Baltimore burns as another US city succumbs to race riots

Rioters plunged the US city of Baltimore into chaos, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers hours after thousands mourned the man who died from a severe spinal injury he suffered in police custody.

The Maryland governor declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard to restore order — but authorities were still struggling to quell pockets of unrest after midnight, local time.

The riot was the latest flare-up over the mysterious death of African-American Freddie Gray, whose fatal encounter with officers came amid the national debate over police use of force, especially when black suspects are involved.

Police have declined to specify the races of the six officers involved in his arrest, all of whom have been suspended with pay while they are under investigation.

The violence, which began in West Baltimore — within a 1.5km of where Gray was arrested and pushed into a police van this month — had by the end of the day spread to East Baltimore and neighbourhoods close to downtown and near the baseball stadium.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in her first day on the job, said she would send Justice Department officials to the eastern US city in coming days.

A week-long, daily curfew was imposed from 10pm to 5am, the mayor said, and Baltimore public schools announced they would close for the day. At least 15 officers were hurt, including six who remained in hospital, police said. Two dozen people were arrested.

Officers wearing helmets and wielding shields occasionally used pepper spray to keep the rioters back. For the most part, though, they relied on line formations to keep protesters at bay.

But Gray’s family said violence is not a way to honour him.

“The violence is wrong,” Gray’s twin sister, Fredericka Gray, said. “I don’t like it at all.”

A lawyer for Gray’s family, Billy Murphy, said the family had hoped to organise a peace march this week.

Emergency officials were constantly thwarted as they tried to restore calm in the affected parts of the city of more than 620,000 people. Firefighters trying to put out a blaze at a chemist were hindered by someone who sliced holes in a hose connected to a fire hydrant, spraying water all over the street and nearby buildings. A massive fire erupted in East Baltimore that a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake initially said was connected to the riots. He later texted an Associated Press journalist saying officials were still investigating whether there is a connection.

The Mary Harvin Transformation Centre was under construction and no one was believed to be in the building at the time, said spokesman Kevin Harris. The centre is described online as a community-based organisation that supports youth and families.

Earlier, the smell of burned rubber wafted in the air in one neighbourhood where youths were looting a liquor store. Police stood still nearby as people drank looted alcohol. Glass and trash littered the streets, and other small fires were scattered about. One person from a church tried to shout something from a megaphone as two cars burned.

“Too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs, who in a very senseless way, are trying to tear down what so many have fought for, tearing down businesses, tearing down and destroying property, things that we know will impact our community for years,” said Ms Rawlings-Blake, a lifelong resident of the city.

Police urged parents to locate their children and bring them home. Many of those on the streets appeared to be African-American youths, wearing backpacks and khaki pants that are a part of many public school uniforms.

Later in the day, people began looting clothing and other items from stores at the mall, which became unprotected as police moved away from the area. About three dozen officers returned, trying to arrest looters but driving many away by firing pellet guns and rubber bullets.

Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings and about 200 others, including ministers and mostly men, marched arm-in-arm through a neighbourhood littered with broken glass, flattened aluminium cans and other debris, in an attempt to help calm the violent outbursts. As they got close to a line of police officers, the marchers went down on their knees. After the ministers got back on their feet, they walked until they were face-to-face with the police officers in a tight formation and wearing riot gear.

Gray was arrested on April 12 after making eye contact with officers and then running away, police said. He was held down, handcuffed and loaded into a van without a seat belt. Leg cuffs were put on him when he became irate inside.

He asked for medical help several times even before being put in the van, but paramedics were not called until after a 30-minute ride. Police have acknowledged he should have received medical attention on the spot where he was arrested, but they have not said how his spine was injured. He died on April 19.