Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Baltimore goes up in flames

The death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed African-American man, ignited widespread rioting in the US city of Baltimore this week

Al-Ahram Weekly

Freddie Gray, a young unarmed African-American man, became the latest victim in a list of high-profile cases in which young black men have died after contact with the police in the US earlier this month, with his death leading to widespread rioting in the east coast city of Baltimore.

Gray, 25, died on 19 April of spinal injuries apparently suffered during his arrest. Protests erupted last Monday a few blocks from the site of his funeral, and by midnight the riots had spread to east Baltimore and neighbourhoods close to the downtown area and near the baseball stadium.

Riot police stood guard on the smouldering streets of the city on Tuesday after protesters went on the rampage, torching cars and buildings and looting stores. Fires continued to burn in the mainly African-American north-east of the city, where a curfew took effect on Tuesday evening after riots dragged on from Monday night.

The state of Maryland, in which Baltimore is located, declared a state of emergency after rioters ransacked shops, making off with armloads of merchandise. Schools were closed on Tuesday as a safety measure. The full extent of the damage became clearer later in the day.

In the initial rioting at least 15 policemen were hurt, including six who were hospitalised, the police said. There were 144 vehicle fires, 15 structural fires and nearly 200 arrests, according to the city mayor’s office.

City officials, community leaders and the family of Gray expressed their disgust at the degeneration of the protests following his funeral. “Too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs who, in a very senseless way, are trying to tear down what so many have fought for,” mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said.

“It’s idiotic to think that by destroying your city, you’re going to make life better for anybody,” she said.

TV footage showed one mother slapping her son repeatedly on the head and screaming at him for taking part in the unrest. Thousands of police and National Guard troopers were deployed to back up beleaguered officers as the riots spread on Monday evening.

At least 27 people were arrested in clashes with stone-throwing mobs, many of them made up of high school students, who also attacked local businesses. The Baltimore Sun newspaper, quoting police, reported two people as having been injured in separate shootings.

The violence is the latest in a series of confrontations between US police and mainly young African-American men enraged by what they see as racism in the force. The ongoing confrontations and brewing violence will be among the challenges facing US attorney general Loretta Lynch, who was sworn in on Monday.

Following her swearing in, Lynch signaled that improving relations between the police and local communities would be high on her agenda. “We can restore trust and faith both in our laws and in those of us who enforce them,” she said.

The Baltimore police initially showed restraint on Monday, but then began arresting people and prepared to use teargas and pepper spray. Last summer’s fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, also triggered coast-to-coast protests.

In Baltimore, despite appeals for calm from the dead man’s family roving gangs of youths fought pitched battles with police. News reporters were assaulted and had equipment stolen. Local police said they were combing through video footage to identify possible offenders aside from those already arrested.

While most of the violence was in the west of the city, a large building on Baltimore’s east side was also torched. Maryland police superintendent William Pallozzi said he had ordered 500 police into the city and requested 5,000 more from the wider mid-Atlantic region.

US National Guard commander Linda Singh said she had 5,000 troopers ready and would deploy them in “massive force” to protect people and property. President Barack Obama was briefed on the situation by Rawlings-Blake and Lynch, the White House said.

The rioting erupted shortly after thousands of mourners gathered for Gray’s funeral in the New Shiloh Baptist Church in the city’s impoverished Sandtown neighbourhood. Before the service, a cryptic message circulated on social media called for an after-school “purge,” street slang for random acts of lawlessness.

Gray’s grieving family had explicitly asked for no protests. “Today of all days, the family was clear this was a day of sacred closure,” said pastor Jamal Bryant, who delivered the eulogy.

At the funeral Gray’s white casket, which was surrounded by wreaths, lay next to a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap and a sign reading “Peace y’all”.

Crowds swayed to hymns and chanted “justice shall prevail, peace will prevail”.

Violence had also erupted on Saturday when 34 people were arrested and six police officers were injured after an orderly rally for Gray outside Baltimore city hall. Police on Monday said they had received a “credible threat” that criminal gangs in Baltimore had “entered into a partnership to ‘take out’ law enforcement officers.”

Lawyers for Gray’s family say his death, after a week in a coma, was caused by severe spinal injuries sustained following his arrest. Six officers have been suspended with pay pending the outcome of a police investigation that is to be submitted to state prosecutors by Friday.

The police confirmed Gray had requested medical help and an inhaler after he was detained and have acknowledged he should have received medical attention sooner. In a video taken by bystanders and uploaded on social media, Gray can be heard howling in pain as his limp body is dragged into a van during his arrest.

Compiled from news agencies

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