The rooms of the former high school are bare-bones utilitarian, used most days for GED classes and 12-step meetings. But on Monday, April 27, they were pressed into service to help Baltimore bury Freddie Gray.
At the Penn North Community Resource Center, Gray's family and friends were scheduled to gather for the repast, the post-funeral meal that is a cherished part of the African-American "homegoing" tradition — one more chance, over plates of comfort food, to remember a lost loved one.
City leaders pleaded for calm that day so Gray's family could bury him in peace. In truth, after two weeks of ever more agitated protests over his death from injuries suffered in police custody, it was Baltimore as a whole that needed a healing pause.
That morning, though, the community center received worried calls from the church and ladies' groups that were supposed to bring food for the repast. They heard there was going to be a big protest that afternoon.
As a result, said a Penn North official, Steve Dixon, "nobody was going to be coming with food."
Throughout the city that morning, a flurry of calls, texts and emails sounded similar alarms. As Penn North staffers rushed about to gather a repast-worthy meal, city officials, police, businesses and schools were scrambling as well to sort through rumors of protests, shootings and other mayhem that were coursing through an uneasy town.
Nearly six months later, the events of late April still resonate.
Protesters marched outside a downtown courtroom during the first pretrial hearing for the six officers charged in Gray's arrest and death. Last week, some staged an overnight sit-in at City Hall, demanding that the Baltimore Police Department give demonstrators more leniency. The mayor and the Police Department have commissioned reports about the response to the riots, and have discussed how to be better prepared in the future.
Looking back now, April 27 unfolded in a way that seems both unimaginable yet also predictable. Unlike previous police custody deaths, Gray's struck a deep and still raw nerve.
It likely was too much to expect that volatility to remain beneath the surface, even for one day. And indeed, as interviews and government documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun attest, there were multiple warning signs of impending trouble. But in the end, the city seemed largely in the position of trying to prepare, without knowing exactly what for.
It was a typically lively spring weekend at the downtown stadium complex — two high school proms were scheduled at M&T Bank Stadium on the night of Saturday, April 25, and the Orioles had returned from a road trip to begin a three-game series against the Boston Red Sox on Friday night.
The team came home to a much different city than it had left a week before.
"Can we ask the police helicopter flying near [Camden Yards] to move away?" Neil Aloise, the head of ticketing and fan services, emailed the Maryland Stadium Authority's security chief shortly before 8 p.m. on Friday, according to one of the documents released under the Maryland Public Information Act. "East side of park. I don't want our fans to think there is a major incident occurring across the street."
But that was what the stadium authority security head, Vernon J. Conaway Jr., and city police were expecting, or at least preparing for the following day, when as many as 10,000 protesters were expected to march downtown around the time fans would begin flocking to the park.
"Additional police and security will be deployed at the complex, as well as in the downtown area. Contingency plans are in place for enhanced security and facility protection in the event demonstrators move towards the complex," Conaway emailed colleagues on Thursday afternoon.
That day, city police warned officers in surrounding counties that "you, your loved ones, your vehicles or homes may become potential targets" as anti-law enforcement sentiment was growing on social media. And, apologizing for the short notice, the city's deputy commissioner, Dean M. Palmere, asked other police agencies to a Friday meeting to discuss the help they could provide.
"City police are mainly concerned about outsiders who do not have a stake in the community," Howard County Police Chief Gary L. Gardner, who attended the meeting, said in a memo to officials in his county. "Also, they are receiving some information that there will be attempts to disrupt the Oriole game Saturday or the Inner Harbor area — disrupt commerce."
On Friday night, Baltimore police emailed Conaway, asking for 20 extra bike racks for the Sports Legends Museum and the nearby ballpark plaza, in case they were needed as barriers against protesters. Conaway also planned to open an Emergency Operations Center at the warehouse for Saturday's game, according to another email, with "the new stadium cameras plus city watch cameras available."
