What the Hell is Happening in Baltimore?

Last night, as news spread of protests, riots, and looting in Baltimore, I was struck by just how difficult it was to follow what was going on.

There’s something about today’s capacity for instant, constant, and hyper-local news that makes me feel like I ought to know everything accurately right away.

Of course there are regular disruptions to that rule – confusion and conflicting stories are regular features of breaking news, often fueled by interruptions in communication.

But the stories coming out of Baltimore were different – like a real-time view of “history being written by the victors.” It wasn’t that diverging stories were coming out of Baltimore – there were divergent narratives unfolding.

Now, I want to be clear about something: I know nothing about Baltimore. I’ve got friends in the area and I’ve watched The Wire, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. I make no claims at expertise and everything that follows should be taken for what it is – an outsider’s attempt to follow a major news story.

Freddie Gray’s funeral took place yesterday, Monday, April 27. Twenty-five year old Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12. He died in police custody on April 19 from a spinal injuries.

According to the Atlantic, its unclear why Gray was arrested and it’s unclear how his injuries were sustained. Video of Gray’s arrest show Gray, seemingly with a broken leg, being dragged off by police.  The Atlantic describes that “Gray didn’t resist arrest and that officers didn’t use force.”

The Baltimore Sun says that “Gray’s family has said he underwent surgery at Maryland Shock Trauma Center for three fractured neck vertebrae and a crushed voice box — injuries doctors said are more common among the elderly or victims of high-speed crashes.”

The Baltimore Police are investigating, but no information has been released.

The Baltimore Sun further reports that yesterday’s riots “started Monday morning with word on social media of a “purge” — a reference to a movie in which crime is made legal.”

What’s great is that since Twitter has an advanced search feature you can search for tweets including a specific keyword, like purge, within a specific time frame.

As early as April 26, you can start seeing references to the purge on Twitter, with people saying things like:

  • The purge anarchy or just regular Baltimore?
  • #FreddieGray we purge for you shun!! #Justice4FreddieGray
  • All this bullshit happening in Bmore makes me wish The Purge was a real thing………#justsaying

That continues for awhile, and on Monday, you start seeing things like:

  • Breaking: Baltimore shut down because of plot of the warriors, possibly the plot of the purge
  • Student ‘purge‘ threat shuts down Baltimore businesses, schools http://fw.to/sETY3pS

So, while there are many social networks out there, young people don’t seem to have planned a riot on Twitter. There are plenty of analogies to the Purge, but few threats and even less planning.

Maybe they were on Yik Yak, I don’t know.

Now, this is where I find it really confusing.

The Baltimore Sun reports that at 3pm, a group of 75 to 100 students were heading to Mondawmin Mall. Presumably, this was a group of ne’er-do-wells who were setting out to start a riot they supposed planned on social media.

As the Sun points out, “The mall is a transportation hub for students from several nearby schools.”

So…at 3pm, were kids just…heading home from school?

One teacher shared her eyewitness description publicly on Facebook. (And since teachers are public employees, it’s easy verify that the poster is in fact a teacher.)
“We drove into Mondawmin, knowing it was going to be a mess. I was trying to get them home before anything insane happened,” she wrote. Presumably, the fact that the mall is a transportation hub necessitated going there? I don’t know.
She continues: “The police were forcing busses to stop and unload all their passengers. Then, Douglas students, in huge herds, were trying to leave on various busses but couldn’t catch any because they were all shut down. No kids were yet around except about 20, who looked like they were waiting for police to do something. The cops, on the other hand, were in full riot gear marching toward any small social clique of students who looked as if they were just milling about. It looked as if there were hundreds of cops.”That’s a far cry from the idea that local thugs decided to cause a riot and the police did the best they could to stop it.I mean, I’m no expert, but the presence of such a large police force at the site of what I understand to be the place of the 1968 riots following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seems like it might be trouble waiting to happen.Add to that the long history of tensions between Baltimore residents and law enforcement officials, and, well, none of this seems like a good plan. I don’t want to be anyone at this party.And then there was word from the Baltimore Police Department that gangs were “‘teaming up’ to take out officers.”

I’m confused about that, too, since the Sun also reports that “a group of men who said they were members of the Crips — they wore blue bandannas and blue shirts — stood on the periphery and denounced the looting.”

So, if they had a pact…they are really bad at it.

It’s taken a lot to sift through all this information. To come in as an outsider and try to find credible, verifiable information.

I still have no idea what the hell is going on in Baltimore, but from what I can gather, I’m skeptical of the police narrative. It looks to me like the police went in way over powered into a tense situation and made everything far worse than it should have been.

Should you blame the people who looted and destroyed property? Sure, but also blame the situation that put them there –

Baltimore police and leadership failed them.

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