Love in the Time of Curfew

Being from and living in Baltimore, it has been hard to process exactly how the events following the arrest and death of Freddie Gray have appeared to the outside world. Our overwhelmed, Democratic mayor and our Republican governor let the city slip into a state of fear and confusion, embellished by most of the local and national media. There was never an effort to de-escalate, only to further drive a wedge between the city’s blacks and everyone else. Much of white America has asked “why won’t they stop rioting” and “why can’t they just be peaceful like MLK?” But what we’re hearing in Baltimore is people asking why we won’t just be eternally peaceful, why we won’t just die like Dr. King so that they may live in comfort.

After several days of Humvees on (some) streets and the curfew that has resulted from the sensationalism and racial paranoia of April 27th’s unrest, itself symptomatic of the city’s segregation and systemic disenfranchisement, some of Baltimore’s most difficult yet consistent truths of racial disparity are being reinforced. And despite Wolf Blitzer’s shock and awe at seeing “these sorts of things” in an American city, there’s certainly a recent precedent for drastic measures such as curfew that have engorged an already distended police state.

Much of white America has asked “why won’t they stop rioting” and “why can’t they just be peaceful like MLK?”

The midnight curfew in Ferguson, Missouri, last August saw protesters lobbying for their right to peacefully assemble met with tear gas and armored police vehicles. And decades before, in Bmore, after the assassination of Dr. King sparked a powder-keg centuries in the making, Governor Spiro Agnew deployed troops and issued an 11pm to 6am curfew for a city embroiled in chaotic looting and racial sparring at levels that were many times worse than what was seen in the week following the so-called riot on April 27th. In each day following that day’s unrest, and despite the resultant overreaction from cable news and the portion of white America that takes it for gospel, the city has seen unity, resolve and levity as people of all stripes have banded together to peacefully call for justice and repair the city’s psychic wounds.

Our curfew lent itself to an occupational environment that our own Apartheid police force and the National Guard have relished in, a more focused expression of the status quo: racially targeted law enforcement that has ensnared black folk more frequently than their freely-moving white counterparts.

Even with a black mayor and black police commissioner, Baltimore became a sundown town in lower-income black areas like the one where Freddie Gray was killed, a throwback to Jim Crow curfews that meant arrest or worse, thus reaffirming the notion that blacks in power can absolutely be auxiliaries of white supremacy.

Before the events that have Baltimore in the global spotlight began, cops were already tangible examples of terrorists for blacks in this city and beyond. I live 100 yards from the National Guard Armory and a mile southeast of the Penn-North community that saw black rage on Monday morph into the even-more-threatening-to-white-supremacy black unity throughout the week.

Before the events that have Baltimore in the global spotlight began, cops were already tangible examples of terrorists for blacks in this city and beyond.

At 9:30ish on the second night and listening to Teena Marie on the way home, I rushed to make it before curfew, which may have been me trying to make the best of a bad situation. But the cheap thrill was tempered when I got a phone call from my mom asking if I’d heard from my sister, who wasn’t home yet. It’d be stupid to have even fretted about it, but for the possibly lethal consequences of encountering a cop emboldened by curfew’s extension of his power.

Over the course of curfew week, this city has never seemed larger in size than it has when considering the concentration of curfew enforcement. National Guard equipment, armored vehicles, and riot police have set up shop in the northwestern corner of the city, near where Freddie Gray was taken, which has long been occupied by police to begin with. This occupation is the reason Gray ran, despite having done nothing wrong. It would be his end, but it has appeared to spark nothing short of a revolution in this city and others.

The protracted occupational stance of the Baltimore Police Department in neighborhoods similar to Penn-North and the adjacent Sandtown played out regarding the curfew as well, first covertly, then plain as can be in the curfew’s waning hours. Predominately white neighborhoods such as Hampden, Charles Village, and Mount Vernon did not see many curfew violation arrests, let alone the maximized presence of police and military seen on the city’s west side. The Guard’s presence was felt in the faux-swanky waterfront ‘hood of Harbor East, as was the touristy strip of Pratt Street lining Harborplace.

This occupation is the reason Gray ran, despite having done nothing wrong.

The “they have to go where the crime is” crowd missed the point that the causes and conditions that lead to such crime, segregation of opportunity, and the carceral cycle that churns black bodies among them, are only exacerbated when police take on and savor their role as overseers tasked with containment so that the “New Baltimore” can work and play in peace. And these same police are just as detrimental to community cohesion when acting as runaway slave catchers.

