POLITICS

Baltimore: A city's mixed emotions after night of violence, flames

04/28/2015 05:45 EDT | Updated 08/03/2015 08:59 EDT
BALTIMORE - At a riot-ravaged intersection ringed by smashed windows, shielded cops and debris-toting cleanup crews, a prayer circle sang Amazing Grace.

That soothing soundtrack to the backdrop of chaos at the corner of Pennsylvania and West North Avenues befit the mixed emotions in Baltimore on Tuesday after a night of rioting and looting.

There was certainly anger at those responsible for injuring 15 police officers, burning 144 vehicles and setting 15 buildings ablaze in an outbreak of violence that led authorities to call in the National Guard.

It resulted in a city-wide curfew that was mostly respected Tuesday night and which forced a major league baseball game to be postponed for a second straight night. Baltimore is scheduled to play the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday afternoon without any fans present — possibly the first time that has happened in the sport.

The anger was expressed in a grocery store checkout line where a woman voiced admiration for a mother seen on video smacking her rock-tossing teen. She said she hoped law-enforcement might track down the thugs: "Looting, burning, stealing. I hope they get every last one of them."

A high-school student said he just shook his head in sadness as he followed the events from the comfort of his own home because his mother wouldn't let him out.

But there was plenty of sympathy, too — sympathy for the anger people are feeling after 25-year-old Freddie Gray was arrested without charge and wound up dead with a severed spinal chord.

It was captured on the sign Maurice Whitehurst held. As he stood next to a burned-out pharmacy where volunteers helped haul away debris, his hand-scrawled poster read: "Black Lives Matter More Than Property."

"Property can be replaced," he said.

Those mixed emotions were also expressed by President Barack Obama on Tuesday. He called the looters criminals and thugs. But he also pressed for police reforms, after what he called a slow-rolling crisis of confidence.

This latest case of anti-police unrest in the U.S. comes a few months after the Baltimore Sun found that more 100 people had won court judgments or settlements in the last few years for police brutality, getting payouts totalling $5.7 million.

Whitehurst said he's felt the anger on his own front steps. Twice, he said, police have ordered him to go inside his house and get ID proving his address.

"(They) say, 'Prove that you live here. Prove that you have the right to sit on these steps,'" Whitehurst said.

"I own the house."

He said the violence of the last few days is the result of people feeling harassed and marginalized. When asked by a journalist how flinging rocks and destroying a pharmacy might make anything better, he replied: "The proof of it is you're here talking to me now."

"The conversation's occurring, the debate's happening," he added. "There is some good that's coming out of it."

With the neighbourhood pharmacy burned down, he said he hopes the community finds a way to get medicine to people who need it. The now-gutted CVS was a rare chain store in a rough neighbourhood.

There were already entire blocks of boarded-up homes in this west-end area. The city still carries scars from the riots that rocked numerous cities after the murder of Martin Luther King — which was 47 years ago.

A few minutes away, volunteers picked up trash by the mall where the unrest began. They avoided handling the old discarded syringes, however.

William Middleton, a one-time gym teacher, was helping out, alongside one of his former students. He pointed to the group of white volunteers nearby, to show the co-operation cut across racial lines.

He said he hoped the current trauma might prompt a national conversation about poverty — which he called the root of all the problems now bubbling to the surface.

He mentioned two poverty-driving factors: the flight of blue-collar manufacturing jobs and the war on drugs. For example, Freddie Gray's own problems with police began with marijuana busts.

"Incarceration doesn't help," said Middleton, who now works as an employment counsellor for a non-profit group. "Black males are the most incarcerated group on Earth, because America incarcerates more people than anybody on Earth."

Beside him, 15-year-old Darius Bradley said many of his classmates have already been arrested. They're the ones who started Monday's troubles, he said.

"They like stuff like this. But you've got some that don't."

He estimated the ratio of pro- versus anti-rioters in his school at 50-50.

Another teacher helping with the cleanup, Kendrel Dickerson, said he won't condone the rioting — but he said people need to understand something: "This is not going on for no reason."

People like to quote Martin Luther King — but Dickerson pointed to a less-celebrated quote by that same reverend: "A riot is the language of the unheard."

"I just pray that nobody else dies. If somebody else gets shot, somebody else dies as a result of this, it's gonna be a problem," he said.

"I think it's liable to get worse before it gets better."