Caution: this post contains some graphic images & videos of organized police violence against black youth.
Most of the injuries, arrests, looting, arson, and property destruction occurring during the so-called Baltimore Riots took place (so far) on the night of Monday, April 27. They followed a confrontation between heavily armed police and school-age children which took place at Mondawmin Mall, starting at 3PM. This event should be considered a critical moment in the unfolding of the “Riots” because it marked the beginning of organized police action and was narratively linked to the wave of mayhem which moved, from 3PM to midnight, along North Avenue, and south-eastward down Pennsylvania Avenue. With blame still flowing freely in the commentary on this incident, it is crucial to understand how things began. Juvenile delinquency? Political rage? Police provocation? Where is the evidence? Who else played a role? We know that the citizens of Baltimore are justifiably angry, and that the police are often unduly provocative, but do we know how the Battle of Mondawmin in fact began? And what actually happened once it did?
News reports on this incident have been curiously scarce, with the Baltimore Sun devoting only a few sentences of its voluminous riot coverage to the confrontation at Mondawmin. The Sun‘s Scott Dance (with a dozen other regulars listed as contributors) reported:
The confrontation near Mondawmin escalated quickly Smoke filled the air as police responded with shields and a tactical vehicle. Demonstrators pelted officers with rocks, bricks and bottles and assaulted a photojournalist, and officers fired back with tear gas and pepper balls.
The Sun does not describe how this confrontation began—seemingly a key question if this incident sparked the “Riots”. National coverage was even more questionable, with Donna Leinwand Leger of USA Today asserting:
The Mondawmin Mall, where city redevelopment authorities had worked for years to bring Target, Ross Dress for Less, Payless Shoes and other chains, closed early to prepare for the anticipated riots. Still, looters broke into the shops. At Deals, a variety story [sic], looters had broken two windows and made off with merchandise before 30 police with armored cars and riot gear arrived. A police helicopter hovered overhead. By 8 p.m., police had established a presence and chased away the looters.
Al Jazeera did not do much better. The Washington Post published a story on Mondawmin which focused on the “purge” rumor circulating on the internet earlier in the day. Most stories followed the same pattern and based their reporting entirely on official sources.
The only detailed mainstream coverage of the Mondawmin events came from Sam Brodey and Jenna McLaughlin of Mother Jones, who wrote:
According to eyewitnesses in the Mondawmin neighborhood, the police were stopping busses and forcing riders, including many students who were trying to get home, to disembark. Cops shut down the local subway stop. They also blockaded roads near the Mondawmin Mall and Frederick Douglass High School, which is across the street from the mall, and essentially corralled young people in the area. That is, they did not allow the after-school crowd to disperse.
This report, the only one to cite any sources other than police and city officials, corresponds with the evidence as scrutinized by the Eclipse since Monday. Plenty of Frederick Douglass students were picked up by parents earlier in the day, due to concerns about trouble at Mondawmin. Others tried to get home on their own, only to find their path to the buses blocked by a line of heavily armored storm troopers. Mondawmin is one of the biggest transit hubs in the city: a necessary stop in the homeward journies of thousands of students forced by “education reform” to attend schools dispersed across the city. Already this artificial situation requires high school students to congregate here—and where go groups of black high school students, so too go antagonistic police.
What follows is a preliminary investigation into the events at Mondawmin, based on limited witness testimony, photos, and videos.
On Monday afternoon, scores of police, and thousands of high schoolers, met in the Mondawmin area. The police said they were there because of an internet message of unknown origin calling for student lawlessness, there and downtown. Perhaps some students were there for this reason. Some of the students had apparently walked out of high school to peacefully protest against police brutality. Others were simply stuck there because of the transit shutdown. Journalists had been busy covering Freddie Gray’s funeral—and because of the funeral and the wishes of the family, no protest activity was scheduled for that day. A.F. James MacArthur and Larry the Celebrity Cab Driver were two of the first journalists on the scene. When they arrived, students were already trapped near the Mondawmin parking lot, with buses no longer operational.
If the city anticipated mass lawlessness at Mondawmin, one might understand a decision to re-route buses which were scheduled to go there. It’s difficult to understand why they would compel buses to unload groups of students there, and refuse to transport them anywhere else.
One teacher wrote the following:
In his first audio broadcast from the scene, MacArthur observes that none of the students are committing any crimes. Therefore they are being targeted on the basis of an internet message attributed hypothetically to members of their same demographic. Many of these young people have their hands raised deliberately and continually in the air, parallel, giving what most people would recognize as an international gesture for ‘don’t shoot, I’m not threatening you’. Nevertheless, as can be seen in numerous photos and videos, many taken by MacArthur, the police treat these young people as enemy combatants.
Edited May 4 to correct typo in sentence about students not committing crimes. None of the students were committing crimes; not: none of the students were not committing crimes. Sorry if this was confusing.
The next video, timestamped 15 minutes later, shows police in a coordinated advance across Liberty Heights Ave, where they apparently confront people taking shelter on the porches of homes. By this point, reportedly, some students were throwing debris at the police.
MacArthur reports that police drove armored vehicles directly at people congregated in the Midas parking lot across the street. Anyone in the area was dragged into the conflict.
Full series of short videos depicting events from about 3PM to 4PM:
Nearby there unfolded a dramatic scene, captured by overhead video and widely shared on the internet, in which police can be seen throwing missiles back at children, who advance en masse and force the police to retreat.
Let us examine some helicopter footage for context. Prior to the exchange of projectiles, the police entered the streets of a nearby neighborhood. Their strategic purpose in doing so is not clear.
The temporarily defeated police force cuts the exchange short with a projectile which explodes at someone’s feet and produces a large cloud of smoke.
The police make various formations in the street.
At minutes 15 to 16, we see the armored car begin its charge on the Midas lot, but the camera pans away from the action. Subsequently we see police driving a crowd of youth into traffic on Gwynns Falls Parkway.
Another video picks up towards the end of the helicopter footage:
Details of what followed are murky and more investigation is needed. (Eyewitnesses are encouraged to add comments.) Another situation emerged, apparently independently, on North Ave. With most of the press corps continuing to follow the Gray funeral services, and the rest diverted at Mondawmin, it was some time before any known media channels reached the action on North Ave. There, the crowd included a larger age range and there seem to have been spontaneous outbursts of dancing. The assembled crowd and the police eventually reached the intersection of Pennsylvania Ave and North Ave, where a CVS was looted and burned, and a Check Cashing place broken into. MacArthur reported (audio) that the police were standing by and allowing looting to occur—a strange choice given their prior eagerness to antagonize youth who had committed no crimes whatsoever.
Apparently the the chaos continued to move south and east, eventually reaching the downtown area. The Sun reported intriguingly:
Police were preparing for rioting to make its way downtown, with officers in helmets and carrying shields stationed at Lexington Market and the Inner Harbor. Maryland State Police sent 40 troopers to the city, said Keiffer Mitchell, a top aide to Gov. Larry Hogan.
Later there was also looting at Mondawmin Mall—apparently left undefended, after all that—enabling news reports which obfuscated the origins of the conflict. There is evidence of damage to businesses around the city (and not all incidents have yet been registered on the mainstream news) but no reports of crowd activity resembling what took place on the west side. 200+ people were arrested and held for a day or more in overcrowded conditions at the city jail. Most have not been charged with a crime.