On Saturday, protesters and fans at the stadium and nearby sports pubs taunted one another, and some of those bike racks were among the projectiles thrown as the demonstration turned violent. Young men jumped atop police cars and used traffic cones to smash their windshields. At the park and elsewhere downtown, storefront windows were shattered.
As the mayhem continued, fans were kept inside Camden Yards for about 30 minutes, until officials thought it was safe for them to leave.
Still, the complex sustained what the stadium authority considered fairly minor damage — broken windows at Dempsey's restaurant and Geppi's Entertainment Museum.
"This one may have to wait until the morning to get boarded up," Matthew Kastel, facilities group director for Camden Yards, emailed colleagues regarding the museum damage. "I'm not sure it would be safe to send out one of my guys at the present moment to do this."
Around 10 p.m., Freddie Gray's twin sister, Fredericka Gray, joined Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at a news conference to plead, "Can y'all please, please stop the violence?"
A larger meaning
In the end, 31 adults and four juveniles were arrested in Saturday's unrest — among them, Wayne Gray, 47, from Baltimore's east side.
"I've been in trouble before in my life, but I had a different feeling about what I got myself into this time," Gray, says now, reflecting on his arrest that night for disorderly conduct and failure to obey a police order to leave the area of Howard and Pratt streets. "I stood up for what I believe in. I feel like I stood up for what was right."
Wayne Gray, who says he has a kidney ailment that prevents him from working, took his 2-year-old son to the protest along with the boy's mother and hopes it was a learning experience for the child. The lesson, as Gray sees it: that African-Americans have had to fight for their rights over the years, whether it's to vote or to reform the criminal justice system.
"I'm going to teach him the things he needs to know," Gray said. "He already knows what we went down there for."
The larger meaning of the unrest was turning over in the minds of others as well that night.
At 10:37 p.m., John P. Angelos sat in his parked car and began pecking out a series of thoughtful tweets on his BlackBerry, saying any inconvenience to fans paled in comparison to the economic devastation and diminished civil rights of the poor that he believed provoked the protests.
He would not sign off from Twitter until 1:48 a.m.
Sunday dawned with a welcome sense of calm: Residents and businesses began cleaning up. Friends and strangers alike paid their respects to the Gray family at a Govans funeral home, filing past his open casket. The Orioles played as planned.
"Gov and first family will be attending the game on Sunday," Conaway had emailed stadium and O's staff on Saturday, requesting parking for two Suburbans and an advance vehicle.
John Morton III, then the stadium authority chairman, emailed the security chief Sunday morning to see if any more trouble was expected. Morton said he was fielding queries from guests slated to join him in the stadium authority's suite.
Conaway said police knew of no scheduled protests but were monitoring the situation. "As bad as the downtown area was last night," Conaway wrote, "we did not have any reported injuries or looting on [stadium authority] property. No damage to any fans' vehicles parked on property."
Even as Sunday unfolded quietly on the surface, though, concern was mounting behind the scenes over what might happen on Monday, with Gray's funeral scheduled and school resuming.
By 2 p.m., Conaway was emailing Kastel, saying, "When you're finished the meeting I need to talk with you about removing the trash cans at Gate H. We have information that this afternoon and evening may be another difficult night."
Police and school officials were particularly concerned about a flier that had been circulating on social media about a "purge" planned for Monday, an apparent reference to a dystopian film about a 12-hour holiday of lawlessness.
Against a background of a photo, apparently taken Saturday night, showing two youths atop a police car, was this message: "All High Schools Monday @3 We Going to Purge From Mondawmin, To The Ave., Back to Downtown"
At Mondawmin, 'helmets on'
School police scheduled extra officers for Monday at Mondawmin, the transit hub for as many as 5,000 students, as well as at schools near Gilmor Homes and New Shiloh Baptist Church, where Gray's funeral was scheduled to begin with a 10 a.m. viewing.
In addition to the predicted purge, schools were dealing with a host of other rumors that had students and parents on edge.
