At the corner of North and Pennsylvania Avenues in West Baltimore, volunteers carried blackened shelves out of the scorched CVS pharmacy. Kids wearing surgical masks against acrid fumes loaded bags of trash into the bed of a truck. Motorcyclists in leather vests patrolled the crowd for signs of unrest. Students in college sweatshirts and peacekeepers in matching black tees linked arms to form a human chain separating the cops from the furious community they are paid to protect.
The scene in Baltimore on Tuesday might seem surreal if it weren’t sadly familiar by now. The riots that broke out here Monday torched buildings and stores, injured at least 20 officers and left a stricken community without faith in police or politicians searching for ways to channel the chaos into change. As night fell, the city braced for a return of violence, with Maryland Governor Larry Hogan overseeing a deployment of 2,000 National Guard troops and 1,000 more police to protect the city.
A Baltimore-wide curfew went into effect at 10 p.m., until 5 a.m., but groups of people around the city were still seen in the streets near lines of officers. Just before midnight, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts told reporters that only 10 arrests had been made. “The curfew is, in fact, working,” he said. “The city is stable.”
The death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died this month of severe injuries incurred while in police custody, may have been the spark that set this city ablaze. But the kindling has been piling up for decades, a combustible combination of crushing poverty, joblessness, segregation, poor schools and a police department with an ugly record of abuses. Baltimore, residents say, was ready to burn.
“We’ve reached a boiling point,” says Michael Coleman, 38, a leader of the Baltimore social-justice organization United Workers. “This isn’t the first case of police brutality, abuse or murder. It’s systematic.”
The list of grievances runs long in this stretch of West Baltimore, where groups of youths linger on corners and the gritty commercial strips are a blur of chop shops, check-cashing stores, beauty salons and carryout joints. Unlike in Ferguson, Mo., or New York City, where communities made martyrs last year of unarmed black men who died at the hands of police, Gray’s name was on few people’s lips. The unrest, people conceded, bore little connection to the man whose death catalyzed it.
“Behind your actions, you have to have something to say,” says Destiny Morning, 20. “It started off with a good message: justice.” But the Walmart employee—who said she wanted “a real protest, not riots”—saw the cause sidetracked by senseless destruction. Instead of mourning Gray or campaigning to reform police practices, a band of high-school kids threw bricks and snapped selfies in front of smoldering squad cars—macabre trophies in a city whose absence of hope or jobs can make kids feel like revenge is reward enough.
The causes of the unrest are similar in many ways to the structural problems afflicting hollowed-out communities around the country. But Baltimore, local residents say, is just a little different—grittier and angrier, a major city fierce with pride but plagued by gangs and largely bereft of opportunity for the impoverished. “Baltimore is a victim of its own insecurity,” says Gerard King, a 25-year-old hip hop artist. “This is something poverty breeds, specifically in men. Nothing makes you feel like a man more than being able to make a living.”
Even many people who condemned aspects of the rioting said they understood it on some levels as an expression of rage and hopelessness at an unequal society. “Some of it is necessary,” argues Michael Battle, 17, who said he supported the looting of stores but did not condone violence or setting fires. “It sends a bigger message.”
As residents braced for another night of chaos, community leaders sought to impart a sense of purpose and peace. With public schools closed, kids packed a community room at Empowerment Temple Church in the city’s Park Heights neighborhood. Hunched at plastic tables spread across yellow-and-green floors, they listened to a series of speakers and ate a pizza lunch donated by locals. “They riot with no purpose because we give them no purpose,” says Anthony Reliford, a minister at the church. “Everything has been set back another 10, 15, 20 years – in one moment.”
When you don’t trust the city’s institutions to govern you, you have to govern yourselves. For much of Tuesday, the emotional crowds seemed to be winning that battle. Locals said cleanup crews were on site at the epicenter of the rioting early Tuesday morning. By the afternoon a crowd of hundreds flooded the intersection under sunny skies, singing, praying, yelling, kibitzing—waiting for the mayhem to erupt again, as everyone expected.
Sure enough, scattered tumult erupted early, in the form of a fistfight and a few water bottles tossed at police. But the cops, aided by the crowd, stamped it out quickly. “It contradicts all the good we’re trying to accomplish here,” says Robert Baker, 45, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Ruff Ryders motorcycle club, and part of a motley array of groups that assigned itself peacekeeping duties.
Shaking his head, Baker wandered off into the crowd in search of partners. Nearby a group of teenagers stood on the corner in front of the burnt-out CVS. Propped next to the entrance was a hand-lettered sign that read: “It’s Your World.”
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