Baltimore (AFP) — Violent street clashes erupted in Baltimore on Monday after friends and family gathered for the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose death in custody triggered a fresh wave of protests over police tactics.
Police said at least seven officers were injured — one of them was unresponsive — as youths hurled bricks and bottles and destroyed at least one police vehicle in the vicinity of a shopping mall not far from the church where the funeral took place.
Local and state police in riot gear were struggling to restore order, with rioters refusing to heed dispersal orders.
“We have seven officers injured during the course of this. They have broken bones, one is unresponsive,” Baltimore police captain Eric Kowalczyk told reporters.
“You’re going to see tear gas. (…) We’re going to use appropriate methods to ensure that we’re able to preserve the safety of that community.”
NBC affiliate WBAL described one man being arrested within seconds of him telling its reporter that he had been hit in the head with debris.
The violence followed both Gray’s funeral and a message on social media announcing a “purge” — street slang for random acts of lawlessness — when schools let out for the day.
Fear of unrest prompted the University of Maryland’s downtown campus and several businesses to shut down early.
Earlier in the day, thousands of people arrived at the New Shiloh Baptist church to pay final respects to Gray, who died on April 19 of severe spinal injuries, a week after his arrest in Baltimore, north of Washington.
His death was the latest in a string of high-profile confrontations between African Americans and police, including the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in August in Ferguson.
Gray’s death sparked heated demonstrations over the weekend in the blue-collar port city, and police said some 34 people were arrested and six officers injured in street violence.
Police meanwhile announced they had received a “credible threat” that several known criminal gangs in Baltimore had “entered into a partnership to ‘take out’ law enforcement officers.”
Friends, family and strangers came together Monday to bury Gray, who lay in a casket next to a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap and a sign reading “Peace y’all.”
Crowds swayed to hymns at the service, chanting, “Justice shall prevail, peace will prevail” in the church, where a photo of Gray was displayed among floral wreaths.
“I’m here to pay my respects,” said Kenny Nicholson, a friend of Gray’s who attended with his wife.
Supporters, many dressed in all white, filled the building’s 2,200 seats and hundreds of others stood, with the words “Black lives matter and all lives matter” projected on the wall.
Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson denounced the “epidemic of murders in the country.”
“We have become too violent, too full of hate,” Jackson told reporters before the service.
“We need training, employment, housing, access to health, a reconstruction project. Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction.”
Gray’s family lawyer echoed calls for reform, and called for police across the country to wear body cameras to capture confrontations with suspects.
“We are here because of Freddie Gray, but we are here because there are a lot of Freddie Grays,” attorney William Murphy said at the service.
“There is a corrosion of justice around here,” he added, calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into Gray’s death.
White House cabinet secretary Broderick Johnson was at the service, according to a senior administration official.
Heather Foster, an advisor in the White House office of public engagement was also present, along with Congressman Elijah Cummings, who gave an emotional address to the crowded room.
Gray’s death sparked days of protests last week, and turned violent late Saturday.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who attended Gray’s funeral, had called for calm Sunday.
“I hope that as the eyes of the country are on Baltimore, that we see very clearly that this is a community that’s willing to confront tough issues, that’s willing to demand accountability, but also demands peace and progress at the same time,” she said, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Tensions have risen in Baltimore since Gray’s death, which lawyers said was caused when 80 percent of his spine was severed following his arrest.
Authorities have launched an investigation into the incident, and six officers have been suspended with pay.
Police confirmed Gray requested medical help and an inhaler after he was detained and said he should have received medical attention sooner.
They also revealed that Gray, contrary to policy, was not buckled into his seat in the van, which made at least three unexplained stops on its way to the police station.
Gray’s arrest was caught on video by bystanders, and he can be heard howling in apparent pain as his limp body is dragged by police.
Photo: ©afp.com / Drew Angerer
This post has been updated.