Parents contacted schools and teachers reported student chatter about alleged threats of violence and walk-outs. A particularly rampant rumor involved a supposedly planned shooting at City College, and a screen shot of texts between friends was making the rounds.
"you heard about it?"
"be careful ... Cuz some white people tryna shoot at Yall school [tomorrow] frl"
At 11:31 a.m., Jessica C. Lawrence of the schools' engagement office emailed as well, under the subject line "RE: City College Issue – PLEASE OPEN:"
"I'm on a 3-way call with a few parents and a student (who is crying and scared) and they (parents) are really upset with the district ... Kids are at the school freaking out — the parents are nervous because of the violence they saw this weekend on the news so they see this as a real threat. Even if it is a hoax …They don't want their kids traveling on public transportation because they can't protect them … so they are picking kids up early."
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Police Department was dealing with another issue — at 11:23 a.m., its spokesman issued an alert stating that credible information indicated rival gangs had "entered into a partnership" to "take out law enforcement officers."
But by that afternoon, other law enforcement agencies were unable to confirm the validity of the threat. Baltimore County Lt. Matthew Gorman, told fellow officers in an email that "circumstances regarding the source of information and its veracity are still being evaluated." Similarly, the FBI's Baltimore office interviewed the source of the information and found the threat to be "non-credible."
Later, officials would criticize police for adding to the tensions in Baltimore that day. But at the time, the threat was hovering out there, unchallenged.
It was under this fraught atmosphere that dozens of students began walking out of Frederick Douglass High School, heading toward the mall.
"Approximately 100 students just walked out of Douglass and are over at Mondawmin Mall shouting hands up don't shoot. They are throwing rocks and bottles at Police," Major Akil L. Hamm, deputy chief of school police emailed his colleagues and Baltimore Police at 2:46 p.m.
The police, as radio transmissions show, were waiting for them.
"Listen, Mondawmin Mall, helmets on now."
Holding the line
It was 2:44 p.m. when the directive crackled across the police radio. Even as officers awaited delivery of riot shields, they were trying to disperse students who had started gathering at the mall, in front of the Marshalls and Target, the Dunkin' Donuts and then across the street at the 7-Eleven.
Even on a normal day, when school lets out Mondawmin can seem chaotic — hundreds of students stream from Douglass to the mall or the subway and bus stops there, while kids traveling from other schools arrive to change lines as well.
"I really feel like people do not understand this is where kids get picked up, that they don't have yellow school buses that pick them up at their schools," Meg Gibson, a teacher at a west-side elementary school, said in an interview.
Her route home regularly takes her past Mondawmin, as it did on this Monday afternoon, and rather than just the mix of kids, she saw police helicopters overhead and armored vehicles on the ground. As she was stopped at a traffic light, a line of police cars raced past en route to the mall.
It didn't take long for word to get around town that something was up at Mondawmin.
Former state Sen. Larry Young, now a WOLB radio host, had gone to Gray's funeral that morning. Afterward, he and Gus Augustus, the director of the mayor's Office of Neighborhoods, had lunch at Miss Shirley's with Dick Gregory, the comedian and activist in town for the services, before dropping the visitor off at Penn Station.
There, Augustus got a notification of a major disturbance at Mondawmin, Young said. They saw two vanloads of police racing up Charles Street, and followed as they went down North Ave, around Druid Park Lake Drive to Mondawmin. Police at the scene directed them to Liberty Heights and Reisterstown Road, and by the time they got there, before 3 p.m. as Young recalls, kids were already throwing things and two officers were on the ground, injured.
At 3:07 p.m., Foxtrot, the police helicopter, notified police in an armored vehicle that an officer was being assaulted near the 7-Eleven. Things got increasingly more frantic from there.
"The team that's at Liberty Heights right now, I need you to move down here. … They're right behind us. Can you move please? Now!" came one call shortly after 3:20 p.m. Minutes later, someone yelled that one group of police was being pelted with rocks "and we got no shields."
