By Hazel Trice Edney
BALTIMORE – (Trice Edney Wire) – Protests gave way to chaos, looting and burning this week as 25-year-old Freddie Gray was laid to rest on Monday. He died April 19, a week after receiving a severe spinal cord injury while in the custody of Baltimore police.
A state of emergency has been declared after hundreds of high school-aged students, joined and assisted by some adults, set fire to buildings and cars. At least 27 people were arrested and 15 police officers were injured. The partial construction of a high rise for senior citizens built by a local Black church was burned to the ground; a CVS was born and other store fronts were shattered, rocks and bottles were thrown at the police and apparently thousands of dollars in merchandise were taken from local stores.
Despite attempts of police, local pastors and peaceful protestors to stop the chaos, the looting and burning continued in the aftermath of yet another police killing of a Black man – a scourge that has plagued American cities for decades. The tragic and often unjustified police killings are now amplified by cell phone video tapes and the protests are being fueled through social media.
Thousands of additional law enforcement officers have been called in to help the Baltimore police. They include Maryland State Police and the National Guard.
“This is one of our darkest days as a city. And I know that we’re better than this,” said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who announced a 10 pm curfew starting Tuesday this week. Calling the looting group “thugs”, she announced that she had contacted Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan for help. He in turn declared the city of Baltimore in a “State of Emergency”. He also obtained permission from President Obama to request the assistance of the National Guard.
But, Rawlings-Blake has also vowed to get to the bottom of what happened to Gray April 12 when he was first running from the police; then was arrested and ultimately taken from a paddy wagon unable to walk or speak. He died seven days later. The only police admission so far is that they refused to get him timely medical attention and they failed to buckle him in to the paddy wagon.
New Attorney General Loretta Lynch issued her first statement after swearing in:
“I condemn the senseless acts of violence by some individuals in Baltimore that have resulted in harm to law enforcement officers, destruction of property and a shattering of the peace in the city of Baltimore. Those who commit violent actions, ostensibly in protest of the death of Freddie Gray, do a disservice to his family, to his loved ones, and to legitimate peaceful protestors who are working to improve their community for all its residents.”
Her statement continued, “The Department of Justice stands ready to provide any assistance that might be helpful. The Civil Rights Division and the FBI have an ongoing, independent criminal civil rights investigation into the tragic death of Mr. Gray. We will continue our careful and deliberate examination of the facts in the coming days and weeks.”
“I want you all to get justice for my son, but don’t tear up the whole city,”
But these actions came too late for the Rev. Donte’ Hickman, pastor of the Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore. A high rise for senior citizens that his church was building was burned to the ground.
“I haven’t lost my focus. I haven’t lost my sense of resiliency, I haven’t lost my hope,” Hickman told reporters at the scene. “I’ve been a little heartbroken. My eyes have been filled with tears because someone didn’t understand that we exist in the community to help revitalize it.”
Dr. Jamal Bryant, pastor of Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple, joined by other pastors, repeatedly appealed for calm and against violence. However, he empathized with the peaceful protestors saying he believes all police officers must be retrained “on racial sensitivity and we’ve got to reevaluate how there is a shield around police officers, but no protection for citizens.”
One of the frustrations is how long it has taken to investigate the death of Gray. Because of a so-called Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, the Baltimore officers involved have up to 10 days before they can even be debriefed.
As of Tuesday morning, the looting and burnings had ended, but the anger is far from over.
The National Action Network’s Rev. Al Sharpton, on MSNBC, announced that he will be going to Baltimore at the request of local pastors and activists.
“One of the things I think we have to address is that if the objective is justice and changing the accountability of law enforcement; then we cannot do it in a violent way or becoming like what we’re fighting,” Sharpton said.
Reflecting on the Watts riot of 50 years ago, Sharpton said, “You’ve always had people that, out of frustration, act in a way that ends up adding more [problems] than it does solving the problems. And it usually is police incidents that bring this on. When people feel that they have no kind of way of redress with law enforcement, they explode. That is not to excuse it, that is not to rationalize it, but to acknowledge it.”
The uprisings followed a weekend of mostly peaceful protests after Gray died from what was reportedly an 80 percent severed spinal cord and a crushed larynx after he was arrested by police. It is still unclear why the police arrested Gray in the first place. They cite the fact that he ran as they approached him. They later found a small knife clipped to his pocket, but even the mayor said the knife was not an illegal size.
Protests began to grow tense and near a breaking point on Saturday night when police in riot gear blocked intersections to restrain marchers to particular areas to prevent the blocking of traffic. Some protestors, attempting to articulate their frustrations to police, appeared to become agitated when an officer told them they could not hear them while wearing their riot helmets.
What appeared lost in the midst of the uprising was the question of the status of those six police officers on paid leave while investigations continue in their arrest of Freddie Gray. The conclusion of the investigation, the final autopsy report on the cause of Gray’s death, and whether the officers involved in Gray’s death will be held accountable are the key questions that will determine the mood and movement of the community.
Lynch concluded: “As our investigative process continues, I strongly urge every member of the Baltimore community to adhere to the principles of nonviolence. In the days ahead, I intend to work with leaders throughout Baltimore to ensure that we can protect the security and civil rights of all residents. And I will bring the full resources of the Department of Justice to bear in protecting those under threat, investigating wrongdoing, and securing an end to violence.”
Meanwhile, Pastor Hickman, whose church was burned, says he sees beyond the destruction: “Now we’re are calling on resources to come back. To see this as an opportunity to revive East Baltimore and the city of Baltimore.”