Remembering the Baltimore riots after Freddie Gray's death, 3 years later

Demonstrators lit a police car on fire at Penn and North Avenue. Another cut the fire hose as firefighters battled the blaze.

Watching his city in flames during the riots of April 27, 2015, was “heartbreaking,” for community organizer Ray Kelly, who says he tried to calm folks down as he stood between demonstrators and police, cobblestones flying overhead. The chaos, violence and looting broke out on the day of the funeral for Freddie Gray, who died a week earlier from injuries sustained in police custody.

A group of students just out of school clashed with police officers in riot gear at Mondawmin Mall. As night fell, looters took stores and pharmacies, including a Save-A-Lot and Rite Aid in Bolton Hill, loading up cars with stolen goods. Several officers were injured in clashes.

Smoke rose from the CVS that had been looted and set on fire. Federal authorities later said that a third of the cities pharmacies were looted that night. Nearly 315,000 doses of drugs were stolen, including powerful opioids. Police said in the aftermath that the looted drugs contributed to a continued spike in violence in the city.

(The looted drugs came up again this year, during the trial of two Baltimore police officers who were part of the department’s corrupt Gun Trace Task Force. A Baltimore bail bondsman testified that a member of the task force arrived at his home with two trash bags full of looted prescription drugs during the riots.)

On April 27, 2015, then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declared a curfew across the city, condemning “thugs” intent on “destroying our city.”

When Kelly finally went to bed that night and tried to fall asleep, a helicopter circled loudly overhead, warning people that they would be arrested if they didn’t disperse.

The next day, he was out with other community leaders, cleaning up the mess.

As sad as it all was, says Kelly, there was something inevitable about the riots — or the uprising, or the unrest, as the day of riots and its aftermath have become known to some. .

Tension and frustrations had been building for months. As a community organizer focusing on police and community relations, Kelly knew just how frustrated and angry people were.

The three years since have validated their concerns, Kelly says. Six Baltimore police officers were charged in Gray’s arrest and death; three were found not guilty, and the charges were dropped for the other three. A Department of Justice report afterward detailed widespread discrimination and other abuses by the Baltimore Police Department. The city has entered into a federal consent decree with the Justice Department, mandating sweeping reforms.

More stunning allegations have come out in the corruption trial for two police officers in the department’s Gun Trace Task Force. One witness testified that he partnered for years with the supervisor of the task force to resell drugs that had been taken off the street.

The night of the riots, bail bondsman Donald C. Stepp said, the police officer showed up at his house with bags full of looted drugs. That officer, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, has pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges.

Kelly serves on the community oversight task force for the consent decree, and said the progress is slow — but encouraging. “We’re finally at a point of seeing the possibility of change,” he said.

But, he adds, “Three years later — we’re not there yet.”

On the third anniversary of the riots, take a look at some Baltimore Sun coverage of the day and its aftermath:

» 100 lasting images from the Freddie Gray protests and aftermath in Baltimore

» The 45-minute mystery of Freddie Gray’s death

» One year after unrest, Baltimore takes stock

» Timeline: Freddie Gray’s arrest, death and the aftermath

» Now-and-then pictures: Scenes from the unrest

» One year later, Baltimoreans discuss what Freddie Gray means to them

ctkacik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/xtinatkacik

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