Police in riot gear drove people from the streets of Baltimore with teargas and smoke grenades on Tuesday night, after hundreds of protesters defied a 10pm curfew to continue demonstrating over the death of Freddie Gray.
Twenty-five minutes into the first of a week of city-wide lockdowns, officers in full body armour advanced on a crowd that had gathered throughout the day in the sunshine at an intersection in west Baltimore.
“If we go home tonight, there’s going to be another Freddie Gray in the morning,” said Devon Fields, 27, as he and a friend angrily resisted pleas to leave from protesters and politicians alike. Plastic and glass bottles, and a dinner plate, were thrown at police.
Officers quickly swept people westward with a brief bombardment of smoke, gas and pepper balls, which explode with an irritant. One teargas grenade thrown back by a protester landed on a pile of litter beside a library, igniting a small fire.
At least 10 people were arrested after curfew, according to police commissioner Anthony Batts. Seven were detained in west Baltimore for breaking the curfew. Two were charged with looting and one for disorderly conduct away from the main protest. Another three or four were arrested earlier in the day for throwing rocks at officers in south Baltimore.
Batts declared the night a success after avoiding a repeat of the chaotic scenes of Monday night, when more than 200 people were arrested during hours of violent clashes. “Citizens are safe. The city is stable. We hope to maintain it that way,” he said.
However, another mass confrontation was averted on Tuesday only thanks to members of the notorious Bloods and Crips gangs, who teamed with community activists to push hundreds more protesters, who had demonstrated late into the evening, back to their homes as the curfew loomed.
“It ain’t about me being a Crip,” said Sin, 15, who wore lipstick and hair braids in the gang’s distinctive blue. “It’s about us coming together and making our community better.”
“We’re not helping police, we’re helping our people,” said War, a 23-year-old Blood wearing a red bandana, who linked arms with others in the line pushing protesters back. “I was a knucklehead in my time, but now I’m out here doing this for the community.”
Gray, 25, died in hospital on 19 April, a week after lapsing into a coma from injuries sustained during his arrest and transportation in a police van. He was chased for “catching the eye” of a lieutenant and running away. A knife was found in his pocket. His family said his spine was “80% severed” at the neck and his voice box almost crushed.
Police have declined to explain how Gray suffered his injuries. The six officers involved in Gray’s arrest have been suspended. City authorities are conducting a criminal inquiry and the US department of justice is looking into potential civil rights charges.
Following heartfelt remarks by President Barack Obama on the subject at the White House earlier, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton on Tuesday evening made her first significant intervention on the crisis in American policing and race.
“It is heartbreaking,” Clinton said at a fundraising event in New York, according to a pool report. “The tragic death of another young African-American man. The injuries to police officers. The burning of peoples’ homes and small businesses. We have to restore order and security. But then we have to take a hard look as to what we need to do to reform our system.”
Also instrumental in maintaining calm on Tuesday night was Elijah Cummings, the US Representative for Maryland’s seventh congressional district, who walked out into the crowd to call on both sides – police and protesters – to show restraint.
“Folks its almost 10 o’clock,” he told the crowd. “You’ve got to start clearing out.”
He embraced protesters, one of whom had a bloodied face, and called on them to leave. “I feel their pain,” he said of the young people surrounding him. “I’ve seen a lot of these young people grow up.”
He then told reporters: “You’ve got to have a situation where police hopefully have restraint here tonight. We’ve seen people boisterous, but you don’t see any kind of violence. If police will just stay calm and let people kind of ease out it will be fine.”
Cummings, who lives just a few blocks from the where crowd had congregated, said protesters had a valid grievance. “We’ve got to listen to our children,” he said. “This is, without a doubt, the civil rights cause for this generation – this and voting rights. And America needs to wake-up – big time.”
Standing behind the police lines, Cummings used a loudhailer to urge people to retreat. “I’m not asking you, I’m begging you, please turn around and go home,” he said. “Let’s go home.” A similar message was projected to the crowd from police helicopters overhead.
Earlier in the day a carnival-like atmosphere flourished at the junction of North and Pennsylvania avenues. Drummers and a marching band entertained the diverse crowd. Three men on motorcycles arrived and performed death-defying wheelies. Throughout, a line of older residents stood firm between protesters and police to defuse tensions.
However the police line remained intact throughout, backed by two armoured vehicles. At one point a man was seized and arrested after arriving and throwing an object at officers, to widespread condemnation from protesters. Police sprayed him with mace, which also ensnared television reporters as they broadcast live.
The 1,500 national guard soldiers deployed to the city by Maryland governor Larry Hogan remained out of view to protesters. In a show of strength, they guarded major buildings in the city’s downtown area and patrolled the harbour.
Across town in the western district, the centre of the demonstrations, one protester who had earlier vigorously taken part in efforts to push people away from police lines later turned on officers as he claimed to have been hit by projectile.
“Fuck that,” he shouted at police. “Burn this shit down if bitches gonna shoot at me.”
Shawna Enton, of Baltimore County, carried a sign that read “Go Home! Stop Police USA”. She had made it earlier in the day and argued that police “have the law behind them and they are correct, we need to go home. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
Enton could then be seen running from police lines still clutching her sign as smoke grenades and pepper bombs were fired.
By midnight, streets around Baltimore were quiet. The city centre and suburbs, which had been filled with roaming groups of looters 24 hours earlier, were eerily still. The roads were clear except for occasional satellite TV vans, emergency vehicles with flashing blue lights and convoys of military-style humvees filled with National Guard.
In predominantly white, prosperous areas, streets were empty. No bar or restaurant dared violate the ordinance. Even 24-hour gas stations and convenience stores were shuttered, though at some the neon “OPEN” signs still flickered. They had never had to turn off before.
Others capitalised. At a McDonald’s just over the city line – almost six miles north of the centre of tensions in West Baltimore – the line snaked around the building. A cashier said it was the busiest shift she could remember.