Rallying around 'Mayor of Poppleton'

Activists say Lenny Clay, a W. Baltimore barber, was mistreated by police

  • More than 25 people rallied in the 1000 block of W. Fayette St. to show support for Lenny Clay, a barber. Among them are Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr. and Del. Melvin Stukes.
More than 25 people rallied in the 1000 block of W. Fayette St.… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
December 29, 2009|By Justin Fenton | justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Lenny Clay's West Baltimore barbershop, a sounding board for prominent Baltimoreans for the past five decades that stands alone on a block where most buildings have been razed, was dark Monday as activists stood outside decrying an arrest that left the 73-year-old at home with a broken arm.

Police say Clay had to be removed from his vehicle after he struck a parked car and ignored officers' attempts to pull him over about 9 p.m. Dec. 23. Officers wrote in their report that Clay appeared intoxicated, and he faces charges of leaving the scene of an accident and driving without a license.

Police say all proper protocols were followed and that Clay's injury was an accident, but community activists said they are troubled about the use of force.

"Mr. Lenny has been there for so many of us, time in and time out," the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon told a gathering of about 25 people. "We need to be concerned when a pillar of our community is wounded in this way."

Clay, whose regular clients have included U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, said he denies all of the allegations. In an interview, Clay said he was driving when he saw police lights and pulled over. The next thing he knew, he says, police yanked him out of his vehicle.

"They threw me on the ground, face first, and pushed my face in the dirt with their foot," Clay said. As for the allegations that he fled the scene of an accident, he said he never received any explanation of the arrest until Monday: "It's a damn lie. All the police are doing is covering their hind parts."

A department spokesman said Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III had ordered an internal investigation to verify that procedures were followed.

"As we reviewed documentation and interviewed the officers, procedurally it looks like everything was followed," said Anthony Guglielmi, the department's chief spokesman. "There was no intent on the part of the officers to cause any injury to Mr. Clay."

A spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon confirmed that she called Clay after the incident, but declined to say what was discussed. "She will reserve comment until after the investigation," said Dixon spokesman Scott Peterson.

Clay earned a reputation for giving politicians blunt advice and keeping them in tune with the concerns of their constituents, and Schmoke once referred to him as the "Mayor of Poppleton," the neighborhood where Lenny's House of Naturals has been a mainstay. Clay has spent countless nights on the streets trying to talk kids out of selling drugs, raised money for Pop Warner football league uniforms, and given money to send talented students to private schools.

At a rally called by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, supporters' emotions ranged from concern for Clay's health to anger toward police.

"This will not go down without the truth coming out," said state Del. Melvin L. Stukes, who has had his hair cut weekly at Clay's shop for the past 15 years.

One unidentified man called for a "revolution" and said residents need to start policing the city themselves. "They [messed] with the wrong man," he seethed.

According to court records and police officials, two Southwestern District officers -- a sergeant and a lieutenant -- were executing a search warrant in the 100 block of Palormo Ave. when they observed Clay's 1999 Toyota Camry strike a parked car. The officers ran after the Camry and jumped in front of its path, but the driver continued, records say.

The officers got into their police cruiser and followed the Camry to the 100 block of Siegwart Lane and ordered the driver to get out, according to records. When Clay refused, the sergeant removed him and "placed him on the ground."

Clay, whose real name is James E. Clay, continued to struggle as the sergeant handcuffed him, and he later complained of pain in his right arm, according to records. The sergeant reported smelling a strong odor of alcohol and said Clay appeared intoxicated.

Clay acknowledged that he had a drink at dinner with his son, but said he was not drunk. "There's a difference between driving after having a drink, and driving under the influence," he said in an interview. "You can ask anyone at the restaurant."

Spokesman Donny Moses said police took Clay to St. Agnes Hospital to treat his arm, and issued a criminal citation. He will be charged with leaving the scene of an accident and driving without a license.

Moses said Clay's blood alcohol content was not tested because police only have a two-hour window from the time of the accident to have tests performed. Moses said the priority became treating Clay's arm.

A law enforcement source said the incident appeared to be handled appropriately, but that in lieu of the accusations, a failure to charge Clay with resisting arrest, or even attempted murder for driving at the lieutenant, could taint the case and raise further questions.

The woman whose car was struck told The Baltimore Sun that the bumper of her vehicle was scraped in the accident and said police told her that a drunk driver had struck her car and hit a lieutenant who tried to stop him on foot.

Clay said he is a victim of police brutality: "It wasn't legal for them to treat me that way."

Earlier versions of this article, citing police records, incorrectly identified two streets where the hit-and-run accident is alleged to have taken place. The street names are Palormo Avenue and Siegwart Lane. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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