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Observations of a white protester arrested in Baltimore riot [Commentary]

Baltimore police made two arrests May 2 for the same offense, at the same intersection, under identical circumstances, just seconds apart. One of those arrested, however, notes with dismay that she was treated far more carefully and courteously than was her counterpart.

And the difference is all there, so to speak, in black and white.

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Columbia activist-journalist Robert Brune was there at North and Pennsylvania avenues, recording video as a squad of police tried to clear the corner and enforce the curfew city officials imposed in the wake of the unrest that followed Freddie Gray's April 19 death in police custody. In Brune's footage, a police officer fires his pepper spray into the face of a black man wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "f--- the police." He staggers backward a step but does not fall.

Another officer yanks the man to the pavement by his dreadlocks. As a third handcuffs the man, a number of onlookers approach, and more officers meet them and fire their pepper spray into the crowd. Officers hoist the arrestee by his bound wrists, his ankles and the waistband of his pants, carry him hurriedly toward the curb and lay him face-down on the sidewalk.

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A moment later, Kerridwen Henry, who is white, appears in a bright yellow T-shirt, carrying a placard. She exchanges some words with an officer, then drops to the sidewalk. She is handcuffed, and a pair of officers get her to her feet and escort her out of the frame.

The next morning, Henry was still languishing in a cell at Central Booking, and her arrest sparked conversation and concern at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, where she, Brune and I all go to church. Since it was the weekend, the court proceeding required for her release had not yet occurred, but her children, ages 7 and 3, were safe at home with dad Patrick, the congregation learned during services.

Kerridwen Henry took to the streets of west Baltimore the night of May 2 to protest the curfew imposed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for five nights, and willfully violated the curfew in an act of civil disobedience.

"We talked about it and decided as a family that I was ready to risk arrest" to draw attention to the unequal enforcement of an unjust edict that imprisoned people in their homes, she said.

Baltimore Police Capt. Eric Kowalczyk would not identify the man in the videos that have been flying across the internet in the days since. Nor would he comment on that specific arrest, except to say that officers carried the man to the curb in haste because some in the crowd gathered at the intersection had begun hurling bottles toward them (which Henry also described and is visible in the video). The officers were protecting both themselves and the man they were arresting, Kowalczyk said.

Police followed national best practices for crowd control, which include techniques intended to avoid as much physical contact as possible, Kowalczyk says, including during arrests of those who resist police authority.

"He did not resist in any way," Henry insisted. "He clearly did not pose a threat to anyone."

"There definitely was a contrast," between that arrest and Henry's, Brune agreed.

Indeed, according to eyewitness accounts and from what one can discern from the video, the man appeared to be asking, even daring police to arrest him.

Henry, for her part, essentially did the same thing. After the 10 p.m. curfew time arrived, a voice from a loudspeaker blaring from a helicopter hovering overhead ordered people to get off the streets as a military-style wagon carried in police in riot gear.

As Henry held her sign — which read, "End the racist curfew now" — an officer asked whether she was with the media.

She replied in the negative and said, "I defy the curfew."

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She quickly got to her knees, heeding Brune's advice to avoid being beaten by getting on the ground and keeping still.

"I was carefully cuffed. When they wanted me to stand, one of the officers said, 'lean on me,' " so that she wouldn't stumble while her hands were bound behind her, Henry said. She added that another officer told her he respected her cause and was just doing his job.

She said she found the difference between that experience and that of the dreadlocked man "disgusting."

Henry said she spent five hours in handcuffs, and that conditions in Central Booking are deplorable.

"I got just the beginning of a sense of what everyone else went through," she said.

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