What we saw in Baltimore

May 7, 2015

PERHAPS WE were naïve, but we expected the main response to our statement ("Reporters singled out by police") to be one of solidarity and sympathy. We expected that this would be especially true among fellow leftists who understand that the role of the police is to defend the status quo and punish resistance to it. We were therefore disappointed to read Scott J.'s irresponsible polemic directed against our eyewitness account of what we saw on the ground ("An irresponsible accusation").

Without so much as a word of solidarity or any disposition to give us the benefit of the doubt, Scott accuses us of pathologizing the #BaltimoreUprising and siding with those who aim to "make a buck and a Pulitzer off the suffering of others." He associates us with the chorus of mainstream commentators wringing their hands about broken windows and denouncing those who physically confront the police. This is preposterous and unfounded. Nothing we wrote justifies this uncharitable interpretation.

We also find it frustrating that Scott, though thousands of miles away from the action in Baltimore, feels so confident lecturing us about what did and did not happen before our very eyes.

Image from SocialistWorker.org

We spent every hour on Friday, May 1, participating in demonstrations and interviewing folks who have been on the front lines of this struggle since the day it began. Whereas the mainstream media distorted the reality on the ground and ignored the voices of the oppressed, we listened to dozens of people tell their stories and offer their political analysis of the situation. We marched for miles alongside thousands of protesters determined to win justice for Freddie Gray. What's more, over the course of the weekend, we observed a number of instances when what appeared to be undercover police officers attempted to redirect marches or encourage protestors to disperse.

WE SPENT a great deal of time in the neighborhood known as "Penn-North" that has been an epicenter of sorts for organizing and protest. As the 10 p.m. curfew approached on Friday, the crowd thinned out substantially. The mood was notably different from the clear sense of defiance we observed at other moments--particularly on Saturday evening. Nonetheless, the police handled the situation very aggressively. When a small bucket of ice was suddenly thrown in the air, a line of fully armored cops--who outnumbered non-police 10-to-1--charged forward at full speed, shoving and knocking over journalists and protesters in their wake.

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While we never professed to be absolutely certain about this, we still believe it is reasonable to suspect that the ice bucket was thrown by an undercover police officer or agent provocateur. Such maneuvers are well within the bounds of conventional police tactics. As Johnson must surely know, one could cite any number of cases--a recent example in Oakland comes to mind, as does the case of the NATO Five in Chicago--where undercover police encouraged or performed actions that gave officers in uniform an excuse to crack down on protesters or clear out crowds.

Tactics such as these are often effective at achieving the immediate objectives of police. In our case, it was obvious that the cops were itching for a way to quickly get rid of media and the handful of protestors who were defying the curfew. Given the nature of what we saw combined with common knowledge of police crowd-control tactics, we believe it's reasonable to hypothesize that the ice was thrown by a provocateur.

Of course, grasping this simple point about police tactics does not entail that we should attribute every broken window or rock thrown to provocateurs. Neither does it entail that we should doubt that the righteous, fully justified anger of people in Baltimore inspires physical resistance to the police. Still less does this simple point imply that it would have been morally or politically wrong to throw the ice at the line of cops. Nothing we wrote suggested otherwise.

Scott's careless remarks are more than simply unfounded, however. They are also indicative of broader problems on the U.S. left. All too often, the brand of sectarian blood sport exemplified in Scott's letter takes the place of serious, productive political debate. This is a shame. The profound challenges our movements face demand better of us.
Tyler Zimmer, Todd St. Hill and Trish Kahle, Chicago

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