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Baltimore's tipping point

If Baltimore avoids tipping back into chaos, it will be because of the good will of its people.

Looking back over the protests of the last week, both peaceful and violent, it is clear Baltimore has reached a crossroads. The unrest here has been the focus of intense media scrutiny, and what happens next may well determine whether the world comes to view Baltimore as a city that is succeeding in its effort to renew itself or one doomed to perpetual strife and social dysfunction. We have had a few days of relative calm, but with more protests scheduled for Friday and over the weekend, this is a volatile moment in which things could still go either way.

Tension had been increasing in anticipation of the May 1 deadline Police Commissioner Anthony Batts set for himself to complete the investigation into the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man who suffered a catastrophic spinal injury while in police custody. Though the commissioner and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake have been working to tamp down expectations in recent days, there was a palpable sense in the community that something was going to happen today — an indictment, an arrest, something — even though State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby has made clear that she is operating on her own schedule. The commissioner's decision to hand over the investigation a day early but without making any substantial new facts public is unlikely to do much to assuage false expectations he played a role in creating.

Making matters worse, the only new information to surface in recent days came from a document leaked to the Washington Post in which police say another prisoner in the van that was transporting Gray heard sounds through a metal partition he thought might have been Gray trying to hurt himself. The lack of official word combined with such an inflammatory (and self-serving) detail in a police affidavit compounds the tension and makes it harder for citizens to accept the need for calm and patience.

Two strains on the street

Among the city's young people, who are driving the current protest, two strains of thought are influencing behavior. One group, comprising the vast majority of demonstrators, appears determined to conduct massive nonviolent protests against what they perceive as rampant police brutality and a criminal justice system that unfairly targets young black men for arrest and imprisonment. But they are doing so peacefully and abiding by the law in a way that makes it clear they are not to be defined by the folks throwing rocks at the police, looting stores and burning down buildings.

Then there's the small minority of people who are willing to express themselves through violence. They are a criminal fringe of self-described gang members, ex-convicts, petty criminals and other malcontents who seek to exploit the unrest in order to carry out looting, arson and other acts of mayhem, including attacks on police. They are largely indifferent to the goals of their more idealistic counterparts and see no contradiction in destroying their own communities as a way of achieving social justice. All this week they have been telling anyone who will listen that if they don't get "justice" — if no officers are charged and arrested for Gray's death — they will literally "burn the place down." Given their role in Monday evening's violent protests it would be foolhardy not to take their threats seriously.

Who are the city's young people listening to? Not the ministers, who begged for calm at Mr. Gray's funeral Monday hours before the rioting began. Not the city's elected leaders, who implored parents to find their children and take them home after nightfall that evening. Not even to the gang-bangers and crooks who claim to have such outsized influence among their peers. The protests have been organized largely anonymously through social media; no single individual or group can claim to direct them. We still don't know, for example, who initiated the message passed around by high school youths Monday afternoon calling for the "purge" — a reference to a teen horror film that depicts a descent into lawlessness — that sparked the worst violence. Since then, the character of the protests has been fluid, changing not only every day but practically from hour to hour.

Damage already done

Whatever comes next, much damage has already been done. The words, "riots" and "Baltimore" have became inextricably linked, and certain images will be forever burned into the public consciousness. Whether people around the country thought we were the reality-based fictional Baltimore of "The Wire" or the touched-up reality of Fort McHenry, the Orioles and Ravens or the Inner Harbor tourist attractions, we are now the Baltimore of Freddie Gray.

The world sees not just the city where a 25-year-old black man suffered mortal injury while in the custody of police but more the startling aftermath — how this one individual's death released years of pent-up frustration and anger and then a "purge" of self-destructive madness. The helicopter-eye view of rocks and bricks tossed at police on streets, the looting and burning of retail shops, the arsons, the arrests, the recriminations, the declaration of an emergency, the curfew and the calling out of the National Guard, all with the nation's eyes upon us.

Signs of hope

Yet in the days that followed, there was much more to digest. What started out as protest but descended into violence then returned to civil protest and community outreach. People from across the city descended upon Penn North and Sandtown-Winchester with shovels, brooms and trash bags to lend a hand in the cleanup. Ministers walked arm-in-arm, singing hymns and urging an end the rock-throwing and looting. Police in riot gear soon discovered they'd been presented a new and powerful form of protection — local residents lined up in front of them, a human shield against those who would do them harm.

If you'd have visited Baltimore Monday night, you'd have thought you had entered a combat zone. Later, you might have assumed it was a city under military rule. By Wednesday, it was a city seeking normalcy — if the Orioles playing baseball without fans at Camden Yards and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performing without walls outside the Meyerhoff could be regarded as something approaching normal. And then, of course, there was the viral video of Toya Graham smacking her 16-year-old son, clothed in a mask and hoodie, a brick in his hand during some of the worst of the unrest, with her pulling him away from the melee, a moment seen worthy of a "parent of the year" award by some and as abusive by others.

Such a dichotomy was perfectly in keeping with Baltimore's week or ups and downs. For each horror and outrage there was seemingly a moment of redemption. A young boy offering police bottled water on the street. Tourists posing with National Guardsmen lined along Pratt Street. Students loudly protesting police brutality but doing so in a peaceful, responsible and civilized manner. And despite the injuries suffered by more than a score of officers over the course of the week, the police response was measured and restrained. This was not the Baltimore riots of 1968 when more than 5,000 people were arrested and many of the city's poorest neighborhoods were devastated so badly that the scars are still apparent 47 years later.

It's not over

That's not to suggest this crisis is over. One week ago, it appeared Baltimore was going to deal with Gray's death without the brutal hostilities that convulsed Ferguson, Mo., and other communities where blacks had less of a voice in the town square, let alone City Hall and the police department. But this much is clear: What Baltimore is experiencing is neither unique nor easily explained. There are weaknesses here — poverty, unemployment, high drop-out rates and the legacy of drug addiction — but there are also strengths, including resiliency, courage, commitment and a strong sense of community.

That people living in other cities are staging protests in sympathy with Baltimore is telling. Not just big cities like New York and Washington, D.C. but on Wednesday night, there was even a vigil staged in downtown Salisbury on the Eastern Shore with 100 protesters, many lying in the street as a "die-in" to show their concern for police brutality. What happened to Mr. Gray was horrifying, and the violence that descended upon this city has been terrible as well. But we are not alone in this journey. Where there have been a handful setting cars afire or helping themselves to retailers' inventory, there have been many more acting responsibly, helping neighbors, standing up to vandals and seeking justice without resorting to criminal behavior. If we are to survive this tipping point without falling back into chaos, it will be because of police and the National Guard, yes, but more so because hundreds of thousands of people of good will refuse to be defined by Baltimore's worst moments.

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