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Don’t Call It a Curfew: Martial Law in the United States

Being Black in Baltimore in recent days meant being imprisoned in your home, another example of communities of color being subject to an unequal criminal legal system.

The only things that could make worse the martial law effectively imposed in Baltimore recently were the discrimination and bias apparent in its enforcement. Being Black in Baltimore in recent days meant being imprisoned in your home. And beyond Baltimore, the city’s “curfew” neatly encapsulated much of what is wrong in the United States.

Driving to City Hall on May 2, I passed a staging area for the National Guard and armored vehicles from police departments across the state of Maryland. The scene resembled an invasion by an armored tank column.

The grim presence of military vehicles on a civilian street contrasted sharply with the ebullient mood of the rally and march in which we participated. Drawing over 5,000 people, the May 2 event included large numbers of children and a diverse representation of local communities.

The crowd was celebrating with good reason: City prosecutor Marilyn Mosby made international news the day before, on May 1, by announcing the seemingly unthinkable prosecution of six Baltimore police officers for murder and other criminal charges.

On the other hand, the armored invasion we witnessed proved an appropriate metaphor for what befell Baltimore that night: effective martial law and blatant racial bias.

Uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, may have seemed like “riots” to those observing without a lifetime of arbitrary treatment by brutal police. Many Americans – often those insulated from the policing crisis by living in suburban or rural settings – blindly praise our country as the “land of the free.”

But freedom is something that most Americans have few opportunities to experience. A sign on May 2 declared, “These aren’t riots. You are watching an unjust system be dismantled” – by people unwilling to tolerate it any longer.

We are all constantly monitored, to a greater extent than any people, anywhere, ever in the history of our species. We reward officials complicit in torture with power and prestige.

And most horrifically, the United States imprisons a quarter of humankind’s prisoners in a nation claiming only 2 percent of the world’s population. More Americans rot in prison – where slavery remains legal under the terms of the 13th Amendment – than were formally enslaved before the Civil War.

During the May 2 rally, several speakers publicly hoped that authorities would lift the curfew. After all, the prosecution of officers who killed Freddie Gray addressed a central demand of residents who had taken to the streets. Not since the Ferguson uprising began nearly a year ago had there been such an opportunity to build goodwill between authorities and low-income communities of color enduring their abuses.

Those hopes were dashed within hours, though authorities thankfully found sanity in ending the curfew on May 3.

As a civil liberties lawyer, I often address people who justify state surveillance by thinking that “if I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear.” My first rejoinder to such unfortunate ignorance entails recalling US history, and our government’s recurring pattern of violently targeting marginal political groups to prevent the rest of us from hearing from them.

Next, I sometimes tell a joke: We could easily achieve security in the United States, were we willing to embrace the obviously authoritarian decision to lock everyone in their homes. The suggestion meets with laughter because it is preposterous, not because it is something that authorities in a society hailing itself as the leader of the free world should ever contemplate.

Across Baltimore on May 2, White residents celebrated their ability to conduct their lives as usual. Meanwhile, their darker skinned neighbors were violently assaulted, simply for the act of walking home, by police demonstrating the audacity to smile on camera while gripping the limp body of someone they had just maced and dragged across a street in retaliation for literally doing nothing at all.

The vastly unequal and separate systems of justice in Baltimore reflect the bias pervading our criminal “justice” system generally.

In every major US city, police operate not as public servants charged with the duty “to protect and serve,” but rather as paramilitary agents of armed occupation, protecting property more vigilantly than people, closing ranks to protect fellow officers from the truth when they commit abuses, and selectively moving from one jurisdiction to another on the rare instance that any do face justice for committing crimes while wearing a badge.

The impunity widely enjoyed by police officers mirrors that of national security officials who stand above the law despite committing grave crimes against the United States, our fundamental freedoms and humanity.

CIA and US Defense Department employees who tortured and even murdered detainees have escaped prosecution for their human rights abuses. Even repeat offenders are walking free with government pensions and lifetime appellate judicial appointments.

Earlier this year, I was arrested in the Senate simply for asking questions about our separate and unequal systems of justice. As the director of National Intelligence left a Senate hearing, I asked (here’s video) how he justified evading prosecution for lying to the Senate under oath about mass ongoing constitutional crimes, when Eric Garner was killed without trial, based on mere suspicion of a “crime” as innocuous as selling cigarettes.

Our communities are subject to arbitrary state violence, orchestrated by perpetrators who have stood blithely above the law – until now.

Marilyn Mosby is a national hero, and a principled public servant conscientiously applying the law fairly and equally. It’s a shame that her fellow prosecutors in Ferguson, at the US Justice Department and across the United States haven’t yet done the same.

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