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Mayor, preachers express concerns about out-of-town protesters

A day before a national group plans a protest on Baltimore's streets over the death of Freddie Gray, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and two dozen clergy members and community leaders pleaded Friday for outsiders to behave peacefully while here.

"Because Baltimore has a strong community, we don't need help from outside of our city and state to deal with this," said the Rev. Frank M. Reid, of Bethel AME Church. "As you can see, there have been protests that have been very peaceful. We're all working to get justice for Freddie Gray's family," Reid said. "As a city, we are well capable to make sure justice is done."

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A group organizing a weekend demonstration in Baltimore regarding the death of Freddie Gray said they expect a "wave will roll downtown to City Hall" during the Saturday event.

At a press conference Friday at the Western District police station, Malik Z. Shabazz, an attorney with the Washington D.C.-based Black Lawyers for Justice, called for a "shutdown" of the city if officers involved in Gray's arrest are not charged.

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Gray suffered a spinal cord injury while in police custody on April 12. He died seven days later. Critics say a lack of thorough public explanations as to why Gray was stopped or how he was injured has heightened tension in a city struggling with allegations of police brutality and racial issues as the nation wrestles with similar problems.

A witness told the Baltimore Sun that he found Gray near the Gilmore Homes complex handcuffed and planted face down on the ground with one Baltimore bicycle police officer's knee on his neck and another bicycle officer bending his legs backward. He was then placed in a police van.

Police officials have not directly linked Gray's van ride to his injuries but did say that he was not buckled in, as required by department policy.

Hundreds have taken to Baltimore's streets to protest for nearly a week. But some local leaders say they're worried about the impact of out-of-town activists.

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Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, said she's been in contact with Gray's family -- and they do not want to see violent protests.

"Rallying and demanding of respect for Freddie Gray is what the family wants," she said. "As people proceed with rallying and coming to Baltimore, we do not need outside forces to come in and try to act other ways. We do not need anyone coming in bullying our community."

The Rev. Heber Brown, of the Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, on Thursday posted a video on YouTube asking out-of-town activists to avoid violence and follow the lead of Baltimore activists.

"We would ask that those who are not from Baltimore … that you would be so kind to defer to those of us from the community here," Brown said.

Brown said he was not invited to Friday's meeting with the mayor.

Rawlings-Blake also expressed her frustration with the police department over Gray's death.

"I want to know why the policies and procedures for training were not followed," she said. "I still want to know why none of the officers called for immediate medical assistance despite Mr. Gray's apparent pleas. The one thing we all know is because of this incident a mother has to bury her child. She doesn't even know exactly how or why this tragedy occurred – only that it occurred while her child was in police custody. This is unacceptable. I know this is unacceptable and I want answers."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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