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My Experience of the Baltimore Riots

I realize I posted some fear-inducing statuses on Facebook related to the riots in Baltimore…

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I got a lot of responses from people asking me if I was okay and probably wanting to know more details about what I was experiencing. So I figured I would just go ahead and write it out. I’m not going to dig too deeply into the ideological stuff underlying the riots not because I don’t think it’s important but just because it has been covered thoroughly elsewhere by more expert minds than mine. The only thing I can claim to be an expert at is what I experienced and how it felt. 

It’s been an interesting time indeed.

baltimore sun article

Fells was eerily quiet when I got home at 7:30pm on Monday night. No cars parked on the streets, no one walking to and from the restaurants and bars like usual. I could just hear distant sirens and helicopters.

I tried to focus on studying since I had an assignment due that night at midnight but was unable to tear myself away from social media and the news. People started posting in my neighborhood Facebook group that they saw or heard looters near their streets. It seemed like they were coming down Broadway.

masked men tweet

I started hearing suspicious sounds around 9:45pm, so I turned off my lights. I watched from my third floor window as a group of looters turned the corner onto my street. They were dressed in hoodies and jeans, some with ski masks. They were carrying garbage cans with them and dumping garbage onto the streets.

They were so so young.

I started to panic because at that point we didn’t know their motives – it wasn’t completely clear that they weren’t targeting residences, and I was alone in my apartment. I called my boyfriend and explained to him what I was seeing through shaking and tears. I honestly don’t remember that conversation very well – I was very, very afraid. I remember trying to think of places in my house to hide.

My parents told me to call 911, but I saw from the neighborhood Facebook group that everyone had already tried to report this particular group of looters to 911 and just got sent to voicemail. There was absolutely no police presence in Fells until about an hour later.

The looters kept casually strolling by, at times hauling loads of clothing on hangers, texting their friends, and – I swear I’m not imagining this – eating a bag of Cheetos.

It took a while but the shaking subsided once I realized that for sure they had no interest in breaking into residences.

Shops in Fells preemptively boarding up their storefront windows
Shops in Fells preemptively boarding up their storefront windows

Then I heard a gunshot, it sounded like it was just a few blocks away, and this set me into panic mode again.

By 11pm I finally decided I did not want to be alone anymore, especially in Fells, and my extremely kind friend who used to work in EMS defied the curfew to come get me.

The next day, my same friend took us for a drive through the city. I was still terrified but I was also curious and responded to this weird journalist instinct within me that told me to document what I could of this would-be historic event. We drove through all of the neighborhoods over the course of 2 hours. The most notable thing was that it was actually difficult to tell if buildings had been looted or burned last night, or if they had been that way for the past 50 years.

We tried to pick out the destruction from the night before but it blended in incredibly well with Baltimore’s natural state.

A building set ablaze Monday night blends in well with the rest of the urban decay
A building set ablaze Monday night blends in well with the rest of the urban decay

Contrary to what the news would have you believe, the whole city was not falling apart. There was a palpable tension in the air, there were national guards lined up at the Inner Harbor, and yes West Baltimore felt very unsafe in places (e.g. the site of the would-be standoff between police/national guard and curfew-defiers on Tuesday night). But it wasn’t a state of anarchy. 

We drove to the CVS in West Baltimore that had been violently looted and burned. There was a crowd, still peaceful at that time, music, a ton of out-of-place media people with badges, and the Bloods and Crips in their respective colored bandanas. It felt like a tinderbox and things could escalate at any moment.

The beginnings of what would become the standoff between the police line and curfew-defiers on Tuesday night at the burnt down CVS
The still-peaceful beginnings of what would become the standoff between the police line and curfew-defiers on Tuesday night at the burnt down CVS

It’s been peaceful most of yesterday and all today. It’s a bit jarring to walk out of class and see fully armed soldiers walking around just casually, but I’m glad they’re here. I feel much safer now than I did on Monday night.

The thing that I think wasn’t portrayed through the news coverage was the sense that anything could happen anywhere. The news captured all of the most intense parts of the past few days – the burning CVS, the national guard and their rubber bullets, the Mondawmin Mall looting, etc. – but did not and could not cover the less dramatic acts of lawlessness and violence that popped up all over the city.

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The thing about Baltimore is that there is no line of demarcation separating the “good” neighborhoods from the “bad”; certain parts of the city have been gentrified but they are pockets within a larger patchwork of section 8 housing, vacant buildings, and other symbols of urban decay. The pattern of violence in the riots these past few days has mirrored this patchwork. Many neighborhoods, both decaying and gentrified, were affected.

As a result, the most terrifying feeling has been that of the uncertainty of what could happen next (although maybe this is always the most terrifying feeling in times of emergency).

My fear for my own safety associated with this event is merely a magnified version of the fear I feel from just living in Baltimore in general. I want to write about this topic more thoroughly, because I think the fear also comes from an indignant place – it’s anger and frustration too. I’ll save that for next time.

The national guard on campus today
The national guard on campus today

For now, it’s 11:31pm, well past curfew. The streets outside my window are completely empty. I hear the helicopters flying through the sky but am resisting the urge to tune into the news.

It’s business as usual for now. We’ll see how Friday goes when they release more information about the Freddie Gray investigation.

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