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Baltimore’s Refusal to Permit Legal Observers to Witness Police Enforcing Curfew Resulted in Mass Arrest

At least ten legal observers with the National Lawyers Guild were arrested on Saturday night and effectively blocked by police and the city of Baltimore from witnessing the enforcement of a curfew. The observers were released throughout the day on Sunday.

The arrests were a result of police refusing to recognize the observer status of legal volunteers and allow them to be on the streets past a curfew, which the city’s mayor rescinded yesterday.

The curfew was imposed after rioting that took place on Monday days after Freddie Gray was killed by Baltimore police while he was in a police van. The uprising was, to a large extent, fueled by the city and police’s own conduct in the mid-afternoon, especially because public transit was shut down leaving numerous young people stranded with no way to get home.

The arrests violated a right to observe that is typically recognized throughout the United States and was recognized in Ferguson, Missouri, when a curfew was imposed in a somewhat similar circumstance after Mike Brown was killed by a Ferguson police officer.

This also disrupted the NLG’s ability to provide legal support to protesters and Baltimore residents rounded up for being outside past the 10 pm.

Colin Starger of the NLG Maryland Chapter called the arrest of legal observers an “extraordinary action and a wholly unjustified one.” He explained that the legal observers were not participating in any protest “activities.” They were “not obviously interfering with the police in any way” and are trained not to interfere with police.

Even though the organization believes the curfew was “unconstitutional” and they opposed it, the NLG attempted to obtain permission to be out past curfew. If the press and Amnesty International were going to be permitted to do their jobs, legal volunteers wanted to be out there “to observe what the police were actually doing,” NLG Mass Defense Coordinator Abi Hassen explained. But the group was denied passes.

A few nights prior to the mass arrest of legal volunteers during Saturday night, police stopped some of the legal observers and detained them. They were essentially informed they were not allowed to “do any legal observation.”

Amnesty International was able to obtain the right to have human rights observers on the ground. But the city abruptly “revoked permission” to observers to monitor police operations during curfew. Amnesty International announced on May 1 that they were informed the badges issued to four observers were “invalid due to counterfeits.”

Because the legal observers lacked any sort of passes or credentials, an entire group of volunteers were placed under arrest and spent many hours in jail.

Hassen made it clear that the NLG was not solely concerned with getting legal volunteers out of jail. Hundreds of people, besides the observers, were arrested by police—in mass—over the past days and a number were held over the 24-hour period that is generally permitted.

Primarily, the majority of these people were arrested for the simple fact of being out after curfew, which the organization views as outrageous.

Several juveniles were arrested, which is nothing new for Baltimore. Hassen said there is a “kiddie jail” for children. Juveniles face a year-round curfew that remains in place and that will continue to lead to juveniles being picked up and jailed.

Legal observers, who are easily identified by widely recognized bright green hats, typically focus on getting personal identifying information from individuals when they are being arrested so they can be found by family and friends, who may call the legal support hotline to ask about them.

It usually becomes the responsibility of legal observers to track injuries a person may sustain during an arrest. The police and jailers are not concerned about those injuries so legal observers push for medical treatment to be given.

Throughout the week, there were reports of disparate enforcement of the curfew in neighborhoods of Baltimore. Activist Deray McKesson captured video of an officer providing white protesters in Hampden three rather polite warnings to disperse on Saturday night. By comparison, poor black neighborhoods were given one warning and then police unleashed pepper spray or tear gas to clear out an area.

Both were protesting for the same reason: they viewed the curfew as illegitimate and unjust.

In many ways, the curfew fueled “unrest” after Tuesday. Any problems were “created by the police and also by the curfew itself,” Starger suggested. No police had been directly attacked or injured. No more rioting or looting was reported after Monday. The community was elated to hear the six police officers involved in killing Gray were charged.

The Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI) reported that there had been “excessive use of detention for protesters held without charges and assigned exorbitant bond amounts.”

“Jailing people pretrial because they cannot afford bond is not only inhumane, it is unconstitutional. The use of sky-high bail amounts in Baltimore this week amount to premature guilty sentences for citizens who have not been convicted of any crime,” PJI executive director Cherise Fanno Burdeen declared. “The damage cannot be overstated: even short stints in jail before trial can lead to job and housing loss, destabilize families, and dramatically increase the likelihood of a person committing a crime in the future.”

“Pretrial release decisions only should be made in consideration of two factors—flight risk or danger to the community,” Burdeen added.

On May 2, Dominique Christina, an author and educator from New York, described the terrifying experience of what it was like when police enforced the curfew.

“At 10 minutes before 10pm EST tanks and police in riot gear started warning us about curfew. Problem was, we were far away from our car,” Christina shared. “There were a lot of people out. Joseph Kent, who CNN captured being snatched by police earlier in the week, led a march.

Police had apparently told Kent they would not bother him. Christina and others followed him anyways because the “energy was right.”

By 10 pm, police lined up. “A tank flanked us on the righthand side,” Christina recalled. “Riot police started moving in.”

Christina and others could smell the pepper spray. People attempted to flee. Kent was unable to get away before being snatched by police again.

“Violations of basic human dignity,” Christina stated, are not being shown on CNN.

Christina’s experience is but a small piece of what Baltimore residents experienced over the past week as the National Guard setup an occupation and police escalated their presence by deploying even more teams with paramilitary-style gear.

As one person put it, “It’s 2015 and American citizens are hiding in safe houses like runaway slaves from militarized police and the National Guard. And another acknowledged that people needed “papers” to be outside past curfew.

The policies imposed recalled a racist past that ancestors of black residents likely endured and survived. Baltimore residents had to have their own version of freedom papers to go to work in the middle of the night or to travel anywhere they needed to be after 10 pm.

It is this kind of policing that the National Lawyers Guild deployed legal observers to witness. But, unlike Ferguson, which had a similar situation in August, the authorities would not permit the volunteers to be out on the streets to see how police enforced the curfew.

Creative Commons-Licensed Photo from Flickr by Talk Radio News Service 

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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