Posted on April 26, 2015

Scenes of Chaos in Baltimore

Sheryl Stolberg and Stephen Babcock, New York Times, April 25, 2015

A largely peaceful protest over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered a spinal cord injury in police custody, gave way to scattered scenes of chaos here on Saturday night, as demonstrators smashed a downtown storefront window, threw rocks and bottles and damaged police cruisers, while officers in riot gear broke up skirmishes and made 12 arrests near Camden Yards.

Shortly before 10 p.m., Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake convened a news conference at City Hall, where she appeared with several others–including Mr. Gray’s twin sister, Fredericka; a prominent pastor, Jamal Bryant; and City Councilman Brandon Scott–to appeal for calm. By that time the disturbances had largely settled.


Hours earlier, a racially diverse and mostly calm crowd of hundreds–and by some estimates more than 1,000–marched through the streets, clogging intersections, carrying signs and shouting, “All night, all day, we’re gonna fight for Freddie Gray!” They made their way from the Gilmor Homes–the squat brick public West Baltimore housing development where Mr. Gray was arrested on April 12–through the sparkling downtown harbor, a major tourist attraction here, before assembling on a plaza at City Hall.

There, Malik Shabazz, president of Black Lawyers for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based group that called for the demonstration and advertised it on social media, told the crowd that he would release them in an hour, adding: “Shut it down if you want to! Shut it down!”

Mr. Shabazz said in a later interview that his rhetoric was intended only to encourage civil disobedience–not violence–but added that he was “not surprised” by the scattered angry outbursts because people here “haven’t received justice.”

Saturday’s trouble began in the early evening, when a group of protesters, as many as 100 by some accounts, split from the main group as the City Hall rally was breaking up and went on a rampage, throwing cans, bottles and trash bins at police officers, and breaking windows in some businesses. As the breakaway group reached Camden Yards, where the Baltimore Orioles were playing the Boston Red Sox on Saturday night, it was met by police officers in riot gear.

Protesters smashed windows of some cars and blocked the corner of Pratt and Light Streets, a major intersection that is a main route to Interstate 95 and out of the city. {snip} Late in the ballgame, police briefly instructed fans to remain in the stadium “until further notice,” but the crowd was eventually released.

Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said at a news conference that 1,200 officers had been deployed. The department spokesman, Capt. J. Eric Kowalczyk, told a local television station that the police were determined to protect the protesters’ rights to “peaceful expression.”


Demonstrators confronted Baltimore police officers. Many want the six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest to be fired.


The death of Mr. Gray, who is to be buried here on Monday, has unleashed intense frustration and anger in Baltimore, a majority black city whose mayor and police commissioner are also African-American. Baltimore has a long history of tense relations between police and black residents, and while Ms. Rawlings-Blake and Mr. Batts have said they are trying to make improvements, the death has clearly opened a wound.

Mr. Gray was chased and restrained by police on bicycles at the Gilmor Homes on the morning of April 12; a cellphone video of his arrest shows him being dragged into a police transport van, seemingly limp and screaming in pain. The police have acknowledged that he should have received medical treatment immediately at the scene of the arrest, and have also said that he rode in the van unbuckled, prompting speculation here that he may have been given a so-called “rough ride,” in which he was intentionally jostled. After officers got him to the police station, medics rushed him to the hospital, where he slipped into a coma and died last Sunday.

Six Baltimore officers have been suspended with pay while the Baltimore Police Department carries out a criminal investigation. (Some demonstrators carried signs on Saturday reading, “No paid vacations.”)


While the march proceeded in an orderly and peaceful fashion, one participant, Omar Newberns, who works as a security officer here and rode his bicycle alongside the other demonstrators, said he was concerned about the spate of police killings involving black men–and what might happen if the police involved in Mr. Gray’s death are not prosecuted and convicted.

“This is a powder keg right now,” Mr. Newberns said. “New York and Ferguson and all those other places are just preliminary to introduce it to the nation,” he said. “It could become another Watts. If things don’t get taken care of here, the whole nation could be set afire. I don’t want that to happen.”