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Baltimore Riots Shed Light on City’s Troubled Past

  • Chris Simkins

National Guard troops took up positions Tuesday in Baltimore, Maryland, as authorities tried to restore order after rioting and looting broke out a day earlier.

Violence swept across parts of the U.S. eastern city following Monday’s funeral for Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose suspicious death while in police custody outraged many in the city’s African-American communities and beyond.

Gray, arrested April 12, sustained a spinal cord injury while in police custody and died a week later.

Tuesday also brought peaceful street gatherings in West Baltimore, with racially mixed crowds rallying to prevent further violence and demonstrate a softer side of the city. Some stood, arms linked, to separate potential troublemakers from a line of law enforcement troops holding up shields. Others danced and distributed water bottles in a show of harmony on the sunny day.

Local leaders condemned the violence, but some were not surprised given the long-standing frustration among blacks in the city.

U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings cited “the pain and frustration of young people.”

The Maryland Democrat said he knows many youths “who are crying out, saying, 'Look we want to be better educated.' They say, 'We want jobs.’ They want recreation centers. But they are saying, 'What about us?'"

Gray’s is the latest in a recent string of fatal run-ins between black men and police officers in several cities scattered across America. Among them, the August shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white officer Darren Smith in Ferguson, Missouri, touched off fiery protests for which the governor called in the National Guard. Public anger was rekindled with the news that Eric Garner, 43, died in July after being put in a police chokehold in Staten Island, New York.

Dividing lines

Baltimore is a tale of two cites. There is economic development downtown, but not far away poverty and crime plague many black neighborhoods.

The predominantly black city of almost 625,000 is home to the NAACP, formerly known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the largest civil rights organization in the country.

Its president, Cornell William Brooks, said: "The anger that we feel in Baltimore is very much related to the anger that has been felt in Ferguson, the anger that has been felt in Staten Island, New York. The anger that has been felt across the length and breadth of this country. But we have to go beyond anger to action."

Many African-Americans in Baltimore have long complained about aggressive policing tactics and are demanding more accountability from police. The city has paid millions of dollars to settle lawsuits against police for inappropriate behavior.

One teenage gang member is among those calling for solutions.

"If we can stick together doing something negative, then we can stick together doing something positive,” said the young man identified only as Steve. “If we start giving ear and listening to the youth more than just neglecting them, then it would probably be a change."

Now community leaders are focused on keeping the peace as tensions between young blacks and police remain high.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake ordered a mandatory curfew to take effect Tuesday from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and continue nightly into Monday.

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