NATIONAL Guard troops fanned out through Baltimore, shield-bearing police officers blocked the streets and firefighters doused still-simmering blazes yesterday as a growing area of the city shuddered from riots following the funeral of a black man who died in police custody.
The violence that started in West Baltimore on Monday afternoon – within a mile of where Freddie Gray was arrested and placed into a police van this month – had by midnight spread to East Baltimore and neighbourhoods close to downtown and the baseball stadium.
It was one of the most volatile outbreaks of violence prompted by a police-involved death since the protests that followed the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man shot and killed in a confrontation with a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer.
At least 15 officers were hurt in Baltimore, including six who remained in hospital, police said. Two dozen people were arrested. A week-long, daily curfew was imposed beginning yesterday from 10pm to 5am, the mayor said, and Baltimore schools announced that they would be closed.
State and local authorities pledged to restore order and calm, but quickly found themselves responding to questions about whether their initial responses had been adequate.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was asked why she waited hours to ask the governor to declare a state of emergency, while the governor himself hinted she should have come to him earlier.
“We were all in the command centre in the second floor of the State House in constant communication, and we were trying to get in touch with the mayor for quite some time,” Gov Larry Hogan told a news conference. “She finally made that call, and we immediately took action.”
Ms Rawlings-Blake said officials believed they had brought the unrest that had erupted over the weekend under control “and I think it would have been inappropriate to bring in the National Guard”.
But later, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts made it clear events had become unmanageable. “They just outnumbered us and outflanked us,” Mr Batts said. “We needed to have more resources out there.”
He said authorities had had a “very trying and disappointing day.” Rioters set police cars and buildings on fire in several neighbourhoods, looted a shoppig mall and liquor stores and threw rocks at police with riot gear who responded occasionally with pepper spray.
I understand anger, but what we’re seeing isn’t anger. It’s disruption of a community. The same community they say they care about, they’re destroying. You can’t have it both waysStephanie Rawlings-Blake
“I understand anger, but what we’re seeing isn’t anger,” Ms Rawlings-Blake said. “It’s disruption of a community. The same community they say they care about, they’re destroying. You can’t have it both ways.”
Major General Linda Singh, adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, said up to 5,000 troops would be available for Baltimore’s streets.
“We are going to be out in massive force, and that just means basically that we are going to be patrolling the streets and out to ensure that we are protecting property,” she said. Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings and about 200 others, including ministers, tried unsuccessfully to quell the violence on Monday night, marching arm-in-arm through a neighbourhood littered with broken glass and other pieces of debris.
But the violence continued, with looters setting a liquor store on fire and throwing cinder blocks at fire trucks as firefighters laboured to put out the blazes.
The Baltimore riot was the latest flare-up over the death of Gray and came amid a national debate over police use of force after the deaths of several black men in encounters with police – from the Brown death in Ferguson to the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Walter Scott in South Carolina.