Heavy National Guard presence in central Baltimore

As he drove into Baltimore a National Guardsman detected a smell familiar from Iraq – burning cars.

Derick Thomas stood near his home Tuesday across from the Western District police station to where a Humvee was parked and National Guard soldiers milled around with riot shields.

What would happen if violence broke out again, he wondered. Would the soldiers open fire? Could his daughter be hit by a stray bullet? "It seems more dangerous to me," he said, a sign that the city had lost control.

After Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency over Baltimore's riots on Monday, Thomas and his neighbors woke up to a scene like something they had only previously witnessed on television. The National Guard mobilized overnight and by Tuesday afternoon officials said 1,700 troops were active on the streets or in a supporting role.

Maj. Gen. Linda L. Singh, the head of the Maryland National Guard, thanked the people who had welcomed her soldiers into their neighborhoods at a news conference Tuesday evening. She said the mission was a special one for the guardsmen because some of them were deployed to their own neighborhoods and that they had been trained to handle urban disturbances.

"Rest assured that we will use the appropriate caution," she said.

Guard officials said they had activated their troops quickly. Their plans call for 50 guardsmen to be ready as part of an "initial reaction force" within eight hours, said Col. Charles S. Kohler. 200 are supposed to be ready within 24 hours. Kohler said the National Guard first got the notice to deploy at around 6 p.m. on Monday and easily beat those time scales.

The National Guard was working closely with police in the Western District. At one point officers went to investigate a call a few blocks from the station and approached a group of young men sitting on a stoop. A similar scene might play itself out dozens of times a week in the neighborhood, but on Tuesday the police were backed up with camouflaged soldiers carrying rifles.

The men on the stoop said they were rattled by the show of firepower.

On the opposite side of the security cordon around the police station from where Thomas stood, Robi Taylor watched her husband and son play football in the street, taking advantage of the sunshine, their closed street and a day off work. To her the National Guard was there to protect her family and the police alike.

Nearby at North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue, where a group of protesters were encamped throughout much of the day, the soldiers were nowhere to be seen. Instead, the largest groups of guardsmen appeared to be deployed in central Baltimore, with dozens of soldiers standing watch outside City Hall and lining the streets at the Inner Harbor Tuesday morning.

At City Hall, Capt. Christian Callender said he drove into the city in the early hours Tuesday. As he approached Baltimore he recognized the acrid odor of burning rubber and hot metal he smelled during a tour in Iraq — cars on fire.

But he said the night was mostly calm and that any comparisons to war zones were misplaced.

"These are protesters, not insurgents," Callender said. "These are our fellow Baltimoreans. We're here to protect them, not to hurt them."

Despite the heavy military presence, including armored Humvees parked on sidewalks, some business carried on as usual. Jeff Brenner, 60, said he was in town from Fairfield, Pa., for a food safety conference at the Convention Center. He got a message Tuesday morning saying it was going ahead as planned.

"I felt that things were probably under control," he said.

The guard trains for dealing with civil disturbances but it's the first time it has been called up in Maryland for riot control since the violence of 1968.

"It's one of those things you hope you never have to put into practice," Callender said.

It was not clear how long troops would remain in the streets, but Callender said he anticipated there would be some soldiers deployed through Wednesday.

The troops staged at armories around Baltimore Monday night after Hogan declared a state of emergency. At Camp Fretterd outside Reisterstown groups of guardsmen were dispatched in Humvees and trucks as they arrived.

The soldiers sounded confident — even eager — to be deployed.

Outside the state's emergency command center, a trio of National Guardsmen was smoking before heading down to Baltimore. Humvees and other military vehicles were lined up behind them. All three said they were confident and eager to deploy.

"I trust all my battle buddies here to get the mission done. I have good thoughts about tonight," said Cpl. Kyle Vaughn from Bel Air.

Spc. Meghan Stevenson said she had recently gone through riot training and certified in the use of CS gas and Tasers.

"What we've seen with that CS gas, it's no joke," Vaughn said. "They get hit with that, they're done."

Stevenson said she got insight into how protesters operate from the recent training. "I'm kind of excited to see what goes on tonight," she said.

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