Jim Bourg / Reuters

Violent clashes flare in Baltimore after Freddie Gray funeral

State of emergency declared, curfew imposed amid violence after funeral for man who died of injury in police custody

National Guard troops fanned out through Baltimore, shield-bearing police officers blocked the streets and firefighters doused still-smoldering blazes early Tuesday as a growing area of the city under curfew shuddered from riots following the funeral of a black man who died in police custody.

Violent confrontations broke out in Baltimore on Monday just hours after the funeral of Freddie Gray who died after suffering a severe spinal injury while in custody. 

State and local authorities pledged to restore order and calm, but by late Monday night found themselves responding to questions about whether their initial responses had been adequate.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was asked why she waited hours to ask the governor to declare a state of emergency, while the governor himself hinted she should have come to him earlier.

“We were all in the command center in the second floor of the State House in constant communication, and we were trying to get in touch with the mayor for quite some time,” Gov. Larry Hogan told a Monday evening news conference. “She finally made that call, and we immediately took action.”

Rawlings-Blake said officials believed they had gotten the unrest that had erupted over the weekend under control “and I think it would have been inappropriate to bring in the National Guard.”

But later on, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts made it clear events had become unmanageable. “They just outnumbered us and outflanked us,” Batts said. “We needed to have more resources out there.”

Batts said authorities had had a “very trying and disappointing day.”

Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, said up to 5,000 troops would be available for Baltimore's streets.

“We are going to be out in massive force, and that just means basically that we are going to be patrolling the streets and out to ensure that we are protecting property,” Singh said at a news conference Monday night.

The turmoil erupted in West Baltimore during the afternoon —  within a mile of where Gray was arrested and pushed into a police van earlier this month — and by the end of the day spread to East Baltimore and neighborhoods close to downtown and near the baseball stadium.

The Orioles canceled Monday's game for as a safety precaution, and Baltimore's school board canceled classes on Tuesday.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in her first day on the job, said she would send Justice Department officials to the city in coming days. At least 15 officers were wounded in clashes after the earlier memorial service, suffering broken bones after demonstrators started throwing bricks and stones, according to authorities. Six officers remained hospitalized late Monday, police said.

Baltimore police Capt. Eric Kowalczyk said that one officer was “unresponsive” and that the attack took place “without provocation.”

Police responded with pepper spray, tear gas and riot shields, The Baltimore Sun reported. Hogan announced Monday evening that he was activating the state's National Guard to address the unrest

“Today’s looting and acts of violence in Baltimore will not be tolerated," Hogan said. "I strongly condemn the actions of the offenders who are engaged in direct attacks against innocent civilians, businesses and law enforcement officers," he added, charging that violent acts “betray the cause of peaceful citizens seeking answers and justice following the death of Freddie Gray.”

The mayor declared a curfew across the city from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. for the next week, curfew for adults beginning Tuesday night, with exceptions for work and medical emergencies — a curfew for children was already in effect. Officials requested up to 5,000 additional law enforcement officers.

Rawlings-Blake, a lifelong resident of the city, condemned the violence as she announced the curfew.

“Too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs, who in a very senseless way, are trying to tear down what so many have fought for, tearing down businesses, tearing down and destroying property, things that we know will impact our community for years,” she said. “It’s idiotic to think that by destroying your city, you’re going to make life better for anybody.”

Gray's family said violence is not a way to honor him.

“I think the violence is wrong,” Gray's twin sister, Fredericka Gray, said late Monday. “I don't like it at all.”

The attorney for Gray's family, Billy Murphy, said the family had hoped to organize a peace march later in the week.

Monday's riot was the latest flare-up over the mysterious death of Gray, whose fatal encounter with officers came amid the latest national debate over police use of force, especially when black suspects are involved. Gray was African-American. 

Riots over race issues and police brutality have gripped U.S. cities in the past.

In the 1992 Los Angeles riots, more than 50 people were killed in violence set off by the acquittal of four police officers who beat black motorist Rodney King. In 1968, dozens died in riots, including several in Baltimore, after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Much of rioting on Monday occurred in a Baltimore neighborhood where more than a third of families live in poverty. The extent of the rioting appeared to catch officials somewhat off-guard after a week of more-or-less peaceful protests.

After Missouri was criticized for a heavy-handed response to protests over the police killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in August, cities have tread a careful line between allowing peaceful demonstrations over police brutality and preventing violence.

