9 Impressions in the Aftermath of the Baltimore Unrest
Baltimore has always been good to me. Hospitable and friendly, I’ve never left Charm City without having a good time. When I began to read about and watch the protests, unrest and repression unfolding on the Chesapeake, I felt compelled to see for myself what was really going on. Like many opportunist activists, I arrived late. I got there May Day, the Friday after the most destructive unrest had occurred and stayed through the curfewed weekend. I spent some time with protestors, police, reporters and many hours with bartenders (I was funding the recovery). Here are the top nine most important impressions from what I saw and heard.
1. The protestors had a legitimate reason to protest and express appropriate grievances
This is an extremely important and fundamental point to remember; and one that seems to have been lost in the politicization of this event. Even divorced from any socioeconomic context, the facts favor the demonstration: a young man was arrested on groundless charges; a video emerged detailing the circumstances of his violent detention; on that same video, he can be heard requesting medical attention; none was proffered by the very people entrusted with the responsibility to provide it. The detainee was placed in the back of a police van, restrained but not secured by a seatbelt. He is later found unresponsive and subsequently dies. The government charged with the responsibility for investigating this death and informing the public of developments, chose to remain silent for weeks. Colossal fuck ups. These are compelling circumstances, particularly in light of similar developments elsewhere in America. People have every right to demand answers and hold the government accountable.
2. But they seemed doomed to fail at any lasting change
Though plainly legitimate and energized, the local protest movement seems destined to fizzle out. The protest for justice – for Baltimore and for Freddy Grey – brought together a diverse set of groups and interests. There were communists, community defense organizations, adherents of the Nation of Islam, various church groups, the Green Party, street gangs, youth groups and a smattering of concerned individuals. All these groups easily united under the “Justice for Freddy” banner… but it seemed as though they agreed on little else.
Some advocated police reform; some called for an end to the drug war. The hardliners advocated violent revolution, and others couldn’t really articulate what they wanted, succeeding only in loudly proclaiming what they didn’t. There was backbiting and jockeying for leadership legitimacy. There was a mixed message regarding race: some called for “black power” while others pointed out the ridiculousness of race solidarity among disparate groups who only shared complexion similarities. It was apparent that, besides this common cause which bonded people on a very specific matter, these groups had no unifying force. Unless there is another public and gruesome act of police violence, I fear this movement ends with the indictment.
3. Nobody seemed to consider the implications of deploying the National Guard
There is an important difference between police and soldiers. Though this distinction has been blurred by the continued militarization of America’s police departments, it’s one that must be seriously considered. Police are tasked, in theory, with maintaining a general understanding of community order amongst a civilian population. Soldiers, on the other hand, are responsible for defending against and pursuing enemy combatants. What does this say to the citizens of Baltimore? Did the State declare unannounced war on Baltimoreans? Were these soldiers authorized to fire on US civilians? Are demonstrators enemy combatants?
Equally chilling is the provocation factor. Did the Governor even consider how the demonstrators might respond to this decidedly military escalation? What if some right-wing extremists decided it was time for a Branch Dravidian-like stand? Baltimoreans were exercising their Constitutionally-provided right to seek a redress of grievances. The Governor responded with a show of military force, as misguided as it was racist and stupid. How is it moral or justifiable to deploy troops against citizens who are airing legitimate grievances? It does not seem as if anyone in power, especially the Governor thought this through. The appearance of this impropriety is much worse than any resulting property damage.
4. The showing of force was an exercise in extreme overkill
An important thing that seems to have been lost in the spectacle of Baltimore coverage was the extent – or lack thereof – of the violence allegedly perpetuated by the demonstrators. No one was killed and the protestors were unarmed. There was destruction of property and sporadic clashes by a very small number of individuals. But by the time of military mobilization, the streets were already relatively quiet. Thousands of National Guardsmen, state and city police, police from other states and millions of dollars in military equipment (Humvees, tanks, helicopters) were deployed to quell an unrest that had all but abated. Helicopters crowded the skyline, Humvee convoys congested city streets, hundreds of Guardsmen stood nearly arm in arm across the waterfront, and even quiet side streets had soldiers posted in pairs on every other corner. Whether or not you believe that a strong showing of force was necessary, it’s difficult to justify the millions of dollars spent in just a few days to contain a very small group of unruly demonstrators. This allocation of resources is especially absurd considering the city is millions of dollars in debt.
