Baltimore vs. Ferguson: This Is What Happens When Police Show Restraint

Protesters listened to appeals for calm. The police responded in a measured and responsible manner. Both sides won the night in Baltimore.
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Protesters listened to appeals for calm. The police responded in a measured and responsible manner. Both sides won the night in Baltimore.
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(Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP Photo)

If you closely followed the unrest in Ferguson, certainly if you were part of the media on the ground or one of those protesting the killing of Mike Brown, you knew that what happened during the day was meaningless. Once the sun set, everything changed. The night was the only thing that really mattered.

From mid-morning until dusk, West Florissant Avenue was a peaceful place, alive with righteous fury but still an area parents from the community felt comfortable bringing their children. It was a street where people gathered to make their voices heard, because they absolutely had to. Because so much was on the line. At twilight, though, the MRAPs and SWAT teams rolled in, the young men wearing masks over their faces seemed to trickle in through the cracks between the buildings, and the tension mounted.

While the protests in the relative darkness remained nonviolent, there was always a sense of unease, a feeling that at some point -- any point -- all it would take was a spark to set off the powder keg.

Throughout the day, community and church leaders would speak logically and appeal for calm while the police kept their distance, but at some point the night was going to have to end, the protesters were going to be told to go home, and anyone refusing to -- well, that's where it would all fall apart. This is what happened on that second night I was there covering the story for The Daily Banter: everything was largely alright up until that moment when the police made it clear that it was time for those still in the street to go, when they made it clear that they were in charge and could dictate when people could be there and when they couldn't.

The young men who'd been gathering all night didn't want to be told what to do, not in their own neighborhood. They didn't want to face more disrespect at the hands of people with badges and guns. So many of them held firm as a show of defiance, creating a stand-off that simply couldn't last. Because, again, the police were in charge. There was going to be an explosion. And of course there was.

Listening to the reports coming out of Baltimore over the past few hours, it looked like that was where things were headed tonight. Despite a day of Baltimore citizens and community leaders calling for calm and expressing their anger in entirely constructive ways -- which is not to say that decades of outrage manifesting in chaos was difficult to understand -- there were the stories of young people arriving and standing firm, unwilling to cede ground to the police show of force in their neighborhood. And with a curfew in place which marked a definitive point at which their mere presence would be considered illegal, it looked like both sides had backed themselves against a wall. There was going to be that ultimate confrontation built into the plan for the evening that would lead once again to violence.

But that didn't really happen and for that I have to think that the Baltimore Police Department, for all its faults, either had better training than, or simply learned from the mistakes of, its counterparts in Ferguson. Tonight we saw a massive display of power, yes, but it was a shockingly measured display. Whereas in Ferguson, on that second night for me, police formed a line but allowed it to come apart and for the situation to escalate the moment there was movement in the crowd -- as soon as the spark went off -- the Baltimore police agencies held together, held back and did not escalate the situation.

The Baltimore Police have a lot to answer for right now, but in this case the restraint it showed was admirable and produced the best possible outcome. It's not difficult to fathom why some in the neighborhood of West Baltimore wanted a confrontation with the entity they believed killed Freddie Gray and has kept them under its thumb for years. But right or wrong, that was a no-win proposition. Not right now anyway.

It was directly in the hands of the police how they would respond to those violating the curfew and trying to provoke a fight, and the cops did the right thing. The good work done by residents and community leaders throughout the day and well into the evening helped stave off the kind of clashes and chaos we saw yesterday and last night. And the police responded to those efforts with controlled, responsible tactics instead of an all-out offensive. The result was all a far cry from what we've seen the past 48 hours and from what we saw in Ferguson. For the time being anyway, both sides have held the night.