BALTIMORE — Baltimore police easily cleared out around a hundred protesters who chose to defy a government curfew on Tuesday night, just a day after the worst outbreak of rioting in the city since the death of Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968.
The night was a significant de-escalation from the day before, when violent protests engulfed the city after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died after suffering a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody.
Police fired flashbangs, rubber pellets, smoke grenades, and balls filled with pepper spray, sparking a furious retreat through the rubble on Pennsylvania and West North Avenues in West Baltimore. But before any of that, there was a party.
On Monday, the intersection had been the epicenter of a spat of looting and arson, as the protests had turned violent. By the following afternoon, though, the intersection had become a lively public square.
Baltimore residents danced in the same streets that they had cleaned hours earlier — the same streets that, the night before, had been filled with more than one hundred cars on fire. And when the 10 p.m. curfew came, police easily drove away the remaining stragglers, and Monday's chaos did not repeat itself.
The atmosphere Tuesday afternoon was festive. The sound of a jazz trumpet filled the air. Somebody freestyle rapped into a megaphone. Residents ate sandwiches and chicken drumsticks they had bought from the few shops nearby that stayed open. People discussed the history of Black Wall Street and the politics of reparations, debated whether Jay Z and Beyonce should weigh in on the unrest, and wondered who would win the Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather fight.
At the corner of the intersection turned square, a CVS sat burnt and defeated, with a sign stating that the building had been condemned hanging beside the hole where the front door used to be. People walked in and out, taking photos and touring the scene as if it were a historical ruin.
Speaking at a news conference later that night, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts praised the atmosphere of the square during the afternoon.
"I was very pleased with the community," he said. "There was music. There was dance. There was conversation. It was a very good event for the day."
Yet the city-mandated, police-enforced 10 p.m. curfew loomed ominously over the carnival. At the edge of the intersection, past the music and dance and conversation, dozens of officers wearing helmets and holding shields and batons stood quietly in a line that stretched from one sidewalk to the other. Five police helicopters roared overhead.
The looting, arson, and rock throwing the previous day left city and state officials trading blame and led Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to declare a State of Emergency as the riots grew in size and intensity. And on Tuesday night, Batts announced that the National Guard would remain posted along the blocks around the Pennsylvania and North intersection for a few more days.
"I think they just didn't prepare," said one former Baltimore police officer, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media in his current law enforcement job. "It got away from them. That's why the kids had their way. They were better prepared today."
As the sun set, the atmosphere in West Baltimore grew tense, but Pennsylvania Avenue remained a street party for blocks south of the square as late as 9:20 p.m. Kids rode bikes and scooters. Young men and women huddled beside cars. Some people walked south, away from the West North avenue. Others, more it seemed, walked toward it.
A middle-age woman in a car rolling north on Pennsylvania leaned out the window and repeated, over and over, to all she passed, "Make sure you get off the street by 10!" One young woman who heard the warning shook her head and said to the man beside her, "You hear what she said?" as they kept walking north.
As the curfew grew near, several voices in the crowd pleaded for people to call it a night. A woman held a yellow sign over her head that read, "Go Home!" Young men dressed in red and blue stepped between the police and the demonstrators, urging the latter to leave.
Nearby, a white man holding a megaphone told the mostly black residents to repent. "Some of you may die this very night!" the man shouted. "None of us are guaranteed another moment. We live in a nation of laws, and we should obey the law."
Despite the calls for retreat, more than 100 protesters — not including the scores of members of the media, who at times seemed to outnumber the demonstrators — remained at the intersection as the curfew approached.
"Nobody wanna hear that shit!" one protester shouted.
"Freddie's dead, so fuck you!" yelled another.
When the 10 p.m. deadline arrived, the mass of protesters stood 20 or so yards back from the police line. For a minute or two, the intersection was silent. The police did not move. From a set of speakers behind the police line, a voice told the crowd: "Please go home. Do not give anybody an excuse to do something that is not right." Minutes later, a voice coming from the police helicopters said, "All news media, we need you to clear this area."
Around 15 minutes into the curfew, somebody in the crowd threw a plastic water bottle into the police line, then another. Glass bottles came next. The police didn't move. A few protesters plowed to the back of the crowd, calling for restraint.
"Who did that?" a protester called. "Be for real!"
The police made their first move at 10:20 p.m. They advanced slowly, stopped, then advanced slowly again, tightening the line across the north side of the intersection, banging their batons on their shields as they marched.
Then they launched flashbangs and smoke grenades.
Chaos ensued. Many protesters shuffled backward, into Pennsylvania Avenue. A small fire broke out in the intersection — but it was unclear whether it was the product of a misfired flashbang or arson. Then the air filled with a smoke that stung eyes and throats — the police said it came from pepper balls rather than tear gas — and protesters began running south or ducking into side streets.
The police marched into Pennsylvania Avenue, behind the smoky, painful gas that floated through the corridor of low-slung brick buildings. Protesters, squeezed into the narrow road by the advancing police line, had nowhere to go but south. Many coughed and sneezed and rubbed their eyes as they ran. Some overturned garbage cans on their way out. By 10:40, less than half an hour after the police march started and less and than an hour into curfew, the streets were nearly cleared. The crowd had dispersed.
Around a dozen people crept back toward the police line as the air cleared over the next few minutes. They were mostly press, with a few protesters mixed in, and they stood casually before the police line and around the armored truck that had rolled up. It was a calm scene.
Without warning, a flash-bang grenade exploded and then a smoke grenade burst. The officers raised their weapons. Rubber pellets zipped through the air, hitting several protesters. The few who remained turned and sprinted away. Batts later told reporters police were responding to protesters throwing projectiles.
By 11 p.m., the intersection was deserted — no protesters, no looters, but also no jazz music and no freestyling. The Baltimore Police Department had succeeded in clearing the streets. All that was left were the burnt-out buildings and boarded-up windows, the ruins of the night before.
Albert Samaha is the criminal justice reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Albert Samaha at email@example.com.
Nicolás Medina Mora is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Nicolás Medina Mora at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.