The clash escalated quickly, Young recalls, and "we got very scared at one point.
"A half-dozen police started taking out the hand gas things. Another half-dozen cops came with rifles — what the hell was this? Those guys left at that point, and a sergeant was trying to find a way to get his [injured] officer out."
Meanwhile, officers were ordered repeatedly to hold the line rather than go after the people throwing debris — a command decision slammed by the police union in its "after action report" on the riots. But Young believes the restraint shown by police helped contain a volatile situation.
"I was so glad they did" hold the line, says Young, who remembers Baltimore's 1968 riots, when six people were killed and entire swaths of the city burned. "With everything being said, no one was murdered. Can you imagine if these police had been given instructions to be combative with these young people? You would see people bringing their own weapons. It would have been extremely scary."
The crowd grows
As police and young people battled at Mondawmin, parents were frantically calling schools and other officials, trying to locate their kids.
One mother couldn't reach her son, a Carver Vo-Tech student, his school or coach, she wrote in an email to schools CEO Gregory Thornton, city officials and even long-retired Sen. Paul Sarbanes. Told by the transit authority that buses were running normally, the mother, Heather Rogers, said she got in her car and traced the route of the #51 bus, which took her into the heart of the trouble at Mondawmin.
"My car was attacked," she wrote. "Bricks, sticks, and trash were thrown at my vehicle."
As it turned out, the bus driver had dropped her son off at Liberty Heights Road and Tioga Parkway, she wrote. She said the driver told him: "I can't go any farther. You have to get off and walk to find another bus."
"I want to know what Baltimore Cities protocol is for keeping our children safe," wrote Rogers, who did not respond to a request for an interview. "Why was this situation handled so carelessly? ... I would like answers and reassurance that this will not happen again especially as this week continues until the investigation of Freddie Gray ends. In the mean time I would like a work packet prepared for my son because I refuse to send him to school until this is resolved while careless decision are made."
Even now, the decision to halt public transit at the busy Mondawmin hub remains unexplained — and highly criticized.
"A lot of kids were trapped in the area," recalls Neill Franklin, who retired as a major from the Maryland State Police and went on to oversee training for the city police.
Now executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group that opposes the war on drugs, Franklin grew up near Mondawmin and headed there when he heard about the clash. He found himself questioning how the police were responding — for example, there didn't seem to be enough officers to organize "arrest teams" that could break from the line and take troublemakers into custody behind it, he says.
"So you had the standoff, the crowd got bigger, it got more aggressive because police were not doing anything," Franklin says. "There was no plan or effort to shut down traffic. The rocks and bottles are flying, and people were coming into the street, stopping the cars."
At the same time, public transit was halted, stranding many students. "Kids were trying to get home — 'I catch the Metro here.' 'I catch the bus at Mondawmin,'" recalls Franklin, who ultimately drove a boy and his brother home to the Gwynn Oaks area.
Franklin says police blocked the crowd from heading north, but weren't able to scatter them.
"You want to break it up, disperse it, you don't want to just move the problem," Franklin says. "You want to pick out the ones creating the violence, take the wind out of the crowd's sails."
Instead, as the purge flier had presaged, some of the crowd headed south toward North Avenue and downtown.
Fires at Penn North
What happened in the Penn-North area has been well documented — by city surveillance cameras as well as the numerous media outlets that were in place for Gray's funeral and switched over to the explosive aftermath.
Groups descended on unattended police cars, trashing and burning them. Stores were looted, and in some cases shopkeepers were assaulted. Some business owners, having shut down earlier, helplessly watched security video footage from their homes as looters broke in and emptied the shelves.
At the Penn North center, the repast was held as scheduled, but under much different circumstances than its hosts had expected.
"It was kind of eerie," recalls Dixon, the center official. "People kept coming in and saying, 'A police car is on fire.' 'They're fighting police in Mondawmin.'
