Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Curfew brings pepper balls and tear gas, then uneasy quiet to Baltimore

Once police used pepper balls and tear gas to disperse a small crowd just after 10 p.m., the curfew seemed to hold

BALTIMORE — Thousands of police in riot gear and National Guard troops patrolled a few mostly poor and mostly black neighborhoods Tuesday night to enforce a curfew imposed by the mayor after the worst unrest in Baltimore since 1968. 

While most people respected the curfew that started at 10 p.m., a line of police behind riot shields hurled smoke canisters and fired pepper balls at a restive crowd of as many as 200 people who refused to obey the curfew.

Demonstrators threw bottles at police, and picked up the smoke canisters and hurled them back at officers. At least one officer was injured, according to the Baltimore Sun, and the crowd rapidly dispersed. It was down to just a few dozen people within minutes. Police reported that two people were arrested for looting, one for disorderly conduct and seven for violating the curfew.

The clash came as residents of Baltimore's Sandtown neighborhood — with Monday's violent unrest fresh in their minds — waited for authorities to start enforcing the curfew.

“Good luck with that. I find it amusing,” said Sarita Pierre, 34, a mother of seven, outside her home as her kids played on a sunny stoop, the shadows growing longer as night approached. A police helicopter hovered overhead a few blocks north.

Overhead surveillance of Sandtown was the result of the violent confrontations that broke out in West Baltimore on Monday afternoon, just hours after the funeral of Freddie Gray. Baltimore authorities and the U.S. Department of Justice are investigating the circumstances under which he died after suffering a severe spinal injury while in police custody. The Baltimore Police Department suspended the six officers allegedly involved.

On Monday evening, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declared a curfew for adults across the city from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. beginning Tuesday night, and blamed the violence on “thugs.” With exceptions for work and medical emergencies, the curfew is to remain in effect for a week. 

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency soon after, activating the Maryland National Guard.

By early Tuesday morning, guard troops were deployed throughout restive areas of Baltimore, joining shield-bearing police officers who were blocking the streets and firefighters dousing smoldering blazes in the predawn dark. 

Assessing the damage, police said Tuesday that at least 15 buildings and 144 cars had been set ablaze and some 200 people arrested.

Hogan said Tuesday afternoon that 2,000 Guardsmen and 1,000 law officers would be in place by nightfall to try to head off a repeat of the overnight violence that erupted Monday in some of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods.

“This combined force will not tolerate violence or looting,” he said.

In a press conference late Tuesday afternoon, Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, the adjutant general Maryland’s National Guard, said it was important for the troops to be on the ground to work with Baltimore's police.

“The Maryland Guard is not just going in to help protect and really to reinforce what the police are doing,” she said. “They’re doing it because it’s also where they live,” she said. 

Hogan said he couldn’t predict whether there would be disturbances or not Tuesday night.

“I’m not a magician,” Hogan said. “But what I can assure you is that we will put all the resources that we have at our disposal to make sure that the disturbances won’t get out of hand like they did last night.”

Just before 9 p.m., a crowd of several hundred people remained on the street near where a CVS pharmacy was looted Monday night.

A line of self-appointed peacekeepers could be seen pushing the crowd back from a line of police that had been blocking the street all day.

“I just had to be here, I can't sit down and do nothing,” said Shawna Eaton, 47, an ultrasound technician holding a sign saying “Fight Another Day." She wanted people “to express themselves peacefully.”

As the hour drew near, Rawlings-Blake went the intersection where protesters had gathered and pleaded with them to go home.

“Let's take our babies home and abide by the curfew. I want to thank you for understanding that we want to bring peace,” Rawlings-Blake said through a megaphone.

Around the same time and in a different neighborhood, Baltimore police tweeted that they were making arrests in South Baltimore after people started attacking officers with rocks and bricks. 

Pierre, who said she saw her corner dissolve into chaos Monday night, feels that the violence in her neighborhood stemmed from decades of abuse by police. 

She said she had had both positive and negative interactions with local police officers.

“I don't hold every single one of them accountable,” she said.

“The curfew, I can't say it's really helpful. It's a much bigger problem. It's a much larger issue,” she said. 

“Things have been bad for a very long time,” she said. “I don't agree with the rioting and I don't agree with the fires. But something has to get somebody's attention to say ‘You can't keep killing us.’”

Others suggested the unrest was about more than race or the police department — it was about high unemployment, high crime, poor housing, broken-down schools and lack of opportunity in Baltimore's inner-city neighborhoods.

The city of 622,000 is 63 percent black. The mayor, state's attorney, police chief and City Council president are black, as is 48 percent of the police force. Almost a quarter of Baltimore's 620,000 residents live below the poverty line. The gritty television police drama “The Wire” was set in decayed, crime-ridden areas of the city.

Now that many recreation centers are closed, a lack of activities for kids is one of the more pressing problems, Pierre said.

“There's so much more they could do than implementing a curfew,” she said.

Pierre worried that if the presence of National Guard troops failed to calm the city, martial law would be declared.

She reiterated how she'd explained martial law to her children. 

“That means all of your rights have been removed,” she said. “You have no choice in your way of life. They will have you in the house when they want you in the house. You will not be able to move about.”

“We're already living in a prison,” she said. “Look at the environment we live in. We're already in jail.”

Gerard King, 25, a musician from the east side Baltimore, suggested imposing a curfew was misguided.

“You tell a group of autonomous individuals ... that doesn't follow laws, that they have to be inside at 10 o'clock, when many African Americans work nights — you're gonna end up with a bunch of people getting locked up and losing their jobs,” he said.  

“The curfew for 18-year-olds — 11 p.m. — it already doesn't work now,” he said.

Schools, which were closed Tuesday, will reopen on Wednesday, according to a notice posted on the Baltimore school system's website. The notice also said that after-school sports and clubs will also take place.

The Baltimore Orioles canceled Tuesday night's game at Camden Yards and — in what may be a first in major league baseball's 145-year history — announced that Wednesday's game will be closed to the public.

During the day on Tueday, political leaders and residents called the violence a tragedy for the city and lamented the damage done by the rioters to their own neighborhoods.

Rawlings-Blake took back her remarks about thugs. 

“We don't have thugs in Baltimore,” the mayor said, according to the Sun. “We have a lot of kids that are acting out, a lot of people in our community who are acting out, and the bad part of it is, we all know that on the other side of this they are going to regret what they've done.”

“We're not thugs, we're just upset,” said Malik McBride, 25, a  protester originally from Oakland, California.

Haywood McMorris, manager of the looted CVS store, said the destruction didn't make sense: “We work here, man. This is where we stand, and this is where people actually make a living.”

The crisis is the first time the National Guard has been called out to deal with unrest in Baltimore since 1968, when some of the same neighborhoods that rose up this week burned for days after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. At least six people died then, and some neighborhoods still bear the scars.

Jascy Jones of Baltimore said the sight of National Guardsmen on the street gave her a “very eerie feeling.”

“It brought a tear to my eye. Seeing it doesn't feel like the city that I love,” she said. “I am glad they're here, but it's hard to watch.”

But as the crowds dispersed, one community activist who had urged youth to return home and obey the curfew said she felt she had successfully helped to keep a tense, dangerous situation under control.

“I do feel that we've had a victory because it didn't escalate into anything crazy,” the Rev. Pamela Coleman said. “It wasn't the way we intended, but it wasn't crazy bad.”

Additional reporting by Marisa Taylor and wire services

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