BALTIMORE – Montgomery County Police, first responders and clergy spent the week in Baltimore assisting officials there as riots broke out in the wake of the death of a 25-year-old man who died in police custody.
Protests began peacefully on Saturday as multiple church groups planned peaceful rallies. But as the number of protesters increased, things began to turn violent.
In preparation for the protests, Montgomery County Police forces got called in to assist Baltimore City police officers, according to MCPD Capt. Paul Starks. Fire officials sent two advisers with 500 radios.
Starks said approximately 45 officers at a time got called in and since then MCPD has continuously kept at least that amount of officers in Baltimore.
As of Tuesday no MCPD officers had been “harmed in any way” during their time in Baltimore, said County Council President George Leventhal (D-At large).
According to Starks, MCPD and other police jurisdictions in the area are there to assist Baltimore City police in an effort to prevent loss of life, injuries and further property destruction while allowing people their right to demonstrate peacefully within the law.
Despite the 10 p.m. curfew Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced on Monday evening following riots on Saturday and Monday, groups of protesters remained in the streets well into the early hours of Wednesday morning claiming they were “standing up for their community”.
“This is their home, so they are going to stand up for their community,” said Lennox DeSilva, a Towson student who came to West Baltimore where police had set up their riot lines to stand in solidarity with the community. “They’re obviously oppressed and this is their way of fighting back – this is their community, that’s why they’re still here.”
Despite the hours of peaceful protest, as midnight approached DeSilva said it would only take one person’s irrational actions to make things go wrong.
Moments later masked men arrived on bikes, hurling firecrackers toward the police line. The police retaliated by disbursing tear gas canisters and firing rubber bullets into the crowd. Some people threw a few water bottles back at the police but within 10 minutes most protesters had retreated down North Avenue away from police lines.
Although most protesters had left the scene by midnight, some remained in a peaceful protest about 100 yards away from the police line.
“They can throw tear gas or anything. We’re not stopping, man,” said a West Baltimore resident who identified himself only as Jordan. “I’m out here whether (the police) like it or not.”
City residents began protesting in light of the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died on April 19, a week after Baltimore police arrested him on April 12 following a foot pursuit through several apartment complexes. Gray suffered a severed spine injury and a crushed voice box.
According to previously published reports, Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said Monday that the 25-year-old Gray died of “a very tragic injury to his spinal cord,” the bundle of nerves that carries messages between the brain and the rest of the body. Gray died Sunday, one week after his arrest in West Baltimore.
Details about Gray’s injury and what caused it remain unknown. Police did not release results of an autopsy conducted Monday.
Monday demonstrations escalated to looting businesses and burning buildings only hours after Gray’s funeral service ended.
At about 3 p.m. Monday afternoon, protesters gathered at Mondawmin Mall as part of what was called a “purge event” on social media. High school students flocked to the area after the school day finished and began looting stores and engaging more than 100 police officers dressed in riot gear.
According to some residents, the police began the confrontation which led to the riots while police say it was the high school students who began the confrontation.
The riots moved south, with protesters setting a CVS store on fire at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue in West Baltimore. There, firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze while police set up riot lines at each of the surrounding intersections.
Some protesters stood within inches of the officers, yelling profanities and racial slurs. Other protesters stood by peacefully, pleading with their neighbors to stop the violence. One black man knelt beside a white woman between the officers and protesters to pray.
As dusk set in Monday the violent activity worsened, as protesters continued to loot stores and set cars and buildings ablaze. A building in West Baltimore intended to be a senior citizen home was set ablaze and reduced to nothing but rubble and ashes in a matter of hours.
The growing violence led Gov. Larry Hogan to declare a state of emergency and deploy 1,000 members of the National Guard.
“As the state aggressively takes action to restore peace and order in Baltimore City, I want the citizens of Maryland to know that the state is fully engaged on all levels,” Hogan said.
By late evening, some groups of protesters moved toward the city to continue looting. Other protesters came to yell at the officers while a Vietnam War veteran stood between them and the police line, shouting at them to turn back and stop making fools of themselves.
Rioters looted a pharmacy down the street from the riot line on North Avenue without officers making any attempt to stop the destruction. Farther down the road, employees of a ShopRite grocery store boarded up the store after it had been looted while one of the store’s security guards walked over to join in the looting of the Rite Aid next door.
Lisa Mills, a lifelong resident of West Baltimore who brought her young grandson to the intersection by the burnt and looted CVS, said it broke her heart to watch the destruction of the city she grew up in.
“Where are we going to shop? Look at how many people are going to be out of work and lose their jobs because of the stores (getting destroyed),” Mills said. “I’m ashamed. I’ve got to live with this (situation). This is the result of a bunch of ignorant people without respect for themselves. It’s really sad.”
Mills said she understands and agrees with the anger residents have, but said they should protest peacefully. She also expressed disappointment with the police, saying she would like to teach her grandson the police will protect him but a “small bunch” of officers flaunt their badges and abuse their power.
Despite the smaller number of protesters on Tuesday evening, police remained in riot gear in the intersections surrounding the CVS.
Bearcat armored vehicles topped with turrets also joined the lines of officers in riot gear. DeSilva called the amount of police presence intimidating and unneeded.
“This show of force is unnecessary, there isn’t that many people out here to require this many officers,” DeSilva said.
By midnight roughly an equal number of protesters and media personnel stood on the streets.
Brandon Burrell, a criminal defense attorney in Baltimore who stayed out past midnight to protest, said the majority of the violence Tuesday night came at the hands of officers.
“They are here with what looks to be military vehicles and I know I’ve seen a few people who are already bloodied up a little bit. Most of the violence tonight has been from police,” Burrell said.
Burrell said he thought the curfew was a bad idea because people have the right to assemble.
“I think that (the protesters) have a First Amendment right to protest and the curfew is violating that,” Burrell said. “As you can see, there are plenty of people out here right now past the curfew and I think that they really want to see change and are willing to stay here past that curfew. I think they have the right to.”
A Baltimore resident who identified himself only as Will said he believes government officials need to look themselves in the mirror, or else incidents such as the Baltimore protests and those in Ferguson, Mo. and New York City will continue to happen.
“The mayor and the rest of the city really need to ask themselves serious questions. Are they going to protect the lives of these six obviously crooked police officers or are they going to watch the city burn to the ground,” he said. “…What happened here is not an isolated incident. It’s everywhere. A revolution is coming and these are just the beginning days. We have to be ready as a city.”