The Storming of Baltimore

On April 12, Freddie Gray, a young African-American man, 25 years old, was detained by the Baltimore police for no apparent reason. The arrest was so brutal that he suffered serious wounds in the neck and spine. Instead of calling an ambulance, the uniformed officers transported him in their own vehicle. Gray went into a coma, and died a week later.

On April 18, while his life hung by a thread, protests against the police department started. Leaders and civil representatives from all around the United States arrived to join sizable contingents from the city in peaceful demonstrations demanding a trial for the police officers responsible for Gray’s death and the end of police brutality. The scene was not new. In 2012, in the city of Sanford, Florida, George Zimmerman, a police official, had sprayed Trayvon Martin, also a young African-American, with bullets. In 2013, during the trial of Zimmerman, who was in the end found not guilty, the protests extended over the whole country. And in 2014, the city of Ferguson occupied the front pages of the newspapers for weeks after a police officer shot Michael Brown.

Over six days, after April 18, mobilizations in Baltimore intensified in several areas of the city. As in Sanford, Ferguson and New York City, the denunciation of police brutality and, above all, of the impunity of the police force – the majority of police officers accused are acquitted – brought together unexpected coalitions: blacks, whites, Latinos, civil society and gender-issue organizations, students, professionals, neighborhood residents, religious groups … That strange collective entity whose members have nothing in common, except that they are part of a crowd.

On April 25, the Baltimore police decided to declare war on the activists. The reason was a student demonstration that was headed toward the Mondawmin Mall. Photos of the demonstrators started to show up on some squad cars, with the caption “All High Schools Monday @ 3 We Are Going to Purge.” The sign made reference to the film “The Purge,” written and directed by James DeMonaco. In it, a city is under the control of a totalitarian regime. There is no political conflict or dissidence. The economy is working, and there is almost no unemployment. The purge is established by constitutional decree. It is a whole day (24 hours) in which all public crime is legal; that is, people can kill people without being found guilty. Although the lawmakers talked about the purge as a cathartic event, in reality it is a mechanism of the government for eliminating the poorest people.

In Baltimore the purge went in a different direction: a police tactic. At 3:00 p.m., they cordoned off all the exits from an area around a school. The response of the students was almost immediate. They started to throw bricks at police cars and launched one of the most forceful and organized urban revolts seen since the 1960s.

Also on April 25, the Baltimore police department leaked an internal memorandum to the press in which they warned that gangs in the city could take advantage of the mobilizations to act on their own behalf. And the purge was directed against them. But on April 26, the leaders of these gangs appeared on YouTube saying that they opposed the demonstrations and offered their support to the police! And in effect, the Black Green Family, the Bloods, and the Crips united with the police forces to combat the activists. The county government requested the assistance of the National Guard and declared a state of emergency. But the revolt didn’t back down until around April 29, when the government showed its intention to order the police officers who had killed Gray to stand trial for deliberate homicide, which happened on May 1. (The revolt in Baltimore succeeded in doing what couldn’t even be imagined in Sanford and Ferguson.)

There are very few images of the five days of the siege. But in these, the police can be observed with large-caliber laser weapons, a Bearcat vehicle of the type that had only been used in Iraq, military smoke grenades and a Stingray system that deactivates cellphones for several blocks around. In Baltimore, the police have become an army of occupation, supported by helicopters and drones. (In recent years, local police forces have demanded to be armed on a level with the army, to combat political activism with anti-terrorist tactics; see Michael-Gould Wartofsky’s article in The Nation, Jan. 5, 2005.)

What is the violence that is being discussed in the recent revolts in U.S. cities? The explanations move quickly through the argument about the remnants of racism, which in recent years has made the mechanisms of discrimination more intense and more sophisticated. But everything indicates that the phenomenon, in addition to racism, has aspects that are completely new. The most significant is the clash between the citizens and the core of the state: naked police power. If we look at the demands, they almost always conclude that it is necessary to completely dissolve the police forces, and the levers of power that sustain them, to bring the techniques of control and government into the discussion. But isn’t the police force the ultimate and degraded center of (violent) contention in the modern city? All the rhetoric that has degraded the social state to a deficient entity, inefficient, in crisis, has brought with it its reduction to the absurd: the police state.

Perhaps what these revolts are announcing is the impossibility that the state (beyond recovery as a result of the rhetoric and practice of technocracy) can keep legitimizing this social order in which today, ironically, the police can only declare war on their own civil society.

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