But that would be a threat, because I’m mentioning his name, I’m saying what I will do to him. But that’s what they will do. Because of my intellect I’ve been able to stay two to ten steps ahead of these guys, and that’s what infuriates them. But be on the lookout for that exact charge to be levied against me. Watch.
During these few days, MacArthur was worried about a police action but also confused that it had not already been taken. He focused anxiously on his internet audience following in an effort to gain sympathetic observers who might protect him should he be threatened. Although his tone was sometimes aggressive, he generally discussed actual violence only in the context of self-defense. When he did make statements that could be considered threatening, he did not threaten specific acts or target specific people.
"You tweeted out that you were going to kill police"
When MacArthur first heard banging on the door of his house in Waverly, he rapidly posted a series of short bulletins:
During the whole time police actually surrounded his house, MacArthur made clear that he intended to surrender peacefully. Echoing the attitude he expressed in the "My Life Is In Grave Danger" broadcast, MacArthur said explicitly that he would non-violently allow himself to be arrested. He restated this intention soon after police arrived:
In one of his most cited tweets, MacArthur asks whether he should fight back or "go out zen style." Viewed in context, these statements are confirmation that he plans to act nonviolently:
(Don't forget to read from the bottom to the top.)
After several hours of waiting, MacArthur began to negotiate over telephone with BPD Lieutenant Jason Yerg. Readers are encouraged to listen to the full audio recording:
MacArthur is eager to clarify that his intentions are peaceful:
I can assure you from my end, as James MacArthur, that it will be peaceful. I don't know about your guys out there, because you guys have a track record. My track record shows that I'm a nonviolent person. And my track record shows that I was robbed at my house by two thugs, at my old address. I called you guys, after I repelled them without firing a shot, by producing a legally-owned firearm from my house. And you guys arrested me. And you didn't ask me which way did they go, what did they look like, are you okay, what did they take. The first question was "what are you doing with a gun" Next thing, handcuffs.
MacArthur tries to get an explanation from Yerg about why a virtual army has been deployed to his house because of a failure to appear in court. Yerg says it's because of MacArthur's communications about Twitter.
[Author's Note: Additional transcript forthcoming.]
After about an hour and forty five minutes of discussion, MacArthur and Yerg agreed on the terms of surrender. MacArthur complimented Yerg's conduct: “I gotta say, you've been very very agreeable. And that's real cool, brother. I'm not going to shake your hand, because I'll be in handcuffs, but I'll give you the head nod or something.”
MacArthur confirmed the plan:
Macarthur: That's gonna be it, man. I'm just gonna play something going out for my folks. Just let it roll, it has nothing to do with you. Again: I'm gonna secure the house, put my key in my pocket, hands in the air. Nobody scream at me because I'm putting my keys in my pocket, please.
MacArthur: Stay on the line. Let's send this thing into orbit. [...] I appreciate this. You're being too kind, you really are. I know you didn't have to do it like this; you could have already kicked in the door and come and got me, right?
Yerg: Mr. MacArthur, we're just trying to do it as safely as and as respectfully as we can at this point.
MacArthur: Okay, folks, this is it. This is James MacArthur...—I gotta close out, that's only fair to my audience, right?
MacArthur: This is James MacArthur. I'm going out peacefully. Lt. Yerg, my safety is in his hands. I'm going to put a clip in place and it will play and then it'll just be dead air because no one will be here to shut it down until one of the timers executes –no that's a terrible word, I mean, until the timers activate,— and then I'll be walking out slowly and calmly and placing my fate into the hands of the Baltimore police.
MacArthur finished signing off and submitted peacefully to arrest. Police raided and vandalized his house on December 3, and subsequently alleged that they found a sawed-off shotgun. MacArthur remains incarcerated. He now accused of resisting arrest and possessing an illegal firearm. Multiple judges have denied him the opportunity to post bail.
"Thwarted a massacre"
MacArthur's situation resembles the one faced by Neil Prescott, another Marylander accused of making threats and possessing firearms.
In July 2012, guns and Batman became a topic for national discussion after the events at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Days later, a 28-year-old White man man named Neil Prescott allegedly threatened, in multiple phone calls, to shoot up his workplace. "I'm the joker and I'm going to load my guns and blow everybody up," he said. He apparently also said that he wants to splatter his boss's brains on sidewalk. Onl July 27, 2012, police came to his house on and found more than 25 firearms, including multiple semiautomatic rifles. They said they had "thwarted a massacre".
Some of Prescott's confiscated guns. Source: Prince George's County Police Department, via The Telegraph (UK)
After the police raid, which was authorized by warrant, Prescott (who answered his door in a T-shirt reading "Guns don't kill people: I do") was taken in custody for psychiatric evaluation. He remained in Anne Arundel Medical Center for three weeks. On August 20, he was released to his parents.
Prescott has been charged with "telephone misuse" and stays at home awaiting a trial in March. “Unfortunately, Maryland does not have a law that makes it expressly illegal for a person to communicate generalized threats over the telephone,” said State's Attorney Angela Alsobrooks.
Prescott's case resembles MacArthur's in several ways. Prescott's friends, like MacArthur's, say the case is exaggerated and that their friend has a generally nonviolent disposition. In both cases, police suggested that the defendant threatened to instigate a major violent event. In both cases, this initial accusation has melted into simple misdemeanor charges.
Yet prosecutors for the State of Maryland say they do not have enough evidence even to hold Prescott in custody while he awaits trial. James MacArthur, meanwhile, is incarcerated and denied even the opportunity to pay his way to freedom. While Prescott, 28 years old, has not seen the inside of a jail cell, MacArthur is held in Baltimore's notoriously abysmal jail system without seeing visitors and allowed minimal ability to communicate with the outside world. Based on the evidence assembled above―and considering that Prescott made more explicit threats and possessed a substantially more dangerous arsenal―it's hard to see how MacArthur could be classified as a greater "threat to society" than Prescott. So why is MacArthur being held under these conditions?
MacArthur himself, before he was arrested and held virtually incommunicado, suggested two explanations why he might be targeted unfairly. First, because he is an independent journalist, and second, because he is Black. Both characteristics distinguish him from Prescott. If MacArthur is correct about either charge of discrimination, he has a serious case against those who accuse him.
MacArthur will receive a new bail hearing because his case was transferred from District to Circuit Court. According to State Delegate Jill P. Carter, the hearing will take place in Clarence Mitchell Courthouse at 8:30 AM on Feburary 1, 2013. A hearing on the alleged probation violation is scheduled for Feburary 8. Arraignment for the new charges is scheduled for March 11.