BALTIMORE — National Guardsmen fanned out across the city, police with riot shields blocked streets, and firefighters doused smouldering blazes Tuesday after looting and arson erupted following the funeral of a black man who died in police custody.
It was the first time the National Guard was called out to quell unrest in Baltimore since 1968, when some of the same neighbourhoods burned after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The rioting started in West Baltimore on Monday afternoon — within a mile of where Freddie Gray, 25, was arrested and placed into a police van earlier this month — and by midnight had spread to East Baltimore and neighbourhoods close to downtown and near the baseball stadium.
At least 15 officers were hurt, including six who were hospitalized, police said. There were 144 vehicle fires, 15 structure fires and nearly 200 arrests, the mayor’s office said.
The streets were calm Tuesday morning. Residents came out to sweep up the broken glass and other debris. Firefighters sprayed the burned-out shell of a large building. The city was under a 10 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew beginning Tuesday, and all Baltimore public schools were closed.
“We’re not going to leave the city unprotected,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan vowed during a visit in the morning to a West Baltimore intersection that on Monday was littered with burning cars, a smashed police vehicle and broken glass.
Grey’s death under still-mysterious circumstances has become the latest flashpoint in the nation’s debate over the police use of force against black men.
The rioting was the worst such violence in the U.S. since the turbulent protests that broke out over the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed black 18-year-old who was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer.
“I understand anger, but what we’re seeing isn’t anger,” Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake lamented. “It’s disruption of a community. The same community they say they care about, they’re destroying. You can’t have it both ways.”
State and local authorities found themselves responding to questions about whether their initial response had been adequate.
Rawlings-Blake waited hours to ask the governor to declare a state of emergency, and the governor hinted she should have come to him earlier.
“We were all in the command centre 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,” Hogan said at a Monday evening news conference. “She finally made that call, and we immediately took action.”
Asked if the mayor should have called for help sooner, however, Hogan replied that he didn’t want to question what Baltimore officials were doing: “They’re all under tremendous stress. We’re all on one team.”
Rawlings-Blake said officials initially thought they had gotten the unrest under control.
The rioters set police cars and buildings on fire, looted a mall and liquor stores and hurled rocks, bottles and bricks at police in riot gear. Police responded occasionally with pepper spray or cleared the streets by moving in tight formation, shoulder to shoulder.
“They just outnumbered us and outflanked us,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said. “We needed to have more resources out there.”
Maryland National Guard spokesman Lt. Charles Kohler said that about 2,000 members would be deployed through the day and that the force could build to 5,000.
“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,” said Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard.
Also, State Police said they were putting out a call for up to 500 additional law enforcement officers from Maryland and as many as 5,000 from around the mid-Atlantic region.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in her first day on the job Monday, said she will send Justice Department officials to the city in the coming days. And the governor said he is temporarily moving his office from Annapolis to Baltimore.
Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings and about 200 others, including ministers, tried unsuccessfully to quell the violence at one point Monday night, marching arm-in-arm through a neighbourhood littered with broken glass, flattened aluminum cans and other debris.
As they got close to a line of police officers, the marchers went down on their knees. They then rose to their feet and walked until they were face-to-face with the police officers, who were in a tight formation and wearing riot gear.
But the violence continued, with looters later setting a liquor store on fire and throwing cinderblocks at firetrucks as firefighters laboured to put out the blazes.
Grey was arrested April 12 after running away at the sight of police, authorities said. He was held down, handcuffed and loaded into a police van. Leg cuffs were put on him when he became irate inside. He died of a spinal cord injury a week later.
Authorities said they are still investigating how and when he suffered the injury — during the arrest or while he was in the van, where authorities say he was riding without being belted in, a violation of department policy.
Six officers have been suspended with pay while the investigation continues.
The riot came amid a national furor over the deaths of several black men at the hands of police — from the Brown case in Ferguson to the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York and the shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina.
While they are angry about what happened to Gray, his family said riots are not the answer.
“I think the violence is wrong,” Gray’s twin sister, Fredericka Gray, said late Monday. “I don’t like it at all.”
In 1968, when Baltimore and many other U.S. cities erupted in flames over the assassination of King, the state of Maryland called up 6,000 Guardsmen to restore order in the city, and 2,000 active-duty federal troops were sent in, too.
Standing in front of a burned-out CVS drugstore Tuesday, the mayor lamented that the neighbourhood was still recovering from the riots of the 1960s.
“We worked so hard to get a company like CVS to invest in this neighbourhood,” she said. “This is the only place that so many people have to pick up their prescriptions.”