The Purge: Baltimore

update: This post was written before further it came to light that the “purge” ostensibly called for by high school students in Baltimore was likely a police fabrication. Those kids were, it appears, set up. The buses home from school were shut down, the mall was closed down, and they were surrounded by riot police before anything happened. Of course, this makes the whole even more creepily comparable to the film series.

Only two hours left before the purge. We’d better get inside. At the cafe, ominous music was playing, and as twilight set in outside, the crowd diminished and a nervous energy grew in those of us left. Or maybe that was just me.

According to the police and media (and they may have been right, I don’t know), this whole atmosphere of rebellion and resistance kicked off when a group of school-age kids put out a call for a “purge” at 3:30 at at a neighborhood mall. It was a reference to the film series The Purge (reviewed here with surprising favor on AnarchoGeek Review)… the Purge is the one night every year during which all crime is legal.

There’s so much to unpack in that. First, and perhaps foremost, what matters is that these kids decided, for themselves, that they were going to get away with crime. In this case, the crimes were almost exclusively mass assault on riot police and mass vandalism of police vehicles.

In the film, it was the government that decided to allow the purge, and a cynical take on the baltimore riots could easily suggest that they fulfilled the ostensible purpose of the film’s purge — to allow people to let off steam so that society at large doesn’t burst into generalized revolt. The theory is that if people are allowed to fight back every now and then, in a controlled manner, they won’t fight back en masse.

But by taking matters into their own hands, these kids weren’t letting off steam — they were building collective power. I hope they never forget the power they felt as they pelted the police with rocks and drove dozens of fully armored riot cops into a retreat. Police in the US don’t retreat lightly, but 13-year-olds with stones managed to force them.

But the daytime riots — or even the nighttime chaos — aren’t what makes me feel like I’m living in The Purge. It’s the curfew. As a friend told me last night, “there’s no situation that the presence of riot police can’t make worse.”

By taking matters into their own hands, these kids weren’t letting off steam — they were building collective power.

Only the bravest go outside during the purge. During the purge, there’s are organized gangs of armed violent men and women who will hurt you and take you captive. In Baltimore, they’ll hold you for ransom. The gang is, of course, the police. Backed by the national guard, they’ve enacted a curfew: no one is allowed outside between the hours of 10pm and 5am. Because of a “state of emergency,” many rights have been suspended, including free mobility and the right to see court within 24 hours of an arrest. I’ve heard they’ve suspended our right to assembly.

Of course, all of this highlights the absurdity of government and the rights it so politely grants us: something is not truly given if it can be taken away without our consent. The only actual fundamental rights we have are those we take for ourselves.

Yesterday afternoon, I attended a festive demonstration at the intersection of North Ave and Penn. A burned-out CVS sits on the corner, and journalists and demonstrators and volunteer cleanup crews walked through the red-tagged (deemed unsafe by the city inspectors) building freely. Outside, riot police flanked us on one side, but granted us free mobility in the other three directions. It was a peaceful protest, to be sure, but I never got the feeling that it was a pacifist one. It was a demonstration of power. People, more or less collectively, had chosen peace after nearly twenty-four hours of fire and resistance and looting.

Baltimore, as far as I could tell from conversations and what I witnessed, was ready to calm down. Its point had been made. People weren’t ashamed they had made their point, but most people were ready to clean up and move on — not to forget, and not to stop demanding justice for Freddie Gray and everyone else who has suffered at the hands of the police — but ready to move forward to something else. (I could be wrong. I can’t be relied upon to speak on the tone of an entire city, and certainly of cultures that aren’t my own.)

At that same intersection, hundreds of people resisted the curfew together. They were peaceful and they would have stayed peaceful but for the imposition of an absurd and infantilizing power that the “democratic” government had granted itself. Naturally, people resisted this. I wasn’t there, I can’t speak authoritatively on the subject, but I believe they resisted this by practicing self-defense, and the fighting went on for hours.

So there we were, in my friend’s apartment, checking internet feeds and worrying. I was anxious because I have PTSD and don’t like the police. Out to the horizon, I saw police helicopters with spotlights scouring the city for lawbreakers — literally understood as anyone who wasn’t a cop or had specific exemption. Loudspeakers mounted to the copters announced the police’s dominance of the city, announcing the curfew. This gives me anxiety.

My friend was worried about her friends. Last update we were able to get, several were trapped inside a church being tear gassed. Another had tried to disperse, had tried to leave the demonstration, but was late in checking in. We honestly presume she didn’t make it home, that armed men burst out from a car somewhere and dragged her off to a cage, to hold her as long as they please. For biking home.

There was no way to get to those people trapped in the church, because it was several miles away through a nightmarish police state. So we fretted instead.

The curfew exists to remind us who the government thinks is in charge. Resistance exists to remind us who actually is.

The curfew is not in effect to prevent lawbreaking. If it had been intended for that purpose, it would have started a day earlier, after the afternoon of riots, and it would have been for specific neighborhoods and taken on a day-by-day basis. This is collective punishment. In second grade, our teacher made us all wait in the hallway because one person had acted out. She was trying to turn us against each other, to make us angry at the person who had acted out, as though it were his fault we were all stuck waiting in the hallway. But even then, I knew that was wrong, and we didn’t talk shit about the kid who acted out, we talked shit about the teacher.

The curfew exists to remind us who the government thinks is in charge. Resistance exists to remind us who actually is.

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