"We could see smoke and people running, helicopters, the tanks that looked like they should have been in Iraq or fighting ISIS."
Still, Dixon says, Gray's relatives seemed relaxed. He speculates that the repast allowed them to reclaim Gray as a person rather than the cause he had become.
Outside, the rampage continued, even as groups like the Nation of Islam and the 300 Men March took to the streets to try to quell the violence.
Some 100 ministers gathered once again at New Shiloh, the church where Gray's services were held earlier in the day. It seemed long ago that the church had fairly vibrated with gospel music and fiery speeches from a group of prominent ministers at the funeral.
"The only way I can describe it was everything was hot," recalls Dr. William C. Calhoun, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Upton. "People were everywhere. There was fire to the west, and fire to the east."
The group linked arms and marched south on Monroe, before turning left on North Avenue — toward a burning CVS store.
"I led the song, 'We are soldiers in the army of the Lord,'" he says. "Then we knelt down to pray."
They returned to the church, where they prayed with the Gray family, Calhoun recalls. Then, he and the Rev. Donte Hickman of Southern Baptist Church spent some time talking to gang members.
Hickman got a call on his cellphone.
Calhoun recalls him saying, 'I gotta go, man. My church is on fire."
The enduring damage
As Hickman tried to help out on the west side, he remembers thinking, "This wouldn't happen on our side of town."
But indeed, the Mary Harvin Senior Center that his church was building in Broadway East had been torched.
He made his way there, navigating around streets crowded with protesters and police. He drove up to 25th Street to Sinclair Lane, and when he reached Chester Street, he saw the fire.
"It was unbelievable, almost surreal," Hickman recalls. "There were mixed emotions: Anger — why would somebody do this? I couldn't understand it. Then I got a sense of calm. This is why we were building in the first place."
Hickman says the riots exposed the poverty and powerlessness felt by so many in Baltimore, issues his church hopes to continue addressing.
In between handling multiple interview requests — the huge blaze became an iconic image of the riot for cable TV — he and his parishioners prayed on the street. Insurance and donations will cover the rebuilding, Hickman says, and he hopes the center will open in April 2016. The arsonist has yet to be arrested.
When the day finally ended, the Fire Department had responded to 19 structure fires and 144 vehicle fires. Police arrested about 235 people. More than 380 businesses were damaged or destroyed, and property damage was later estimated at nearly $13 million. The stadium authority estimated an economic impact of $11.6 million from lost game-related spending — the Orioles played one game in which fans were not allowed and three other games were shifted to St. Petersburg, Fla. — as well as $1.2 million in state and local taxes.
There was political fallout as well, with Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts losing his job and Rawlings-Blake opting out of a re-election bid.
There would be more demonstrations in the coming days, but without violence.
On Friday, May 1, much of the tension dissipated when Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced criminal charges against six officers in connection with Gray's arrest and death; the first of their trials is scheduled to begin in late November. And in a surprise move in September, the city announced it would pay Freddie Gray's family $6.4 million to settle civil claims — a huge sum compared to previous settlements in police brutality claims, especially given that his survivors had not filed a suit.
But as April 27 came to a close, all of that was still in the future.
Humvees readied to begin ferrying camouflage-clad Maryland National Guard soldiers to Baltimore, where they would take up residence for nearly a week and help to enforce a citywide curfew. Firefighters continued to battle blazes and police sought to take back control of the streets — but already, some on social media were organizing cleanups in the morning and asking for activities to keep children busy while schools were closed.
On Monday night, Gray's family members were back where they had started the day — at New Shiloh. It was an unusual scene: ministers, gang members and politicians presenting a unified front, decrying the riot and calling for an end to it.
And, once again, Gray's family was pressed into service to quiet a troubled city.
"I want you all to get justice for my son," said his mother, Gloria Darden. "Don't do it like this."
Sun reporters Alison Knezevich and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.