Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke climbed onto a park bench outside City Hall yesterday and implored an agitated crowd of college students: Don't turn Baltimore into another Los Angeles.
Speaking through a bullhorn, the mayor tried to calm about 200 students who had come to City Hall to protest the Rodney King verdict. A few students appeared eager to disrupt the peaceful protest.
"I feel the pain that everybody feels," Mr. Schmoke said. "We lost in Los Angeles. But we don't need to lose anymore."
He called the King verdict a "travesty of justice." Then he said: "But we can't do an injustice to ourselves and call that justice."
A few students jeered him. After he stepped off the bench, several students crowded around him and voiced their anger. It had been a calm but edgy day for Mr. Schmoke and the city of Baltimore.
The mayor has performed a delicate balancing act following the Rodney King verdict.
On one hand, he prepared for an explosion by promising to put more police officers on the streets and by staying in closer touch with community leaders. He added two overnight telephone operators to handle calls to City Hall. Also, some members of his staff will spend the night in their offices to field calls and squelch rumors.
At the same time, Mr. Schmoke strained for the city to maintain itsnormal pace. He wants people to attend plays and ballgames and he has refused to block any scheduled protests and marches. Meanwhile, he agonized over how much to increase police presence.
"We want to be vigilant," Mr. Schmoke said, "but we don't want to overreact."
Indeed, the flow of the city did not seem disrupted. But City Hall watched every potentially explosive movement nervously.
Mr. Schmoke's aides monitored every demonstration that came to their attention. And as the mayor made his round of appointments, his car phone rang regularly with reports on the mood at the various protests around the city.
As the mayor passed a student protest in front of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, he buzzed down the window to get the feel of things. "Pete, Pete, everything OK?" he yelled hopefully, spotting an aide.
The mayor got a thumbs-up and seemed relieved.
As his car cruised past Mondawmin Mall, Mr. Schmoke craned his neck to watch students leaving Frederick Douglass High School. They seemed peaceful. "That's good," he muttered. "No problem."
There were similar signs elsewhere. From conversations with people on the street and scores of phone calls with community and religious leaders across the city, Mr. Schmoke said he was confident that Baltimore wouldn't erupt into full-scale rioting.
"I don't get a sense of our whole community about to erupt," Mr. Schmoke said. "But I do get a sense that there are some people out here who see an opportunity and may try to take advantage of it."
Also, he warned, "nobody thought there would be riots here in 1968." Rioting in the wake of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. resulted in six deaths, 700 injuries and extensive damage.
Despite his guarded optimism, Mr. Schmoke said outrage was palpable everywhere in Baltimore. And the mayor shared that.
"I don't think there has been a day in the country's history like this one," Mr. Schmoke said. "I don't think we've ever had so many people questioning our legal system."
That distrust comes on top of 12 years of "insensitivity on racial issues" from the federal government, Mr. Schmoke said. "What was once termed 'benign neglect' isn't very benign any more," he said. "But there certainly has been neglect."
All of that, coupled with the King verdict, is a potent mix for trouble, Mr. Schmoke said.
And a little trouble already had brushed Baltimore.
Mr. Schmoke started his day before 7 a.m. in Park Heights, where a library had been firebombed, causing an estimated $100,000 in damage. At least one nearby store window also was broken.
Later, he returned to the ugly scene. Charred furniture and books were piled on the sidewalk. But people in the area seemed outraged by the attack.
Spotting the mayor, Melvin Minter, a young man sporting a Charlotte Hornets cap, peppered Mr. Schmoke with questions. He wanted to know when the library, which had been closed for renovations, would reopen. He also asked how he could help.
"I have two kids," Mr. Minter said. "We used to come here all the time. I was looking forward to it reopening."
The mayor promised him good news in about 10 days. He then walked along Park Heights Avenue to talk to people and gauge the mood of the merchants.
"What do you think?" a smiling Mr. Schmoke asked after popping into the Park Heights Barbershop. "Do you think we're going to make it?"
Howard Clinton, one of the barbers in the crowded shop, responded. "I think if we make it through the weekend we'll be OK," he said. "But we can't sleep on it."