Shomrim, An Attack, and An Emergency Protest

Shomrim, An Attack, and An Emergency Protest

Amy Dewan

On Monday, January 24, two dozen Baltimore residents gathered outside the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse on St. Paul Street. The week before, it was announced that all felony charges against Eliyahu Werdesheim, a member of a Jewish neighborhood patrol group called the Shomrim, had been dropped by newly elected State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein. Werdesheim had faced first degree assault charges for an attack on a fifteen-year-old in Upper Park Heights last fall. Instead, Werdesheim will face second-degree assault, false imprisonment, and possession of a deadly weapon—all misdemeanors.

The All People's Congress called an emergency protest to draw attention to the issue. Calling the Shomrim a “racist vigilante group,” they demanded its special relationship with the Baltimore City Police Department be severed and the group be disbanded for “promoting hate crimes and conducting vigilante-style activities.”

They also demanded that Werdesheim be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and that reparations and resources be made available for residents of Lower Park Heights.

“The contrast between Upper Park Heights and Lower Park Heights is glaring,” All People's Congress said in a press release. “Lower Park Heights has suffered from extreme neglect. The need for a jobs program, health care, and services for all must be addressed.”

Protesters also spoke to the special relationship between State's Atorney Bernstein and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, calling it inappropriate and saying that it played into the decision not to prosecute the death of Officer William H. Torbit Jr., who was shot by fellow police officers outside the Select Lounge club earlier this January, as a murder.

Werdesheim's trial begins on February 16th. The All People's Congress and other groups plan to protest outside the court. As Sharon Black of All People's Congress put it, “We urge all fair and just minded people, regardless of religion or nationality to speak out and to be present. We are at a pivotal point: The events in upper Park Heights and in this case can be a teachable moment and can mark an opening in the struggle for justice.”

 

Background

 

The Shomrim, or the Watchers, is an Orthodox Jewish citizen patrol group active in the northwest, serving the area north of Northern Parkway, as well as Pikesville and Greenspring, in Baltimore County. They were formed in 2005, in response to burglaries in the area. They have acted as a first-response team since, operating an around-the-clock phone line and often arriving at crime scenes before the police. They have no special rights beyond those of civilians, and cannot attack or detain people.

But now they are accused of doing just that. According to a police report, on November 19, 2010, an African American Northwestern High School student walking on Falstaff Road in Upper Park Heights found himself being followed by a car. “What’s up?” he said to them. “What are ya‘ll looking at?”

The two passengers, white adults, got out of the car and said, “What’s up? You’re the guy from yesterday on Park Heights. You want some problems?”

The teen continued walking and the passengers got back into the car. As they trailed him, the teen picked up a piece of wood to protect himself with. The two men got out of the car and the teen threw it down as they approached him. At this time, a third man, drove up in a van and came up to the teen from behind, grabbing him and patting him down, saying “What you got in your pockets? Keep your hand out your pockets, you want trouble?”

One of them then threw him to the ground, and, while the other two held the teen down by placing their feet and knees into his back, beat him over the head with a hand held radio. Shouting, “You wanna fuck with us?! You don't belong here! Get out of here!”

The Shomrim supposedly broke the teen's hand in the attack before the three men returned to their vehicles.

Werdesheim's lawyer contends that it was the Shomrim who acted in self-defense, and that the teen attacked them. “The information available to us is that the young man swung a two-by-four with nails in it at Mr. Werdesheim,” Attorney Andrew Alperstein told WBAL, “Mr. Werdesheim stepped out of the way and defended himself from imminent bodily harm from this young man’s weapon.”

The twenty-three year old Werdesheim is the CEO of Sayeret Operational Solutions, a security firm that serves diplomats and executives while they travel abroad. He is also a former Israeli special services soldier. The unit he was in specialized in urban counterterrorism, hostage rescue, and high-profile apprehensions. Werdesheim is a former JCC personal trainer and teaches Krav Maga, an Israeli martial art. He is also an active member of AIPAC, an Israeli lobbying organization.

In an interview with the Baltimore Jewish Times, Werdesheim declared his personal views on community self-defense. “I will not stop volunteering for the community...I love the Jewish people...My personal view is that 10 percent of the Jewish people protect 90 percent of the Jewish people. And sometimes, like in a case like this, there’s a misunderstanding and that is difficult for me.”

Werdesheim's trial starts on February 16th at the Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse, on the corner of Calvert and E. Fayette Streets.

If convicted, Werdesheim faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.

To See Correspondent Amy Dewan's Full Photo Coverage of the Action, Please Visit Her Flickr Page.