Baltimore on edge: Obama raises questions on race relations as riot control took over city
National Guard troops were deployed to prevent Baltimore spiralling into mayhem as President Barack Obama warned that recent incidents 'raise troubling questions' about the policing of black communities.
Baltimore: National Guard troops were deployed to prevent Baltimore spiralling into mayhem as President Barack Obama warned that recent incidents "raise troubling questions" about the policing of black communities.
Violence and looting erupted in Baltimore on Monday after the funeral of 25-year-old African-American man Freddie Gray, who died after suffering severe spinal injuries during a police arrest.
Speaking in nearby Washington, Obama condemned the rioting, but also said that a series of recent incidents -- beginning last year with the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri -- was worrying.
"Since Ferguson... we have seen too many instances of what appears to be police officers interacting with individuals -- primarily African-American, often poor -- in ways that raise troubling questions," he said.
Obama expressed sympathy for civil rights leaders and protesters -- as well as for police on the front line of demonstrations -- and said America needed to address the strained ties between officers and blacks.
He said it was essential that "we don't just pay attention to these communities when a CVS (store) burns. And we don't just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped.
"I think there are police departments that have to do some soul searching.
"I think there's some communities that have to do some soul-searching. I think we as a country have to do some soul-searching. This is not new. It's been going on for decades."
In Baltimore, thousands of military and police reinforcements swarmed onto the streets yesterday after a night of unrest saw stores looted, more than 140 vehicles burned, 20 police wounded and 235 suspects arrested, according to police.
There was no immediate return yesterday to the night's chaos, but there were tense scenes when noisy supporters faced off against police lines. Arrests were made and pepper spray was deployed at least once.
Earlier, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan inspected a National Guard barricade and vowed to "make sure what happened last night in Baltimore City is not going to happen again."
"By tonight, you're going to see an overwhelming display of people out there on the streets protecting the citizens," Hogan told reporters.
Hundreds of National Guardsmen patrolled the streets against unrest, for the first time since 1968, hoping to prevent another outbreak of rioting.
Maryland's governor said 2,000 guardsmen and 1,000 law officers would be in place overnight to try to head off a repeat of the racially charged violence set off Monday by the case of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of a spinal-cord injury under mysterious circumstances while in police custody.
It was the worst such violence in the US since the unrest that erupted last year over the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed black 18-year-old shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
"This combined force will not tolerate violence or looting," governor Larry Hogan warned.
In a measure of how tense things were, Baltimore was under a citywide 10 pm to 5 am emergency curfew. All public schools were closed. And the Baltimore Orioles canceled Tuesday night's game at Camden Yards and — in what may be a first in baseball's 145-year history — announced that Wednesday's game will be closed to the public.
The streets were largely calm all day and into the evening, with only a few scattered arrests. The real test was expected after dark.
As the 10 pm curfew went into effect, several hundred protesters remained in the street in the city's Penn North section near where a pharmacy was looted. Standing shoulder to shoulder, police in helmets and riot shields began advancing toward the demonstrators in an effort to push them back. Some protesters lay in the street or hurled bottles toward the police.
As the hour drew near, a local pastor used a loudspeaker to urge the demonstrators to go home, saying: "Let's show the world, because the eyes of the world are on Baltimore right now."
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. At least one officer was reported injured.
Monday's looting, arson and rock- and bottle-throwing by mostly black rioters broke out just hours after Gray's funeral
Political leaders and residents called the violence a tragedy for the city and lamented the damage done by the rioters to their own neighborhoods.
"I had officers come up to me and say, 'I was born and raised in this city. This makes me cry,'" Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said.
Haywood McMorris, manager of the wrecked drug 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."
But the rioting also brought out a sense of civic pride and responsibility in many Baltimore residents, with hundreds of volunteers turning out to sweep the streets of glass and other debris with brooms and trash bags donated by hardware stores.
The crisis marks 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.
At the White House, President Barack Obama called the deaths of several black men around the country at the hands of police "a slow-rolling crisis." But he added that there was "no excuse" for the violence in Baltimore, and said the rioters should be treated as criminals.
"They aren't protesting. They aren't making a statement. They're stealing," Obama said.
The rioting started in West Baltimore on Monday afternoon and by midnight had spread to East Baltimore and neighborhoods close to downtown and near the baseball stadium.
At least 20 officers were hurt, one person was critically injured in a fire, more than 200 adults and 34 juveniles were arrested, and nearly 150 cars were burned, police said. The governor had no immediate estimate of the damage.
The violence set off soul-searching among community leaders and others, with some suggesting the uprising 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.
In the aftermath of the riots, state and local authorities found themselves facing questions about whether they let things spin out of control.
Batts, the police commissioner, said police did not move in faster because those involved in the early stages were just "kids" — teenagers who had just been let out of school.
Mayor Stephanie 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 trying to get in touch with the mayor for quite some time," Hogan said. "She finally made that call, and we immediately took action."
Rawlings-Blake said officials initially thought they had the unrest under control.
Gray 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 a week later.
Authorities said they are still investigating how and when he suffered the spinal 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 in the meantime.
AFP and Associated Press
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