BALTIMORE – I saw two Baltimores on Tuesday night at the corner of North and Pennsylvania avenues, both defiant in very different ways. One was proud of this city, and joyful. Some residents here spent the daylight hours at the corner by a looted CVS, which was ransacked and set ablaze by rioters Monday night, trying to show the world a bright side of this city. They partied at the corner through the afternoon and early evening, defiantly arguing to the world and to themselves that the violence of the prior night does not define Baltimore.
For more than a week, protests had remained peaceful after the unexplained death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who sustained a fatal spinal injury while in police custody. But tensions boiled over Saturday and then exploded Monday as a number of rioters took to the streets in a night filled with looting, destruction of property, and fires set to 144 vehicles and 15 buildings. More than 200 people were arrested, and 20 officers injured in the clashes.
Another world emerged again on Tuesday as civic leaders, peaceful protesters and ordinary residents returned to the streets. There was a brass band and people dancing and a woman handing out pieces of fried chicken, which MSNBC can confirm were very good. Then a large marching band came stomping in, powered by a phalanx of drummers booming like bombs and a slew of dancers of all ages with pom poms and bright clothes, all of them dancing in unison while chanting “We don’t want no problems! We come in peace! We don’t want no problems! We take the streets!” Their leader, Desmond Taylor, yelled out, “This is the real Baltimore! We are not what you see on the news!”
That was the Baltimore that wanted peace, that wanted their city clean and was out with bags picking debris up off the ground. That was the Baltimore that created a line of bodies that stood in front of a line of cops blocking access to part of North Ave. I asked one of them why they were protecting cops who were supposed to be protecting us. She said the cops deserve protection, too. She said the cops are people, too, and they’re scared, and they need help, too.
But as the evening grew late and the 10 p.m. curfew approached, those folks went home and the corner was left to media and about 20 young men in bandannas who took joy in challenging police. As 10 p.m. came and went and 11 p.m. grew nearer, this Baltimore took turns throwing bottles and bricks and then laughing to each other about what they’d done. They were excited to be standing up to police. They were defiant for defiance’ sake. They stayed late into the night, unwilling to leave as long as there were cops to flout.
I saw one young man who had been throwing bricks at police with a red bandanna covering his mouth, I saw him running away from police and clutching his stomach in pain and then lying on the ground for a while. They said he had been shot with a rubber bullet. But in time he got his strength back and was again crouching behind a car, clutching a brick, looking for the right moment to throw it at police.
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There are people in this town who told me, “We’re always told to wait and let justice run its course but justice never takes its course. It never comes.” But these young men who were crouching in the shadows to throw bricks at the cops seemed more like what a local pastor described as “kids without a purpose who don’t realize what matters, who don’t realize they’re destroying things built for them and theirs.”
At the corner of North and Pennsylvania I saw one Baltimore trying to outshine the other, but when night fell, and the sunlight left, the other Baltimore took its shot and then scrambled back into the shadows.