A black friend’s anecdote from the first night of the curfew — a white stranger offering to walk him the several blocks to his apartment as the curfew approached — reflects the reality of Baltimore’s curfew situation. For this handful of nights, the armor of white privilege allowed a good number of the city’s whites to carry on, for the most part, as though the mayor’s mandate never happened. My employer, who is white, was legitimately shocked that the curfew meant everyone and not just those who live in former shooting locations of The Wire.

And when a white woman can come to the conclusion that no one is going to violently arrest her after curfew and acknowledges that a black man out after 10pm is most at risk, the trope of black man as terror-brute is turned on its head, if in the most dubious fashion possible. A black teenage boy is 21 times more likely to be shot by cops than his white counterpart, and our vulnerability to state torture and violence is becoming clearer to a white population conditioned to trust and condone the judgement and actions of police, no matter how horrifying. This learning curve is of course at the expense of the lives of those like Freddie Gray, Rekia Boyd, and Tamir Rice.

A black teenage boy is 21 times more likely to be shot by cops than his white counterpart.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s de jure exemptions from curfew — commuting to or from work or school — required citizens to possess a signed document from an employer or educator. It’s all been hauntingly familiar, as we’ve witnessed an expansion of the cop’s role as enforcer for a white supremacist system contingent upon the funneling of black bodies into confinement.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake, as “conservator of the peace,” has wide latitude to maintain and extend the curfew; she does not need city council approval to do so. And there has been little mention of the city’s youth curfew, which has been in effect since August of last year. That statute mandates that children younger than 14 be indoors by 9pm. Kids 14 to 16 can stay out until 10pm on school nights, and until 11pm on weekends and over the summer. The “U” word — unconstitutional — has been bandied about since this restriction was announced. And the youth curfew has resulted in arrests for curfew violations that shuffle young Baltimoreans into a juvenile justice system plagued by abuse.

As the absurdity of several days under city-wide curfew dragged on, bartenders, servers and other night and third-shift workers were feeling the squeeze as the city shut down at 10pm each night. #FuckTheCurfew emerged on social media. Those who seemed not to be concerned with the curfew out of an assumption that it did not apply to them began to grumble, and white inconvenience conflated with black dehumanization to create a death knell for the careers of the city’s elected officials.

The city’s massive, peaceful May Day shutdown actions, and the general exuberance throughout the city after Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s announcement of charges being brought against the six cops who took Freddie Gray’s life, was tempered somewhat by violent police actions against those in violation of curfew at City Hall on May Day. Mounted and riot police played “Ride of the Valkyries” on a loudspeaker as CNN and Fox News counted down to 10pm. The police set up “media zones” that put distance between cameras and protesters resisting past 10pm. And the department revoked the curfew-beating “peacekeeper” passes given to observers like Amnesty International. All of this had been in an effort to maximize the tactical (and moral) stance of a police state run amok that only still has sympathizers because it is integral to the maintenance of our white supremacist system.

All of this had been in an effort to maximize the tactical (and moral) stance of a police state run amok…

On the evening of May 2nd, following a thousands-strong march from City Hall to Penn-North and a high-spirited protest lasting into the night, black organizers asked white allies in our Hampden neighborhood to break curfew simultaneously to illustrate the disparity in enforcement. Sure enough, just after 10pm, police were giving warnings and politely asking white protesters breaking the curfew, as opposed to point-blank pepper spraying and the dragging by the hair that black protesters saw at Penn-North for doing the same. Legal observers and medics previously exempted from the curfew were also pepper-sprayed and arrested. And after all the free speech saber-rattling following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the photos of black protesters being manhandled detail another disturbing reality: the press, huddled together and held back by nothing more than self-centered fear and some police tape, in their police-mandated “media zone.”

Sure enough, the morning of the 3rd, the curfew was lifted by Mayor Rawlings-Blake. But we will find it hard to forget that she enacted it in the first place. And its removal certainly does not mean that things are “back to normal” in Bmore, because “normal” was what killed Freddie Gray, “normal” is a currently-enforced youth curfew that disproportionately effects black children, “normal” is 25,000 residents receiving water shutoff notices from the city.

The unity and resilience seen here in Baltimore in just the past few days, be it the cleanup of the stretch of North Avenue that was burning on Monday or the peaceful and diverse city-wide marches, have been an uplifting narrative conveniently neglected by corporate media. And even after the cameras leave, we are, as a town, bigger than this curfew, bigger than 2,500 troops and bigger than state intimidation, violence, and oppression.

In the face of injustice, Baltimore rises.

By Kasai Rex

Kasai Rex is a writer living in his hometown of Baltimore. Analyzing race, gender, and class in America and abroad, his essays and reviews have appeared on Noisey, Gawker, Salon, Vice, and Baltimore City Paper.