Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Anger boils over in Baltimore over death of Freddie Gray

Protesters, some violent, march on City Hall demanding justice for man who died in police custody

Thousands of people marched peacefully through downtown Baltimore on Saturday to protest the unexplained death of a black man in police custody, but pockets of violence erupted when a small group smashed windows and threw bottles at officers.

At least 2,000 demonstrators attended the march to City Hall, the largest turnout since 25-year-old Freddie Gray died a week ago. As darkness fell, about 100 protesters splintered from the group and threw bottles, metal barricades and other objects at police officers and their cruisers, authorities said.

The chaotic scene Saturday night prompted the first public remarks from Freddie Gray's twin sister, who pleaded for peace at a news conference alongside the mayor.

"My family wants to say, can you all please, please stop the violence?" Fredricka Gray said. "Freddie Gray would not want this."

Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said roughly 1,200 officers were deployed downtown and across the city to try and keep the peace. At least five officers were injured and 12 people were arrested. Batts said he believes the "very violent agitators" are not from Baltimore.

Since Gray’s death on April 19, protesters have flooded the streets of Maryland’s largest city almost every day. Many participants have likened his death to recent cases in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, where black men killed by police sparked nationwide protests over allegations of police brutality and the criminalization of black men.

Gray, who is black, was arrested on April 12 in a high-crime neighborhood after he made eye contact with city police and fled, police said. After Gray was caught, he was found to have a switchblade knife in his possession. Officers held him down, handcuffed him and forced him into the back of a police van.

One week later, Gray died in police custody. While a preliminary autopsy report revealed he had suffered a spinal injury, it remains unclear how it happened.

William Murphy, Jr., an attorney representing the Gray family, said Gray’s spine was 80 percent severed at the neck, and that the family believes “police are keeping the circumstances of Freddie’s death secret until they develop a version of events that will absolve them of all responsibility.” 

Melissa Ealey, Gray’s cousin, told Al Jazeera that no crime perpetrated could warrant such abuse.

“There is no reason the police had to conduct themselves in a manner to where…it cost him his life," Ealey said. "I can understand breaking the law is wrong but the way they apprehended him and the things they did where completely against protocol and just inhumane as a whole."

Batts said Friday that Gray was not buckled in a seat belt while in the police van, which is a breach of protocol, and that "our police employees failed to give him medical attention in a timely manner multiple times."

Batts urged protesters to await the findings of a police investigation before making any conclusions, adding, "If someone harmed Freddie Gray...they have to be held accountable."

His comments were criticized by the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, a police officers' union, as "politically driven, and in direct contrast to the commissioner's own request not to jump to any conclusions."

Protesters began Saturday’s action at the Western District Police Station, near the site where Gray was arrested, before marching toward City Hall. Participants shouted slogans denouncing police brutality and carried black and yellow placards that read: “Community control of police now!,” “Jail killer police!” and “Unite Here!”

The racially diverse group of protesters said their goal was to demand justice for Gray and call attention to the ongoing problem of police brutality.

"We're tired of this, what is going on with this police department," said Justice Allah, a protester and member of Black Lawyers for Justice. "We're tired of our mayor turning a blind eye."

Makayla Gilliam-Price, a Baltimore resident, said it was important that city residents rally in support of the Gray family.

“If nothing else, it’s therapeutic for the community,” she said. 

Another protester, who declined to give his name, told Al Jazeera the action wasn’t specifically about Gray, but the criminalization of black men in general.

“This ain’t just Freddie, this is the brother in New York, this is the brother in Ferguson — it’s all the brothers,” he said. “There’s only so many times you keep smacking someone in their face before they get fed up with it.” 

The Baltimore Police Department on Friday released photos and surveillance video of Gray’s arrest, which appeared to inflame passions even further — with many protesters vowing to “shut down” Baltimore.

Officials said police would complete their investigation into the case by May 1 and turn over their findings to state prosecutors to be followed by an independent review. Meanwhile, six police officers involved in the case have been suspended.

The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a separate probe into Gray's death. A wake for Gray is scheduled for Sunday, with his funeral to be held on Monday. 

Al Jazeera and wires services

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