By Anne Walters
April 28–WASHINGTON/BALTIMORE, Maryland — The streets were tense Tuesday in Baltimore, Maryland, as peace-keeping civilians kept rock-throwing protestors at bay from lines of police in riot gear.
Rioting broke out a day earlier in Baltimore after the funeral of Freddie Gray, 25, who died April 19 of injuries suffered in police custody — the latest African-American victim of suspected police brutality.
The looting, arson and rock-throwing contrasted with the peaceful protests of the previous week.
By Monday evening, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and deployed up to 5,000 National Guard troops to keep order. Another 500 police offices were summoned from elsewhere in Maryland, and the state government has asked for support from 5,000 police officers in neighbouring states.
Police spokesman Eric Kowalczyk said Tuesday that 235 people had been arrested, including 34 juveniles. Twenty police officers were injured. Rioters set fire to 144 vehicles, and one person was in critical condition as the result of a “structure fire.”
US President Barack Obama said there was “no excuse” for the riots but underscored the need to address underlying issues of poverty and lack of opportunity in minority communities.
“There’s no excuse for the kind of violence we saw yesterday. It’s counterproductive,” Obama said at a White House press conference following talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting, they’re not making a statement — they’re stealing.”
Live broadcasts from the scene Tuesday showed community volunteers forming a human wall between aggressive protesters and riot squad police. Some wore T-shirts identifying themselves as members of the “300 Men March, night street engagement unit.”
“This is black men separating what’s going on back there from what could happen out there,” one peacekeeper told CNN as he faced the crowd of protesters.
Gray’s death was the latest in a series of deaths of black men at the hands of police that have prompted protests in recent months, including weeks of demonstrations and violence last year in Ferguson, Missouri.
“I think we, as a country, have to do some soul searching,” Obama said. “This is not new. It’s been going on for decades.”
Society must improve opportunities for inner-city children, reform the criminal justice system and invest in communities, he said.
Hogan said the deployment of the Maryland National Guard was a “last resort” to a situation out of control.
“It’s nowhere near as bad as the ’60s,” Hogan said late Monday, referring to riots in Baltimore that followed the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King. “We want to make sure it doesn’t get that bad.”
Hogan moved Tuesday from the state capital, Annapolis, into state offices in downtown Baltimore to be on the scene.
The riots started Monday afternoon when teenagers burst into the streets after school, throwing rocks at police in riot gear and jumping on and smashing police cars.
Police said the rioters were mostly school-age youths in the beginning. Kowalczyk said Tuesday that adults rapidly joined in the melee, as reflected in the arrest numbers.
The city government has been criticized for its slow reaction in intervening in the looting and arson. Kowalczyk defended the strategy, saying police were trying to exercise restraint against youthful activists.
“When we deployed yesterday we were expecting a high school event. I don’t think anyone expects [us to deploy] armoured vehicles … against 13, 14 and 15-year-olds,” he said.
Last year in Ferguson, riot police aggressively charged into crowds of protesters. Obama had advised Hogan on Monday to use restraint.
Baltimore is enforcing a 10 pm (0200 GMT) to 5 am curfew. Schools were closed Tuesday.
Gray, 25, was arrested April 12 and died in hospital after falling into a coma. A post-mortem exam showed that Gray’s death was the result of a spinal cord injury, police said.
Six police officers were suspended from duty during the investigation of his death. The US Justice Department has opened an investigation into the case.