Tear gas sinks into your clothes. It sits in your sinuses and at the back of your throat, at the limit of your gag reflex. Makes you want to puke. So even when you cut and run from the police firing pepper balls and canisters of tear gas into the street, even when you put miles and minutes between yourself and those with shields and helmets, the fact of the confrontation is stuck to your body.
At 10 p.m. on Tuesday night, the curfew ordered by Baltimore’s mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake went into effect. At 10, the crowd gathered at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and W North Avenue had changed from a positive gathering of hundreds promoting community sufficiency, into a stripped down collection of people, many wearing bandanas and dust masks. Police helicopters circled the area telling the crowd to disperse, that the curfew was now in effect and would remain that way until 5 a.m., that those who did not disperse would be arrested. An older man and woman using a megaphone pleaded with the masked-up onlookers to leave. One prepared young woman immediately snapped back with her own megaphone that this was “bigger than right now”—she wouldn’t be leaving and neither would the people with her. A water bottle cut an arc through the air and clattered against the shields of the police line. At 10:15, smoke cannisters hit the center of the intersection. The police brought out the tear gas soon after.
It’s hard to convey the starkness of the contrast between the productive dialogue of the afternoon and the forceful demonstration of rebellion that came at night. Which isn’t to say that one was wholly right while the other was wholly wrong. From where I stood, both gatherings were about sending a message to the police and the city. The afternoon’s message said something like, “We care about this place and even if some citizens were violent last night, this place is ours and we’ll clean it up, because it is ours. And we’ll do it with a line of men and woman giving their backs to the line of police deployed to monitor us.” The night’s message felt similarly tied to questions of ownership: “This is our neighborhood and just because you’ve given us an arbitrary time to go home by, we’re staying put.” Naturally there’s a gray area to both of these summations.
Either way, the memory of both interactions, afternoon and night, are sure to linger within anyone who experienced them. These are moments to be remembered, and everyone is watching.
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