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Baltimore leaders praise peaceful protesters, warn others to stay away

The scenes of violence came one after another. Police cars torched. A crowd of people rammed. Faces bloodied by rubber bullets. A police station set ablaze.

As of Sunday evening, all of that was elsewhere.

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Baltimore’s leaders expressed gratitude and relief Sunday that hundreds of people had protested peacefully in the city. Their restraint caused Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to decide against a citywide curfew even as a large group marched through Fells Point and downtown Sunday night.

Police and city leaders said they remained vigilant.

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“If you’re coming to Baltimore to protest peacefully, we welcome you. But if you’re coming to Baltimore to throw bricks at storefront windows or destroy police vehicles, you’re going to find yourself in a jail cell. That’s a promise,” Young said.

Saturday, cellphone videos captured demonstrators turning to reprimand agitators in the crowd who threw water bottles at police. Sunday, the crowd chased off a man who started to cause damage along the streets.

“We were a national example of what it looks like to engage in passionate protesting without widespread breaking of the law,” Young said.

Sunday brought to Baltimore a third night of demonstrations over the death of George Floyd. The black Minneapolis man died after a white police officer there pinned him down by the neck for nearly nine minutes. Cellphone video of the encounter captured Floyd’s pleas of “I can’t breathe,” spurring outrage across America. The officer has been fired and charged with murder.

Floyd’s name was invoked by Malik Williams, 20, of Pennsylvania Avenue, as he led a march Sunday evening toward Fells Point.

“We’re out here for justice and peace. We’re not out here to hurt,” Williams said.

Pastor James Teague stood on the corner of Fayette and Gay streets with members of his church to bear witness. Teague, who leads Uproar Church in Owings Mills, said his members came out five years ago during protests after the death of Freddie Gray to offer hugs, water, prayers and love.

"People want to be heard and know that people care,” he said. “As long as people are out here, we will be too. We want to fight for the people and city of Baltimore.”

Neighbors Betty-Jean Coleman and Tony Price donned masks to watch the people chant and wave signs near City Hall. The two said they weren’t up for walking Sunday night with protesters, but planned to rejoin Monday. Though Maryland continues to suffer the coronavirus outbreak, the two from the Lakewood neighborhood said the weekend’s movement was worth any risk of exposure.

“People are really coming together,” Price said.

In Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and Minneapolis, protesters set fire to police cars and skirmished with police officer wielding batons. Cellphone videos showed protesters setting off fireworks at police.

In Baltimore, hundreds of people went downtown Saturday night to chant, wave signs and march through the streets. There were tense, but generally peaceful encounters with officers outside City Hall and police headquarters. Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said 14 people were arrested — two of them juveniles — and charged with crimes such as burglary, assault and attempted arson.

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Harrison said eight properties were damaged and 11 burglarized. Further, city leaders had sharp words for demonstrators who they said assaulted a news crew from FOX45.

“Attacking members of the press is absolutely unacceptable,” Harrison said.

The mayor said he considered whether to issue a citywide curfew as happened five years ago after the death of Gray. Though more protests are planned for Monday, such a measure is not yet needed, Young said.

Harrison credited his officers with showing restraint to avoid any escalation in the streets.

Saturday night, outside City Hall, officers fired smoke after Harrison said protesters threw things at them as they held a line. That led him to replace officers in uniform with those in riot gear, the commissioner said. He said that a small group within the protest acted as agitators.

“By us holding and having restraint,” he said, “I believe that is the single most thing that kept it from becoming worse.”

He added that officers have benefited from more training since 2015, and they have been planning how to handle a protest during the coronavirus outbreak.

Sunday brought a peaceful demonstration at Towson’s government center, too. More than 100 people took a knee in silence for nearly nine minutes — the amount of time Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd by the neck.

Will Schwarz, a Towson filmmaker and founder of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, organized the gathering with Ray Bennett, a member of the project. Their demonstration was held a few blocks away from where Howard Cooper, a black teen, was lynched in 1885.

“It’s all around us,” Schwarz told the crowd. “Towson is not immune.”

Jillian Downing, of Reisterstown, brought a sign with “STOP KILLING US” to the Towson protest. The 28-year-old said the recent string of police killings of unarmed black men and women and the subsequent protests triggered her memories of Baltimore after Gray’s death.

“It didn’t start with George Floyd, that’s just the latest injustice,” Downing said. “We want not just people of color to do something about it — we want everyone to do something about it. It’s not just an issue for African Americans, it’s a human experience.”

In Harford County, about 80 people gathered in Edgewood and marched along Route 40 Sunday evening, calling their demonstration the “Momma, I can’t Breathe!!! Rally.” Sheriff’s deputies provided an escort with patrol cars in front and behind the marchers. Drivers passed by and honked in support.

Chadd Moses, a security guard at a salvage yard on the route, raised his fist as they passed.

“I want justice, I want peace, and I want it now," Moses said. “Police brutality cannot be a part of stopping crime."

Baltimore Sun reporters McKenna Oxenden, David Anderson and Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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