April 27, 2015 / 1:19 AM / 5 years ago

Baltimore mayor says outsiders turned peaceful protest violent

BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Baltimore’s mayor and police on Sunday again blamed outside agitators for violence and vandalism that flared during a mostly peaceful protest over last week’s death of a young black man who sustained an unexplained spinal injury while under arrest.

A day after thousands of demonstrators marched through the city demanding justice in the investigation into the April 19 death of Freddie Gray, 25, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake condemned the lawlessness that erupted on Saturday.

On Saturday evening, scores of protesters splintered off from the main rally to hurl bottles, metal barricades and various objects at police and their patrol cars, and to vandalize storefronts and other properties downtown, authorities said.

There were 35 arrests, and six officers suffered minor injuries, according to police and the mayor.

The protest was the latest expression of a national outcry over a white-dominated U.S. law enforcement establishment that civil rights leaders accuse of routinely disrespecting and brutalizing African-Americans.

“Last night we saw a small group of agitators turning what was otherwise a peaceful demonstration into violent disruptions,” Rawlings-Blake said at a news conference held by civic leaders and clergy at a Baltimore church, echoing comments she made Saturday night. “I will not let those individuals put their agendas ahead of our city’s.”

The police department, in a separate statement, also blamed “outside agitators” for the violence, saying those groups “led to small pockets of protesters engaged in criminal activity.”

Among those detained were two members of the media, according to police, who on Sunday apologized for the arrests, saying they were inadvertent.

One of the journalists, Sait Serkan Gurbuz, a freelance photographer covering the protests for Reuters, was charged with “failure to obey orders” while photographing police, though the citation was later “recalled.”

“We welcome the police department’s apology and statement that the citation will be recalled,” a Reuters spokeswoman said. “We hope that in the future the department will respect the First Amendment right of the press to lawfully take images in the public interest.”

The streets of Baltimore were largely quiet on Sunday, as mourners held a wake for Gray, who died a week after patrol officers arrested him following a foot chase though a high-crime area of the city. It was not clear why Gray was detained, but officers said he was carrying a switchblade knife, and he was put inside a transport van.

At some point, Gray suffered the spinal injury that would lead to his death a week later. Anthony Batts, the city’s police commissioner, acknowledged on Friday that officers repeatedly failed to give him timely medical attention while he was in custody.

Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake speaks as U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) looks on during a news conference on the demonstrations for Freddie Gray, who died following an arrest by the Baltimore police department, in Baltimore, Maryland April 26, 2015. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The mayor said she expected the internal police investigation into Gray’s arrest and death to be completed by week’s end. “The commissioner feels that he can turn over everything he has on Friday,” she said.

The head of the Baltimore police union called Batts’ assertion premature and said it was apparently “politically driven.”

Gray is one of a number of black men who have died under questionable circumstances during police encounters in recent months. Last year, weeks of protests followed the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City.

Funeral services for Gray were scheduled for Monday morning, to be followed by his burial.

Ricardo Flood, who said he did not know Gray but was frightened by the police violence, stood outside the Tudor-style funeral home on Sunday, waving a sign in support of Gray’s family. “All I can do is pray for them,” he said.

Six Baltimore police officers have been suspended in the Gray case.

Standing in the street outside the wake on Sunday, a small group of people held signs reading, “Honk for Freddie.” Passing cars frequently sounded their horns.

Slideshow (17 Images)

The city police department beefed up its presence downtown and across Baltimore on Sunday, with extra officers slated to be deployed in the area through the night and into the week.

Several events were postponed or canceled on Sunday due to safety concerns after Saturday’s protests. But an afternoon game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Red Sox at Camden Yards, the downtown baseball stadium, went ahead on schedule.

Additional reporting by Lacey Johnson and Laila Kearney; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Leslie Adler

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