Since State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced charges against six police officers in the death of Freddie Gray Friday, there has been a palpable sense of relief in Baltimore. Large demonstrations planned for Friday and Saturday, which initially raised fears of a repeat of the violence and looting that had struck the city days before, turned celebratory. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced she would end Baltimore's curfew earlier than planned, and Gov. Larry Hogan began demobilizing the National Guard troops he had sent to keep the peace in the city. In the long run, the charges raise real questions about the way Baltimore police do their jobs, and the possibility for unrest on an even greater scale remains if Ms. Mosby does not secure convictions. But those concerns feel far off compared to the chaos that gripped Baltimore last week.
In fact, the shift from violence to peace and tension to relief was so rapid that some are complaining that the mayor waited too long to lift the curfew. A day before the charges were filed, ACLU Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon issued a statement calling for the curfew's end on the grounds that "calm and order" had been restored. "The ability to walk freely in public without police interference, as long as no laws are being broken, is a fundamental part of living in a free country, and necessary to the exercise of all First Amendment freedoms, including spontaneous expressive activity, and restricting it exacerbates, rather than solves, Baltimore's current problems," she wrote. Meanwhile, bars and restaurants were reporting huge losses in revenue, a difficult blow in a business were margins tend to be slim, and an especially trying one for workers who depend on tips to make a living.
On Saturday, the ACLU added to its complaint reports that the curfew was being enforced "selectively and arbitrarily" and that police were interfering specifically with peaceful protests and the operations of the news media. As such, enforcement of the curfew was actually exacerbating tensions, not ameliorating them, the organization argued.
In hindsight, a case can certainly be made that the mayor instituted the curfew too late — it went into effect Tuesday night, three days after the first bouts of post-Freddie Gray violence — but we would not argue that it lasted too long. It's not that we take the infringement of civil liberties a curfew entails lightly (nor for that matter do we discount its significant economic impact). It's that the risk of more mayhem was simply too great. The major demonstration planned for Saturday was being organized by some of the same people who had led the protest that kicked off the violence a week before. One might have made a rational argument that the announcement of charges on Friday would have eliminated the chance of more rioting, but the rioting wasn't rational to begin with, nor was the worst of it even clearly related to a protest over Gray's death.
The immediate damage caused by the riots was significant — at least 200 businesses damaged or looted, buildings burned and dozens of police officers injured, some seriously. But the long term impact on the city's image as a place people might want to visit, live or start a business took a major hit. The image of a riot-torn city picking up the pieces, as we saw last week, was one thing. But a city where such periods of calm are mere interludes between violent confrontations would have been something else entirely.
Instead, National Guard members are filtering out of the city and returning to civilian life. The Orioles are playing road games in which they are actually the visiting team. Bars and restaurants are staying open to normal closing time.
Meanwhile, Baltimore logged eight homicides and 12 non-fatal shootings during the period of the curfew. All the problems of inner city neighborhoods like Freddie Gray's remain, as does the mistrust between the police and those they're supposed to protect. Governor Hogan, though justifiably lauded for his handling of the crisis, is still sitting on about $70 million the legislature carved out for several of the state's school systems, including Baltimore's, and a similar amount that would help improve access to health care for the state's poor.
As much as we might hope that life will go back to normal, we also hope that it doesn't. If we learned any lesson from the last week, it's that normal isn't good enough.