5. The curfew may have cost local businesses more than vandalism and looting
In the days following the Monday night unrest, we were inundated with images of looters and vandals. We saw a mall and a CVS in flames. We saw looters celebrating their pathetic take of Slim Jims and cigarettes from a vandalized 7-11. What the news failed to show, however, was the economic impact on Baltimore’s many bars, restaurants, convenience stores, pharmacies and yes, strip clubs. 10 PM to 5 AM (the hours of the curfew) are the most profitable hours for many of these businesses. Besides business owners, bartenders, waiters and strippers were hit particularly hard, with many having no work all week. Combined, is the fact that Saturday was the night of one of the most highly anticipated sporting events of all time: Pacquiao vs. Mayweather. Bar owners had invested thousands of dollars, each for the right to air the event. This money was neither refunded by Pay Per View nor by the government who imposed the curfew. Don’t be surprised if many of Baltimore’s wonderful little watering holes find themselves out of business after failing to recoup those losses.
6. The curfew inflamed racial tensions
The unrest led many to believe that Baltimore is a simmering pot of racial tension. In my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Even the protestors I spoke with who decry racist police tactics did not believe that Baltimore has a hostile racial environment outside of the interactions with police. But as people lost their right to venture outside their homes for large chunks of the day, racial animosity began to rear its ugly head. White bar owners and workers seeing their finances take a sharp dive began looking for people to blame. Though the main targets of ire remained City Hall and the police department, people began to chafe at the idea that “they” were being punished for the actions of “them”. Bread and circuses, people.
7. The curfew was not evenly enforced
I believe it is the duty of any freedom loving American to violate an imposed curfew. Only under extreme circumstances (natural disasters) can a curfew be justified. We should find collective punishment and the violation of our constitutional rights to free movement and peaceable assembly, reprehensible. So as soon as 10 PM hour rolled around, I hit the streets. Hard. I was staying in Fed Hill, an area far from the heart of the protests, but very near to the heavily guarded waterfront. I wandered aimlessly on the empty streets with my friend (also white) for a while. Then we decided to up the ante and present ourselves directly to the Guardsmen near the waterfront. When they saw us, I braced for what I assumed would be our arrest. Much to my surprise, they were completely unfazed by our presence. I took a picture with them in the background and they stood still. I asked them how they were doing, and one soldier smiled at me while the others pretended as though I didn’t exist. While I’m certainly grateful I did not need to sit in a cell for my civil disobedience, it seemed to prove what protesters and Baltimore residents have been trying to say: if your skin is a certain shade or if you are in certain areas, the law is applied differently.
8. Everybody tried to get a “win” but everybody lost
Throughout this whole affair every group of consequence tried to notch a win in their belt, but failed miserably. And is some cases, spectacularly. Protesters hoped to get justice for Freddy Grey and reduce police harassment. It remains to be seen if they got the former, but most certainly increased the odds against the latter. The Lead Organizers preened and strutted to the news of a public indictment, then inexorably poisoned the jury pool by presiding over a “Victory Rally” where they loudly urged attendees to find the police “guilty” if and when they sat on the jury. Mayor Rawlins tried to safely straddle the fence and came off as an incompetent advocate of either position. Governor Logan, exercising his executive authority to preserve order, came off more as a ridiculous, cowardly, racist and unsympathetic bully. Even the much lauded State’s Attorney Moseby, while appearing victorious at the moment, may not be so beloved by her constituents when most of the charges against the officers fail to stick because of her zealous over-indictments. And her future productivity has been severely compromised by the lack of police cooperation sure to dominate her future. The biggest loser of all has to be the media, who utterly failed at providing a balanced, nuanced and fact-based coverage. News reports seemed to go out of their way to promulgate dissention and continue the frenzy. When cooler heads prevailed, the media was quick to provide unsubstantiated provocations. Luckily, regular people on the ground were able to expose and not react to the sensationalism.
9. It seemed like a dress rehearsal for future repression
In my opinion, the most distressing aspect of my time in Baltimore was how easily and unopposed an American city fell under military occupation. The aesthetics alone were enough to sink me into a deep depression. The constant purr of choppers in the sky, wailing sirens, armed troops at every corner. A city airing its legitimate grievances was overrun by troops sworn to protect them. In fairness, most troops were exceedingly friendly and I don’t believe any used force, but that’s beside the point. They had turned a public building (city hall) into a military fortress; they enforced an unconscionable curfew; they turned an important corner of our country into occupied territory; and, they had achieved all this without any serious opposition. Besides some intellectual screeds in the far left and right wing publications, and a few dissents of the more thoughtful protesters, nobody seemed very concerned by this occurrence. As it was so easy to quell a population this time, I cannot imagine that other misguided or plain frightened Governors won’t resort to similar actions in the future.