Baltimore Freddie Gray Protests Turn Violent as Police and Crowds Clash

News & Politics

At least a dozen protesters were arrested in Baltimore on Saturday evening after peaceful demonstrations over the death of Freddie Gray were followed by clashes with police in riot gear and scattered vandalism.

Officers detained several people during late confrontations in the streets of west Baltimore, near to where Gray was arrested on 12 April. A crowd gathered outside a police station pelted officers with rocks, glass bottles, eggs and other items.

Young men and women furious about Gray’s death from a broken neck after his arrest yelled insults at officers as they advanced. “You are assaulting American citizens,” a protester calling himself Leon the Poet told them.

“When all hell breaks loose, the difference between a good man and a bad man is how you conduct yourself,” said the 30-year-old, who said he served in the US army in Iraq between 2005 and 2007, stationed at the Camp Anaconda base near Balad.

Speaking at a late evening press conference alongside Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Gray’s twin sister Fredericka urged calm. “Freddie Gray would not want this,” she said. “Freddie’s father and mother do not want any violence. Violence does not get justice.”

Police had earlier snatched several demonstrators out of a boisterous crowd outside the Baltimore Orioles’ baseball stadium in the city’s downtown area after several patrol cars and a storefront were smashed as the hometown team prepared to face the Boston Red Sox. Two protesters said a 7-11 store was looted.

Officers wearing helmets and body armour, backed by policemen mounted on horses, repeatedly charged into the line of protesters in front of them, prompting scuffles as demonstrators shoved back against the police shields.

“Move! Move! Move!” police shouted. Demonstrators chanted Gray’s name and demanded the arrest of the six officers who were suspended following his death.

“All night, all day, we’re gonna fight for Freddie Gray,” they sang.

One protester who declined to be named said he had been pepper-sprayed by police. Using a homespun remedy favoured by demonstrators, the man treated his bloodshot eyes with a towel soaked in apple cider vinegar.

Gray, 25, suffered a broken neck that left his spine “80% severed” and his voicebox crushed, according to his family. Gray’s injuries were sustained at some point during his arrest on the morning of 12 April after which he was transported in a police wagon.

He was chased and arrested after “catching the eye” of a lieutenant and running away. A knife was found in his pocket. A criminal inquiry by city authorities is due to be completed by Friday.

The US Department of Justice has opened an investigation into whether Gray’s civil rights were violated during his treatment by the officers, all of whom are said to deny having used force against him.

Thousands of people descended on Baltimore from around the US on Saturday to voice their anger about Gray’s death. Protesters marched peacefully from the site of Gray’s arrest on Presbury Street to the western district police headquarters and on to City Hall for a downtown rally. They chanted, sang and carried placards with slogans such as 26-year-old Felicia Thomas’s “BPD IS BREAKIN’ OUR NECKS”.

Unity broke out briefly across a protest movement that has often fractured since the August 2014 nights that followed the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old whose fatal shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, prompted an outcry and revived a debate on the use of force by police. Even lifelong rivals from the Bloods and Crips gangs marched side-by-side after a day’s truce said to have been negotiated by members of the Nation of Islam.

Anthony Batts, the city’s embattled police commissioner, who had styled himself as the man to reform a department notorious for a series of costly brutality cases, emerged briefly from the western headquarters on Saturday afternoon to chat with protesters, before returning inside under a torrent of verbal abuse.

“I think the protesters are showing they care, that there’s a sense of urgency here, and that there’s pain our community,” Batts told the Guardian, while a small crowd screamed demands for his resignation. “So we need to change the culture.”

Batts told Resa Burton she could trust him to uncover the truth about Gray’s death.

“I think he is for us, I don’t think he’s against us,” said Burton. “But we just want justice.”

The 52-year-old, who works at two major chain fast-food restaurants, then flipped her middle finger at the line of officers.

The verbal equivalent of her gesture was delivered to Batts in a statement from the city’s biggest police union, which criticised the commissioner for making “politically driven” remarks after he repeated on Friday that officers made errors in not obtaining prompt medical attention for Gray while he complained and failing to seatbelt him as he sat wearing handcuffs and leg irons.

“We believe in the rule of law and continue to believe that our officers, like all American citizens, are innocent until proven guilty,” the Fraternal Order of Police said in a statement. One of the six officers is said by chiefs to have invoked his right to remain silent rather than give a statement.

Early in the afternoon protesters continued yelling at roughly four dozen officers from the city and Baltimore county who assembled outside the department building, behind a metal fence. Wearing regular patrol uniforms and armed with their service weapons and tasers, the officers stared blankly into the middle distance.

At 8pm, as dusk descended, a Baltimore police helicopter swooped lower in the sky and a police officer’s voice came over the loudspeaker. “Get out of the street or you will be arrested,” he said.

As some protesters retreated, saying they were returning to the western district headquarters, others remained and taunted riot police at the front line. One man who got close to officers was snatched as his friends screamed. He was carried away by four officers as he struggled to stay upright. One officer was seen grabbing him by the neck and pushing him to the tram tracks on the ground.

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