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Baltimore Sweeps Up Ashes After Night of Looting, Arson, and Violence

With smoke still rising from smoldering fires, residents emerged from their homes armed with brooms and dustpans to clear away the debris from violent rioting that occurred overnight.
April 28, 2015, 5:30pm
Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

As smoke from smoldering fires drifted across Baltimore's skyline early Tuesday, residents emerged from their homes armed with brooms to clear away shattered windows and chunks of broken brick from streets besieged by violent rioting overnight.

Riot cops with shields and helmets held their lines across traffic-deserted roads as organized cleanup crews swept around the officers. Nearly 1,000 volunteers worked together through the morning under a cloudless sky and the whirring rotors of a police helicopter circling overhead. Several residents thanked a few of the more than 1,200 state troopers for their presence and offered them bottled water. Yesterday, navy-clad officers were joined by more than 500 National Guardsmen in fatigues, as fury over the April 19 death of Freddie Gray gave way to looting, arson, and rock throwing.

Students and community unite to clean the street near new NAACP office in #FreddieGray's#Baltimore neighborhood. pic.twitter.com/nuZMRaqNMZ

— NAACP (@NAACP) April 28, 2015

Calls for more protest began circulating on social media early Monday morning as thousands of mourners bottlenecked into west Baltimore's New Shiloh Baptist Church to pay last respects to Gray, 25, who sustained a crushed voice box and severed spine in police custody during his April 12 arrest. A week later, Gray was dead. Now, after more than two weeks, the city has effectively been shut down, with curfews in place and officials bracing for more turmoil in the coming days.

Early Tuesday, firefighters raced to extinguish blazes engulfing more than 144 cars and busses that had been set alight after sunset on Monday. At least 15 buildings were also torched, while numerous properties were vandalized and looters made off with armloads of goods, city officials said.

Related: Riots in Baltimore: National Guard 'On the Ground' With City in State of Emergency

We are already seeing volunteers from across Baltimore joining together to clean up damage.

— Mayor Rawlings-Blake (@MayorSRB)April 28, 2015

At least 15 officers were hurt when protesters hurled fist-sized rocks, bricks, and bottles at trooper lines — six of them were "seriously" injured, police said. More than 200 people have been arrested, according to authorities.

The number of injured protesters remains unknown, but police reported that a man and a woman each sustained bullets to the leg in separate incidents. Officers did not comment on whether it was police or demonstrators who fired the rounds.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said the violence began after local high school students began using the term "purge" on social media — a reference to the Hollywood dystopian movie The Purge, in which US citizens are legally allowed to kill, loot, and commit other crimes on a national annual holiday. The students reportedly used it to call rioters to northwest Baltimore's Mondawmin Mall on Monday afternoon, Batts said.

Police van on fire as well as car on W North— Victoria Bekiempis (@vicbekiempis)April 27, 2015

The idea of the "purge," which was apparently egged on by a social media flyer, quickly caught on, spreading across Facebook, Twitter, and traditional media through Monday night and into Tuesday. Although it is still not clear how convincing other purported threats actually are, Security Square Mall in Baltimore's western suburbs shuttered in anticipation of more unrest.

Some protest supporters have derided the use this week of words such as "purge," "thugs," and "outrageous criminals" by the city's mayor, police officials, and the media, saying the words have cast an all-too familiar image of the mostly African-American demonstrators in a predominantly-black city as lawless and delinquent. This, they have said, fails to address the years of systemic police brutality, poverty, and political disenfranchisement preceding anger that has only now reached a boiling point.

At northwest Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, just minutes from the spot where Gray was arrested on April 12, Aziza Minor, a Baltimore native, pointed around her at the toll years of neglect had taken on a neighborhood that lacked its own grocery store, but where dilapidated, boarded up homes and low-slung housing projects occupy every corner.

"It's sad. So much more can be done in this neighborhood," she told VICE News. Residents are "used to it," she said, adding: "They don't have a voice. It's below poverty. It's no different from a third world country except it's in the USA."

Minor said decades of poverty, joblessness, and estrangement from the political process have fuelled fresh calls for more accountability and an end to the police brutality that has accompanied the city's efforts to stamp out crime.

"There are a lot of people who have been hurting, and they have been hurting for years," said Minor. "It's a combination of things; neglect, negligence, I know there is harassment [from police] in this neighborhood."

Media trying to blame the — Mastermind (@MastermindLive)April 28, 2015

Some residents condemned the riots, saying the violence has shifted focus from the peaceful calls for justice and transparency that underlie the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement, which has sprung in recent months from the high-profile killings of several unarmed black Americans in police custody.

Visible examples of that resistance to the riots surfaced on Monday. In one incident, hundreds of clergymen and residents — one in a wheelchair — linked arms and shuffled along the streets of west Baltimore. A video of an irate mother beating her son for participating in the riots has also gone viral.

Related: Live VICE News Coverage From the Streets of Baltimore

Many other residents across Baltimore have also called for calm, including Freddie Gray's parents, who said they were dismayed by violence being committed in their son's name.

"I want you all to get justice for my son," Gray's mother, Gloria Darden, said at a press conference early Tuesday, "but don't do it like this here."

At Gray's funeral on Monday morning, his family was joined by thousands of supporters, among them the relatives of Eric Garner, who suffocated to death on a sidewalk in Staten Island, New York after an NYPD officer placed him in an illegal chokehold last July. Garner was suspected of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. Although his death has been ruled a homicide, a grand jury failed to indict the officer in December.

Related:  Police officer 'Bill of Rights' blamed for Baltimore's information blackout in case of Freddie Gray's severed spine

#BaltimoreUprising RT "@newsone Clergy marches peacefully amid State of Emergency in Baltimore http://t.co/ORAjt2RJ3Y pic.twitter.com/hXLqFvvckd

— Rap Tor (@Raptor2u) April 28, 2015

Minutes before the funeral service began at 11am on Monday, police announced a "credible threat" that members of rival gangs — the Bloods, Crips, and Black Guerrilla Family — had allegedly issued against officers. The claims were rejected by community members who told VICE News Sunday night that it was, "a false alarm cooked up to divide the city even further."

Other gang members have also denied the accusations, saying they have actually been working together to protect black reporters and children from getting hurt, and blocking looters from entering black-owned businesses.

In a usually unthinkable show of solidarity, members of the Bloods, Crips, and Nation of Islam posed together for a photo during a peaceful protest on Saturday. The photo went viral hours after it was posted to social media.

Related: Baltimore Gang Members Say Police Allegation They Are Uniting to Kill Officers Is a Lie

They are afraid of this. Bloods,Crips and the NOI together. #FreddieGray ? pic.twitter.com/xDJkdzVlC7

— BlaqBerriJuice (@mshotcoco) April 25, 2015

For now, the city remains in lockdown, with banks, stores, and schools remaining closed over safety concerns. Officials have also postponed baseball game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox that was scheduled for Tuesday evening. Some children who did not go to school Tuesday helped their parents clean up broken glass strewn across neighborhoods where protesters have promised to once again converge before dusk.

Young people (very young) helping with clean up efforts outside burned out Baltimore CVS.— Athena Jones (@AthenaCNN)April 28, 2015

VICE News' Colleen Curry contributed to this report.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields