There’s a name we haven’t heard in quite a while, eh? With all of the riots going on in the streets of American cities these days, it could be easy to forget that this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Back in 2015, when the Black Lives Matter movement was still in its nascent stages, the city of Baltimore was going up in flames (in several places literally) as crowds of rioters gathered to protest the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. What followed next was a tour de’ force of bureaucratic mismanagement on the part of the city’s leaders. In some ways, Charm City has never really recovered in full from that debacle.
But one question has remained over the years, despite all of the investigations and reports that followed. How and where did the riots actually start? There’s been a general consensus that the first violence broke out on April 27, 2015 in the Mondawmin neighborhood in or around the MTA station near the Mondawmin Mall. Since there were surveillance cameras running in the station around the clock, it seemed obvious that some hints might be found in those recordings. But for five years, Maryland Transit Administration officials have refused to release the video footage to the public, citing only “security concerns.” But now they have allowed the Baltimore Sun to view – but not make copies of – the footage they have from the time of those events. Sadly, what the reporters saw will likely only produce more questions than answers.
In the security video, MTA police can be seen clearing people from the station within a minute of a group of youth running through it, at a time when officials say looting and rock-throwing was occurring on the periphery. That activity cannot be observed in view of the cameras, though hundreds of youth can be seen congregating away from the station.
Since 2015, the incident has been the subject of dueling narratives: that teens intent on carrying out a “purge” that was allegedly advertised on social media flooded the transit station and attacked police; or that students who use the transit hub to get home were stranded and provoked by police when the station was shut down preemptively.
Neither police nor transportation officials have ever said who ordered the shutdown, nor has it been substantiated whether the “purge” meme was widely shared or had traction among youth. Elected leaders showed no interest in getting to the bottom of either question.
There were two separate narratives as to how the riots began on the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral. Officials claim that a group of “youths” had been promoting an uprising near the mall and the MTA station on social media. That seems to be confirmed by the fact that the Baltimore PD had already dispatched a significant number of officers to the area by noon, some wearing riot gear. But social justice activists have consistently offered a different version of events. They say that the MTA abruptly halted all bus and train service in the middle of the afternoon. Since many students use public transit to go back and forth to school, this decision “stranded” hundreds of them in the vicinity of the mall. In their interpretation of events, the large crowds of “youths” weren’t there to cause trouble but were unfairly targeted by the police.
Reading the full summary from the Sun, it seems that the video footage doesn’t answer the question at all. First of all, they still have no idea who ordered the transit lines to be shut down. Did the order arise internally at the MTA, was it given by the police or did city officials tell them to do it? Searches of records from all three entities have yet to produce an answer. Also, while the cameras covering the train terminals were all in operation, the ones covering the areas where buses arrived and departed were shut off for much of the afternoon until roughly 4 pm. Just as with the shutdown order, after more than five years nobody has explained why the cameras covering the area where the violence initially broke out were off. They weren’t malfunctioning because they were all able to begin recording around 4 o’clock. But there have been some suspicious lapses of memory in terms of how and why they were shut off.
The few hints that reporters were able to glean from the videos do appear to show that there was a large gathering of as many as 100 young people scuffling with the police. That seems to match up with the plans posted on social media, though critics of the police claim that only a small number of people participated and the rest of them were simply stranded students. What is known without a doubt is that a few hours later the protests had moved into the downtown area where a CVS building and some police cruisers were set on fire. The rest is history.
The MTA hasn’t done themselves any favors by sitting on these videos for five and a half years. The missing footage from the bus terminal areas also raises suspicions about why this has taken so long. Combined with the convenient memory loss of some of the parties involved and the failure to produce records of what had been transpiring, this new reporting is unlikely to satisfy anyone on either side.