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Police attacked, stores ransacked in Baltimore riots

Tuesday, April 28, 2015 - 09:15
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Rioters looted stores in Baltimore and pelted police with stones and bricks on Monday after the funeral of an African American man whose death in custody has reignited outrage over US police conduct towards blacks.

[BALTIMORE] Rioters looted stores in Baltimore and pelted police with stones and bricks on Monday after the funeral of an African American man whose death in custody has reignited outrage over US police conduct towards blacks.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency in the port city of 620,000 that has been on a knife's edge since 25-year-old Freddie Gray died on April 19 in police custody.

Rioters prowled the city in small roving gangs, ransacking shops and trashing police vehicles. Several cars were set on fire. Looters ducked inside a shopping mall, stealing armloads of merchandise, and then drove away.

At least 15 police officers were injured by flying debris, and two of them were still hospitalised. Twenty-seven people were arrested, said Darryl De Sousa, the Baltimore Police Department's chief of patrol.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the National Guard would be deployed "as soon as they are available" and imposed a city-wide curfew from 10.00pm to 5.00am beginning Tuesday, on top of a permanent nightly curfew for juveniles.

"Too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs," Mr Rawlings-Blake said as police reinforcements poured in from neighbouring jurisdictions.

FUNERAL, THEN VIOLENCE

Rioting erupted soon after Gray was buried - possibly spurred by a cryptic message on social media declaring an after-school "purge," which is street slang for random acts of lawlessness.

Fear of unrest prompted the University of Maryland's downtown campus, corporate offices and the city's famous Lexington Market to shut down early. The Baltimore Orioles baseball team cancelled its evening game against the visiting Boston Red Sox.

President Barack Obama was briefed on the rapidly evolving situation by Rawlings-Blake and his newly sworn in Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the White House said.

Thousands had converged on New Shiloh Baptist church in Baltimore's poverty-ridden Sandtown neighbourhood earlier Monday to pay final respects to Gray, who died of severe spinal injuries apparently sustained during his arrest a week earlier.

His death was the latest in a string of high-profile confrontations between African Americans and police, including the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri last year.

'ABSOLUTELY INEXCUSABLE'

Gray's grieving family had explicitly asked for no protests.

"Today of all days, the family was clear this was a day of sacred closure," pastor Jamal Bryant of the city's Empowerment Temple mega-church, who delivered the eulogy, told reporters as the violence spiralled.

"So for us to come out of the burial and walk into this is absolutely inexcusable. I'm asking every young person to go back home." Violence had first erupted on Saturday when 34 people were arrested, and six police officers injured, after an orderly rally for Gray outside Baltimore city hall.

In the hours before Monday's riots, police announced they had received a "credible threat" that criminal gangs in Baltimore had "entered into a partnership to 'take out' law enforcement officers." At the funeral, Gray's body was in a white casket next to a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap and a sign reading "Peace y'all."

Crowds swayed to hymns at the service, chanting, "Justice shall prevail, peace will prevail" in the church, where a photo of Gray - who had a record of petty drug offences, in a grim part of Baltimore notorious for crime, poverty and joblessness - was displayed among floral wreaths.

Supporters, many dressed in all white, filled the building's 2,200 seats and hundreds of others stood, with the words "Black lives matter and all lives matter" projected on the wall.

'EPIDEMIC OF MURDERS'

Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson denounced the "epidemic of murders in the country." "We have become too violent, too full of hate," Mr Jackson told reporters before the service. "We need training, employment, housing, access to health, a reconstruction project. Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction." Tensions have been on the rise in Baltimore since Gray's death, which his family's lawyers say was caused when his spine was mostly severed following his arrest.

Six officers have been suspended with pay pending the outcome of a police investigation that is to be submitted to state prosecutors by Friday.

The US Justice Department, which was already looking into Baltimore's use of force, has also opened its own civil rights probe.

Police confirmed Gray requested medical help and an inhaler after he was detained and acknowledged that he should have received medical attention sooner.

They also revealed that Gray, contrary to policy, was not buckled into his seat in a police van, which made at least three unexplained stops on its way to the city's Western District station, now the scene of nightly protests.

Gray's arrest was caught on video by bystanders, and he can be heard howling in apparent pain as his limp body is dragged into the van.

AFP