Defying an unjust curfew

May 7, 2015

During protests in Baltimore against the police killing of Freddie Gray, the media were quick to echo the official line of the police department, drawing a distinction between the "good" and the "bad" demonstrators--those who obeyed orders like the police curfew and those who were prepared to defy them. But the mainstream press rarely if ever reported on the actions of police or how they harassed and intimidated people.

Nowhere was the double standard more evident than in the brief mentions of demonstrators out after the 10 p.m. curfew. At most, CNN and Fox News reported on the number of people arrested, based on police reports--but they never asked protesters about why they were prepared to brave arrest, and they were rarely around to see what happened. contributor Trish Kahle was on the scene of the protests on May 2 in West Baltimore. She describes what she saw.

AS CURFEW approached on Saturday night, student organizer Joseph Kent called activists to the center of the intersection of North and Pennsylvania Avenues--the heart of protests in West Baltimore since police arrested and killed Freddie Graylast month. "We're gonna march," he said. "And they don't want us to march."

As a crowd of 150 gathered around him, Kent explained that anyone participating in the march would be facing arrest, but that challenging the curfew was necessary. He read the number for the National Lawyers Guild out over a bullhorn and instructed people to write it on their arms. Then the march set out toward Baltimore's prison district, a multi-block expanse with cellblocks that only have ventilation openings, and no windows. The jail is bordered by the Latrobe Homes housing project.

As the march made its way down North Avenue, police cars zipped past on side streets, trying to maneuver ahead of it. The protesters were mostly young people, aged 16 to 20. They held signs that read, "Freddie Gray Didn't Die in Vain. Civil Rights Today" and "End Racism Now." A Sikh protester out in solidarity carried a young boy on the back of a moped, and two young protesters followed along with a car to help block traffic.

A line of riot police in Baltimore after curfew
A line of riot police in Baltimore after curfew (Todd St. Hill | SW)

Echoing the frustration some youth had expressed that the main rally outside City Hall earlier in the day was too celebratory and might keep people out of the streets, the marchers chanted, "I've got a feeling, I've got a feeling, somebody's trying to hold us back, and there ain't gonna be no stuff like that."

As soon as the march turned off North Avenue, the police presence escalated. Although CNN reported on television that a small number of police had been dispatched to "protect" the protest, the reality was far different. Of course, to counter the police narrative, you have to have a different set of eyes, but besides and possibly a writer for the Washington Post, no media were present. CNN's reporters left after the two-minute warning for curfew.

WHEN CURFEW went into effect, a police helicopter circled above, warning protesters, journalists and bystanders that we were now in violation. A cheer went up from the protesters: it was a point of pride to violate the hated and punitive curfew. Then a line of 15 police vehicles approached, led by a massive, armored tactical unit. Two vans filled with riot police approached from a side street.

"We aren't criminals for walking down the street!" screamed one man. He turned and asked each protester as they passed: "Are you a criminal just for walking? Are you? Are you a criminal because you're walking?"

Then, as the march attempted to turn the corner toward Latrobe Homes, the police jumped out of their vehicles and targeted Kent, the leader of the march--who had been "disappeared" on live television the week before--as well as legal observers. Kirby, who had run across the street to observe the crackdown, gripped the hat that identified her as a legal observer. "I don't know if it's safer with it on or off," she told me. "They've been targeting the green hats, but they're targeting protesters, too."

As the march quieted momentarily, we could hear chants of "Fuck the police" from people inside the prison. It re-energized the disoriented march that had lost its main organizer.

We were then separated by the police from the rest of the march. Even though we had press passes, our experience the night before convinced us that we would not be allowed to follow the march by passing through the police lines. Media were required to be in the media pen at North and Pennsylvania after 10 p.m. Instead, we ran through the backstreets to catch up, receiving help and direction from the residents of the housing project.

From above, the helicopter threatened the nearby protesters. "You, if you're wearing a red shirt, get off the basketball court NOW!" It warned protesters that they were in violation of the curfew, and they must go inside, but the police had blocked them into Latrobe Homes and cut off any exit routes.

We were unable to get close enough to observe what was happening inside the yard safely, but we saw protester after protester being walked or dragged to two police vans before being loaded inside. Two men, residents of the Homes, passed by us and warned us to try and get away.

Another resident shook his head as police lights flashed and glared off the windows: "I don't understand why they're arresting people for protesting," he said. "People are just tired. They're tired of bullshit."

As two women were escorted to the police van, already in handcuffs, one officer tightened the cuffs further, causing the woman to cry out in pain. Earlier in the day, a street medic who was also arrested on Saturday night described this police tactic--the over-tightening of handcuffs--as a regular occurrence since the protests began:

Outside of treating folks in the street for exposure to chemical weapons, we've also been treating a lot of people for blunt-force injuries and over-tightened handcuffs after they've been released. A lot of the people we want to treat are the ones being snatched up quickly by the police, and then they're facing further abuse and being denied medical care while they're in custody, where we can't get to them.

The one remaining legal observer was forced to backtrack through the Homes and duck into doorways to stay safe. Some residents opened their doors to offer shelter, showing instinctive solidarity with those of us on the street even as they faced arrest themselves simply for stepping out of their houses.

AS THE police finished arresting protesters, they turned their attention to us, the only remaining journalists. Despite the fact that we had press passes, we were threatened multiple times with arrest. When I answered a question about which paper we wrote for and how large of a circulation it had, I was told to "speak English," even though I was clearly speaking English.

The officer claimed we were falsifying our credentials and again threatened to arrest us. I replied, "You can call our editor and check," to which he replied, "Don't tell me what to do." He advanced a step and continued, "I can do whatever I want."

The legal observer gave us a ride back to North and Pennsylvania. As we tried to make our way to the car, a police officer dragged a young man toward the police lines in handcuffs. "Are you press?" he called out desperately. We replied that we were, and he responded, "They're arresting me just for trying to go home!"

I asked for his name, so we could give it to the National Lawyers Guild, but the officer cut us off--"Media have to go in the pen. Stay out here, and you're subject to arrest." The media pen's vision of the street was blocked by police vans. Staying in the pen meant relying on police information about what was happening in the streets, and that information, again and again, turned out to be false. The intimidation of journalists in Baltimore, just as it was in Ferguson, continues to be a central tactic in trying to isolate protesters, physically and politically.

What the mainstream media couldn't see was this: a well-thought-out march led by a student organizer, past some of Baltimore's most oppressive, segregated institutions.

The march was about defying the unjust curfew, but it was also about linking the struggle in Sandtown to the struggle of prisoners, to the challenges faced by the residents of the city's public housing. It was about confronting the heavily militarized response to protests in the here and now, but also about creating solidarity for the future and spreading the rebellion to every possible corner of the city.

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