BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Thousands of people took to the streets of Baltimore on Saturday as anger over the death of a young black man turned to hopes for change following swift criminal charges against six police officers.
There was an upbeat mood at the march from the housing projects where 25-year-old Freddie Gray was arrested last month to a plaza in front of city hall where the city’s chief prosecutor announced charges on Friday ranging from murder to assault in his death.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has largely been absent from demonstrations over Gray’s death, mingled with the crowd on Saturday near the West Baltimore intersection that saw the worst of rioting on Monday after Gray’s funeral. He died on April 19, a week after suffering a fatal spinal injury while in police custody.
Many in the largely black city erupted with joy after the officers involved in the arrest were charged, in contrast to what happened after the deaths of unarmed black men over the past year in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York, where authorities found police broke no laws and officers involved were not charged.
But while the charges announced by prosecutor Marilyn Mosby brought relief to the city of 620,000, residents said they needed to see justice served, not only in Baltimore but in other U.S. communities where they feel minorities are disproportionately targeted and badly treated by police.
“We will gather in peace and we will march in peace and we will march until police brutality ends in the United States,” Malik Shabazz, president of Black Lawyers for Justice which helped organise Saturday’s march, told the crowd.
Using social media hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackSpring, rallies were also planned on Saturday in more than 20 U.S. cities including Dallas, New York and Los Angeles.
“We’re here today because I have two young black male sons and I hope these kids are going to grow up in a different world, where police respect the community and the community respects the police,” said Jeff Wilson, 43. He was standing in front of Baltimore city hall with a sign reading “all lives matter.”
On Friday, Mosby said the Maryland state medical examiner had ruled Gray’s death a homicide. She said he was unlawfully arrested and the officers repeatedly ignored his pleas for medical help while he was handcuffed, shackled and lying face down in the back of a police van.
Gene Ryan, president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police, said of the charges against the officers that he was disappointed with “the apparent rush to judgment” and the officers had done nothing wrong.
The union launched an online fundraising plea on its website on Saturday to cover legal expenses for the officers. Online Maryland court records did not list a defence attorney for any of the six - three black and three white officers.
They were released on bond on Friday.
No dates have been set for trials but speakers at Saturday’s rally urged people to ensure that they were registered to be called as jurors.
“We can’t get justice for Freddie without 12 jurors for Freddie. Get registered,” said civil rights activist Kim Trueheart.
Baltimore residents have largely heeded a night curfew put in place after Monday, when protests turned violent and dozens of buildings and vehicles were burned, 20 police officers injured and more than 200 people arrested.
Members of Crips, Bloods and Black Guerrilla Family gangs, who came together to help restore order after Monday’s violence, appeared together on stage on Saturday to vow unity and said they would defend the black community.
Writing by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Tom Heneghan, Alan Crosby and Frances Kerry