This morning I asked a Baltimore cop about the scene that unfolded at Mondawmin Mall yesterday afternoon, where a group of kids from the neighboring Frederick Douglass High School were met by a line of police officers in full riot gear as soon as they crossed the street.
One officer I spoke with had worked a grueling shift that lasted for over 12 hours and, though he had been sent all over the city, he did not know that the cops sent to Mondawmin had been part of the first violent interaction of the day. The riot squad had arrived at the mall as a preventative measure after seeing a local, teenage-run social media meme—hashtagged #Purge after the movies where a criminal state reigns supreme, and attached to a note to meet at Mondawmin at 3 p.m.—spread through high schools. The violence first escalated when the kids threw rocks at the police … and when the police threw them back. At the time, he was on duty, and later met some of those same teens from Mondawmin in a different part of the city as his peers donned that same riot gear. Another cop I spoke with grudgingly conceded that perhaps the protesters and vandals, two distinctly separate groups whose identities were hard to distinguish from each other based on their both traveling in groups made up primarily of young people, were treated with the same level of wariness. Surprisingly, over the course of the afternoon and early evening, neither cop I spoke to was given real-time updates or a briefing of how the violence began. Presumably, their co-workers weren’t either.
Last night’s protests were meant to be in remembrance of Freddie Gray, the man who died after suffering from spinal injuries, possibly inflicted upon him by police, when he was arrested for running away from a cop on April 12. He reportedly ran after an officer “made eye contact” with him. Three police officers on bikes chased him and eventually caught him, and arrested him, and potentially ruptured his spine, and waited 45 minutes before getting him medical care. The reason that the group of high schoolers at Mondawmin gathered and ran was the same reason Freddie Gray ran: In Baltimore, the looming, overbearing presence of police around young black males has a history of ending badly.
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I asked one of the officers I spoke with if what happened yesterday was possibly instigated by the mere presence of the police at Mondawmin Mall:
[The police department] follows people on social media. They have fake Twitter accounts and fake Instagram accounts, they know to watch certain trends, so they saw that and it’s heated. They are going to make sure that’s watched.
Another police officer, on why yesterday’s protest escalated:
I blame the department and let me tell you why. They praise rookie officers. They’ll go around making a 100 arrests a month, and they’ll praise them. These rookie officers will do anything to get an arrest because they want more praise, you know what I’m saying? This is the result of it. They arrested Gray for some bullshit. That arrest was the weakest thing I’ve seen in my life. They do things like that and then what we see happening now happens. They can say anything to anyone to lock them up because they want an arrest. I don’t think they hurt him or messed him up, that’s what I truly think, but I do think they should have called a medic.
You see a man with a clip on his belt and you have no idea what it is. Half of West Baltimore is carrying a pocket knife, you’d be stupid to run after someone knowing that. That doesn’t seem like something someone who has been around would do. I don’t know about Freddie Gray, though, I wasn’t there. Yesterday wasn’t about Freddie Gray; the looting and violence and fires and people robbing stores downtown wasn’t about Freddie Gray; that was about the feeling that cops are the bad guys. We are not the bad guys, we are out here protecting the community. That’s what’s so upsetting, that we are out here trying to work with the community and there’s a lack of trust between both sides. I understand it, but I need to make sure it’s clear that we’re trying to keep peace.
This is our city too, that’s the thing. We grew up here, our friends live here, our kids go to school here. I feel so badly for everyone who has been caught up in this just living their lives, just being in the place where they live and work. I was working all day and the first time I had the chance to check on anyone, you saw people you know crying, people sending messages and group-texts looking for their kids, stores you go to being robbed clean. Police or not, this hard to watch no matter what, even after being in it and then you see it from a different perspective when you go home. It’s so sad.
Both officers said that things look relatively calm at the moment, with volunteer cleanup crews dominating the area where car fires and looting took over North Avenue last night. That said, they have been told to stay prepped if more looting or violence follows tonight’s community-organized protest.
Photo via AP Images.