Baltimore, a largely black city, has long struggled with high crime and gangs, a reputation that has made it the setting for gritty television dramas such as “The Wire.”

Gray's family had pleaded for peaceful demonstrations and after the looting started, pastors and community leaders took to the streets to try to prevent violent clashes between black youth and police.

Looters were nonchalant and showed their faces.

“We went in there and tore it up,” said Tyrone Jackson, 16. He said he was one of the looters inside the CVS.

Just down the street from the smoldering CVS, business owner Daisy Bush, 61, said: “The sad part about it is that a lot of people from the community were up there in the CVS, stealing stuff out of it. It's a disgrace.”

Helicopter news footage showed dozens of people entering stores. Smoke billowed from a CVS drugstore after apparently being set ablaze. 

Police arrested 27 people, said police Col. Darryl DeSousa.

Emergency officials were constantly thwarted as they tried to restore calm. Firefighters trying to put out a blaze at a drug store were hindered by someone who sliced holes in a hose connected to a fire hydrant, spraying water all over the street and nearby buildings.

Later Monday night, mayoral spokesman Kevin Harris confirmed that a massive fire that had erupted in East Baltimore was also related to the riots. He said the Mary Harvin Transformation Center was under construction and that no one was believed to be in the building at the time. The center is described online as a community-based organization that supports youth and families.

Murphy, the Gray family lawyer, said the family had not anticipated the riot and urged calm.

“They don't want this movement nationally to be marred by violence,” he said. “It makes no sense.”

 On Monday night, Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings and about 200 others, including ministers and mostly men, marched arm-in-arm through a neighborhood littered with broken glass, flattened aluminum cans and other debris, in an attempt to help calm the violent outbursts. As they got close to a line of police officers, the marchers went down on their knees. After the ministers got back on their feet, they walked until they were face-to-face with the tight formation of police officers in riot gear.

A packed funeral

The violent unrest came on a day when thousands of mourners gathered to pay tribute to Freddie Gray, whose death under mysterious circumstances has become the latest touchstone in a national debate over police use of force. Many who had never met the man were among those who entered a Baltimore church to pay their respects and press for more accountability among police officers.

Early in the service, Murphy received a standing ovation after calling on the six suspended officers who arrested him to tell the public what happened. "This is our moment to get at truth. This is our moment to get it right," he said.

Gray died April 19, days after his encounter with police.

The 2,500-capacity New Shiloh Baptist Church was filled with mourners, many of whom filed past Gray's casket before the service began.

While the funeral was underway, Baltimore police said in a news release that the department received a “credible threat” to its officers. But it is not known if there is any link between that that and the later confrontation with protesters.

Gray's death has heightened tensions between residents and the police, with protests at times turning violent.

Just hours after the funeral, dozens of people sparred with police in riot gear outside a mall in northwestern Baltimore. Some threw objects at the officers, who were wearing helmets and face shields.

One man held his arms up as the police moved toward him, an act that has been repeated throughout the Gray rallies.

Earlier, groups of mourners started lining up to pay respects to Gray up to two hours ahead of his funeral. As they began filing into the church, the white casket with his body was opened, flanked by floral arrangements.

Placed atop his body was a white pillow with a screened picture of him. A projector aimed at two screens on the walls showed the words "Black lives matter & all lives matter."

The service lasted nearly two hours, with dignitaries in attendance including former Maryland Rep. and NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume and current Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes.

Erica Garner, 24, the daughter of Eric Garner, who died in New York police custody in July 2014, attended the funeral. She said she went after seeing video of Gray's arrest, which she said reminded her of her father's shouts that he could not breathe when he was being arrested on a Staten Island street.

“It's like there is no accountability, no justice,” she said. “It's like we're back in the '50s, back in the Martin Luther King days. When is our day to be free going to come?”

Police said Gray was arrested on April 12 after he made eye contact with officers and ran away. Officers held him down, handcuffed him and loaded him into a van. While inside, he became irate, and leg cuffs were put on him, police said.

Gray asked for medical help several times, beginning before he was placed in the van. After a 30-minute ride that included three stops, paramedics were called. He died a week later.

Authorities have not explained how or when Gray's spine was injured.

Police acknowledged Friday that Gray should have received medical attention on the spot where he was arrested, before he was put inside the van, handcuffed and without a seat belt — a violation of department policy.

Police have said they would conclude their investigation by Friday and forward the results to state prosecutors. 

Al Jazeera and wire services

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