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Baltimore police enforce curfew by firing pepper balls at crowds

This piece originally appeared in the Financial Times.


Protesters hold signs during a protest to support the rallies in Baltimore, in front of the White House ©AP

Baltimore police started arresting protesters and firing pepper balls to disperse crowds as a 10pm curfew came into force on Tuesday night, just hours after President Barack Obama lamented a “slow-rolling crisis” over police treatment of African-Americans.

Shortly before midnight, Anthony Batts, the Baltimore police commissioner, said authorities had arrested 10 people on Tuesday, including seven who were detained for breaking the curfew. “The curfew is in fact working,” said Mr Batts. “Citizens are safe. The city is stable.”

Much of the protest area in Baltimore was calm on Tuesday, but protesters gradually replaced groups of residents who had helped clear up the area following the worst riots to hit the city since the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.

“The curfew violators are refusing to follow lawful orders by officers to leave the area. An emergency curfew is in effect,” Baltimore police said on Twitter.

National Guard troops were positioned across Baltimore after the rioting that erupted on Monday following the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody from unexplained spinal injuries.

Mr Obama called for reform and retraining of police departments and said that police unions should “own up” to the fact that there were problems with the behaviour of some of their members. Calling for national “soul-searching” about conditions in deprived urban communities, he also advocated a broader push to bring opportunities through education, job training and infrastructure investment.

“This has been a slow-rolling crisis that has been going on for some time,” he said at a White House press conference on Tuesday. “This is not new. And we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.”

Since the killing last year of a young black man by police in Ferguson, Missouri, he said that “we have seen too many instances of what appears to be police officers interacting with individuals — primarily African-Americans, often poor — in ways that raise troubling questions. It comes up almost once a week”.

He said that the riots had been the work of a “handful of criminals and thugs” and that they “need to be treated as criminals”.

As police helicopters flew over Baltimore, volunteers carrying cleaning equipment were joined by residents from across the city who wanted to help the western district of Mondawmin to recover from the violence that erupted in the African-American neighbourhood on Monday.

“I cried all day yesterday,” said Cynthia Swann, who had come to assist the effort with her sister.

Ms Swann stressed that she did not condone the violence, but added that rioters were venting a frustration that was felt by the whole community because of what she described as frequent abusive treatment by the local police.

Six police officers have been suspended over the incident involving Gray and the Justice department is investigating.

“The western district police have had their feet on this community for years,” said Ms Swann, adding that the tensions were exacerbated by the high unemployment rate.

The Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative said 45 per cent of the working age population in Mondawmin did not have jobs. Meanwhile, chronic high school truancy runs at about 33 per cent.

Mr Obama, who worked as a community organiser in Chicago in his 20s, said that there were “impoverished communities” in American cities where it “is more likely that kids end up in jail or dead than that they go to college”.

“If we think that we are just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise without . . . helping to lift up those communities and give those kids opportunity, then we are not going to solve this problem,” he said.

Governor Larry Hogan condemned the clashes, which escalated on Monday afternoon as youths looted shops, torched police cars and threw rocks and bottles, injuring 15 officers.

Baltimore imposed a week-long 10pm-5am curfew from Tuesday as violence and looting continued through Monday night. Buildings and cars were set on fire and fire crews were attacked.

Police have arrested more than 200 people and at least 20 police officers have been reported injured.

“The National Guard represents the last resort . . . to restore order,” said Mr Hogan. “People have the right to protest and express their frustration but Baltimore city families deserve peace and safety in their communities.”

A state of emergency was declared and Mr Hogan said 5,000 national guard troops and another 5,000 police from other states had been called to Baltimore.

People attacked a shopping mall, pharmacies, off-licences and slashed a fire hose that was being used to extinguish a blaze at a shop that had been looted and then set on fire.

Mr Hogan and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the Baltimore mayor, on Monday night defended their response to the violence and pushed back against suggestions that they should have acted sooner.

“It is a very delicate balancing act to make sure that you protect people’s right to free speech, their right to protest,” said Ms Rawlings-Blake, adding that it would have been inappropriate to call in the National Guard over the weekend when the vast majority of the protesters were acting peacefully.

“We have seen all over the country and throughout our history what happens when you use too much force to respond to an incident,” the mayor said. “It escalates and it can be a lot worse. I didn’t want that for my city.”

All city-run primary and secondary schools were closed on Tuesday, the authorities said.

Gray’s family had called for peaceful protests and once the looting started community leaders took to the streets in an attempt to restore calm. “I think the violence is wrong,” Gray’s twin sister, Fredericka Gray, said late on Monday, the Associated Press reported. “I don’t like it at all.”

The riots erupted as Loretta Lynch was sworn in as the first black female attorney-general in the US. On Monday evening, Ms Lynch condemned the “senseless acts of violence” that had harmed some police officers, and said those who were committing those acts did a disservice to Gray’s family.

“I strongly urge every member of the Baltimore community to adhere to the principles of non-violence,” Ms Lynch said on Monday night. “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.”

Ms Lynch said her department was investigating the “tragic death” of Gray and that the department was conducting a review of the Baltimore police.

Police in Baltimore — the location for The Wire, an HBO television series about drug gangs — said they had received reports earlier on Monday about the possibility of gangs targeting officers.

Television images showed groups of young African-Americans looting stores with little apparent police presence in the immediate vicinity earlier in the day.

Anthony Batts, Baltimore’s police chief, said the riots started when teenagers who were coming out of school started throwing projectiles at the police, who had been positioned nearby because of reports about possible violence. He rejected suggestions that the police were not prepared, saying that the force simply had trouble dealing with the number of youths who took to the streets.

Martin O’Malley, a former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor who may challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, issued a statement from Ireland where he was on an overseas trip, saying that he was “saddened that the city I love is in such pain this night”.

Additional reporting by John Aglionby in London


This piece originally appeared in the Financial Times.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter at @DimiSevastopulo, Geoff Dyer at @DyerGeoff, Gina Chon at @GinaChon, and John Aglionby at @JohnAglionby.

Posted in JPI in the News, Criminal Justice News

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