BALTIMORE — I decided to head into West Baltimore the moment I watched someone throw a looted gallon of milk at a passing police vehicle from the vantage point of a helicopter, as a CNN reporter openly complained that “people don’t seem to be afraid of the police.”
See, these things usually don’t happen in Baltimore, irrespective of what you might have gleaned from The Wire. People rarely just abandon all fear and start attacking the police en masse. But I’ve also found that, at least in the spring of 2015, the oft-recited-and-oft-misunderstood MLK phrase, “a riot is the language of the unheard,” is pretty disingenuous. Anybody who says they can’t hear people of color screaming bloody murder about being bloodily murdered, especially after the nearly nine months since Ferguson erupted, is walking around America with their fingers in their ears.
And so I piled in a car the second I could with three friends and left Washington, DC.
I’ve lived in the DC.-Baltimore region my entire life and I’ve been working as an organizer and a journalist for years in DC. Baltimore, a beautiful and beautifully weird city, is fun, but was never known for being a protest hotspot like DC, despite having a wealth of radical institutions like the bookstore and cafe Red Emmas, to name just one of a clutch of outfits we in DC would kill to have.
I checked the Baltimore Police Department’s Twitter feed and found an advisory to avoid the area around Fulton and West North Avenue due to burning vehicles, so naturally, we drove directly to Fulton and West North Avenue. I’ve been know to do this sort of thing. In Pittsburgh, during the 2009 G-20 summit, I walked up to an officer struggling to aim a sound cannon at me and asked him for a quote. I did the same to a guy trying to put out a burning dumpster. But this was a bit different—and a lot stupider.
Photo credit: Legba Carrefour
We got to the intersection and, yes, indeed, there was a police car on fire, the wind blowing smoke directly into our rolled down windows. The street was a pile of rocks stretching from the eastern edge of the intersection to what I later saw was the next intersection over. My experience is that while rocks might be aimed at police, their actual effect is less to hit the police than to create a no man’s land between protesters and their targets—a sort of invisible barricade. A group of no more than twenty young people were just ambling around, occasionally throwing a rock, mostly just sort of lounging, like guys just chilling out in their neighborhood late-night. A man helpfully started waving us through, holding up his hand to stop invisible traffic coming from the other direction. The friend driving the car stopped.
Because it was a red light.
You have to understand the kind of programming we’re all used to. Nobody knows how to react in the singular rupture of the social fabric that is a riot. It’s not a war, it’s a fundamental rewriting of the rules of order, while you’re still operating under the old rules. And so he stopped at the stop light.
And that’s when, from the right, a beer bottle smashed against the side of the car, from behind, a rock crashed into roof, and from the passenger seat, my other friend was screaming “Go! Go! For the love of God, go!” In hindsight, the intention seemed less to injure us or damage the car than to indicate, in the language of the unheard, that traffic was to proceed through the intersection at a steady pace.
Photo credit: Aidan Walsh
We parked about five blocks up on a lonely street and walked back towards the intersection. The streets were packed with roving crews of five to 10 people that would occasionally cluster and throw something towards another thing I couldn’t see. Neither the police nor the press were anywhere in sight. We made the decision to avoid walking directly through the intersection, so we made a cut around. We hit a wall of cops at North and Pennsylvania Avenue, strangely facing the opposite direction, towards a wall of journalists who seemed less interested in the shiny new social fabric five blocks over than in filming the uneven line of police holding their shields upside down, intent on guarding the infamous but already burned-out CVS at the corner.
We bumped into two students with cameras doing the same thing we were. We linked up with them, figuring there was safety in numbers, wandering south, back towards the no man’s land. Vehicles were lit up all over the place, the majority of which I saw were prisoner transport vans—exactly like the one Freddie Gray was taken away in during his mysterious 45-minute ride.
Photo credit: Legba Carrefour
I found an open store and tried to go in to buy water. One of the students pointed out that it wasn’t open; the lights were simply still on and the plexiglass window had simply been torn out. Other than police property, which were clearly purposefully set alight, hits like these seemed casually opportunistic, like people did it for a laugh, targeting businesses they didn’t have any kind of emotional attachment with to begin with.
Unsurprisingly, I can’t say we were welcome. Residents were standing on their stoops staring at us. Cars were squealing tires and making donuts at us when they saw us walking by. One car swerved up, a door open, and a guy made a gun with his hand, not even looking at us, clearly just trying to troll six white kids ambling through a riot. Otherwise, it was just people streaming past us, with looks on their faces that were slyly condescending—like for once in their lives, they were the ones in on the joke.
Things started to quiet down by 2:30am, so we shook hands with our new friends (nothing makes a shared life experience like walking around a riot), and walked back to the car. We got back, and someone had clearly tried to break into the car while we were gone, and pock marks were left on the hood and roof from our intersection idiocy.
All we could do was laugh. The joke was on us.
Lead photo credit: Aidan Walsh
Legba Carrefour is a writer and radical from Washington, DC. Most of his work is published by the DC culture magazine Brightest Young Things.