Baltimore cleans up, mayor scrambles after riot over police-custody death
BALTIMORE – Baltimore residents on Tuesday began to clear the wreckage of rioting and fires that erupted after the funeral of a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody, while the city’s mayor defended local law enforcement’s light initial response.
Acrid smoke hung over streets where violence broke out just blocks from Freddie Gray’s funeral and spread through much of the poor West Baltimore neighbourhood. Nineteen buildings and 144 vehicles were set on fire, and 202 people were arrested, according to the mayor’s office.
Police said 15 officers were injured, six seriously, in Monday’s unrest, which spread throughout the city as police initially looked on but did not interfere as rioters torched vehicles and later businesses.
Looters had ransacked stores, pharmacies and a shopping mall and clashed with police in riot gear in the most violent unrest in the United States since Ferguson, Missouri, was torn by gunshots and arson in late 2014.
Gray’s death gave new energy to the public outcry that flared last year after police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, New York City and elsewhere.
“It’s a very delicate balancing act, when we have to make sure that we’re managing but not increasing and escalating the problem,” Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told reporters on Tuesday.
Police in Ferguson came under intense criticism last year for quickly adopting a militarised posture, using armoured vehicles, showing heavy weapons and deploying tear gas in a forceful response that some said escalated tensions in the St. Louis suburb.
New York’s police department took a more flexible approach in protests later in the year, monitoring marches that crisscrossed the city but largely averting the kind of violence seen in Ferguson and Baltimore.
For nearly a week after Gray died from a spinal injury on April 19, protests in Baltimore had been peaceful.
‘HERE TO HELP OUT, MAN’
On Tuesday, volunteers in Baltimore swept up charred debris in front of a CVS pharmacy as dozens of police officers in riot gear stood by and firefighters worked to damp down the embers.
“I’m just here to help out, man,” said Shaun Boyd, 30, as he swept up broken glass. “It’s the city I’m from.”
National Guard troops on Tuesday began to stage around the city, including in front of the police station where officers were bringing Gray at the time he was injured.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, declared a state of emergency on Monday and Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, imposed a one-week curfew in the largely black city starting Tuesday night, with exceptions for work and medical emergencies.
Baltimore-based fund manager T. Rowe Price Group Inc (TROW.O) said it would close its downtown office on Tuesday. Legg Mason (LM.N), also headquartered downtown, said its office would be open, but it was encouraging employees to work from home.
Schools were closed on Tuesday in the city of 620,000 people, 40 miles (64 km) from the nation’s capital.
A day after rioters hit a mall in West Baltimore, the Security Square Mall outside the city closed after reports that protesters could be targeting it.
“When you see the destruction you’ve also got to realise there’s pain, there’s pain behind a lot of this,” said US Representative Elijah Cummings, a Democrat who represents the region hit by the rioting.
The mayor, he said, should “assure us that the police department be looked at from top to bottom, everything from parking tickets straight up to indictments for murder.”
Gray was arrested on April 12 while running from officers. He was transported to the police station in a van, with no seat restraint and suffered the spinal injury that led to his death a week later. A lawyer for Gray’s family says his spine was 80 percent severed at the neck while in custody.
Six officers have been suspended, and the US Justice Department is investigating possible civil rights violations.
Much of Monday’s rioting occurred in a neighbourhood where more than a third of families live in poverty. Parts of it had not been rebuilt since the 1968 rioting that swept across the United States after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Deadly confrontations between mostly white US police and black men, and the subsequent unrest, will be among the challenges facing US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who was sworn in on Monday and condemned the “senseless acts of violence.”
In 1992, more than 50 people in Los Angeles were killed in violence set off by the acquittal of four police officers who beat black motorist Rodney King. Dozens died in 1968 riots.
Rashid Khan, 49, and his neighbours were cleaning up his King’s Grocery Mart on Tuesday after looters caused what he estimated at $20,000 to $30,000 in damage.
Khan said he believed people from outside the neighbourhood had caused the damage.
“Neighbourhood protect me,” Khan said. – Reuters