After a week that saw peaceful protests turn into riots and looting, members of the Baltimore Jewish community are concerned about the future of their city as well as what the world is seeing.
“We really were seeing a majority of very nonviolent protests. Our city has a very long history of being involved in nonviolent protests. This was really personal for a lot of people who feel like Baltimore has come a long way,” said Cailey Locklair Tolle, deputy executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. “When we see something like [rioting and looting], it completely detracts from where we started from.”
Tolle’s comments came Tuesday morning, a day after afternoon clashes with police in west Baltimore turned to looting, car fires and damage to businesses and properties that stretched from Mondawmin to Fells Point.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” said Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector. “I am devastated.”
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Andrew Busch said it worries him what the world outside of Baltimore may be seeing, but it does not surprise him.
“Baltimore becomes the same as any other place dealing with a tragic crisis in that it’s hard to convey the complexity of the message,” he said. “I think what most of us are looking at locally is knowing there is the worst and the best. The people who have [peacefully] protested far outweigh, numerically, the people who then turned to riot.”
The city has been on edge since the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who was arrested on April 12 and died on April 19 after suffering injuries while in police custody. It is not known when and how he sustained the injuries.
Last week saw smaller demonstrations that culminated last Saturday, when thousands of people chanted and waved signs as they marched from West Baltimore toward City Hall. When the protest got near downtown and near Camden Yards, the dispersing crowd turned violent as police cars were vandalized, business’ windows were broken, cars stuck in traffic were damaged and fights broke out between protestors and baseball fans.
Calm turned to chaos Monday afternoon, the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral, after a call for a “purge” spread through social media and what appeared to be school-aged individuals quarreled with police in the Mondawmin area, according to news and police reports. They threw rocks, bricks and bottles at officers; a car was set of fire and later, residents ransacked Mondawmin Mall. But before the looting began there, businesses in the area of North and Pennsylvania avenues were attacked, including a CVS pharmacy, which was set on fire. Businesses on the west side of downtown were looted, their windows smashed. A large fire at Federal and North Gay streets destroyed a building built by a local church that was to become senior housing.
Spector maintained that recent events shed light on problems in the city that must be dealt with.
“I think that what has been swept under the rug or not really tended to is right in our face right now,” she said. “We can’t be blinded, we can’t give it a pass. We’re going to have to roll up our sleeves and get to these people who have nothing to lose but something to gain. We’re going to figure out how to fix this.”
At least 15 police officers were injured by Monday night, according to reports. Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake instituted a weeklong curfew for those 14 and older starting Tuesday from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. City schools were closed Tuesday, as were many businesses and offices, some of which closed early after opening in the morning. The Baltimore Orioles postponed Monday’s and Tuesday’s games, and while fans were peeved, Orioles COO John Angelos, son of owner Peter Angelos, offered thoughts via Twitter that were widely praised and circulated.
“The innocent working families of all backgrounds whose lives and dreams have been cut short by excessive violence, surveillance, and other abuses of the Bill of Rights by government pay the true price, an ultimate price, and one that far exceeds the importance of any kids’ game played tonight, or ever, at Camden Yards,” he said in several tweets. “We need to keep in mind people are suffering and dying around the U.S. and while we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don’t have jobs and are losing economic civil and legal rights and this makes inconvenience at a ball game irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans.”
On Tuesday, with threats on social media of more “purges” to be held in areas such as Northern Parkway and the Owings Mills mall, many organizations took action. A large number of Jewish day schools and the Park Heights JCC closed early. Baltimore County Public Schools cancelled after-school and evening activities. CareFirst’s office in Owings Mills, located in the tower office buildings adjacent to the mall, closed early as well.
Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen of Chabad of Owings Mills was still going to hold a minyan at 2 p.m. at one of the office buildings by the mall, although he said some people will not be there and security will be beefed up. He also evacuated the Torah scrolls from the Chabad facility as a precaution.
While Monday was chaotic and there were hotspots until the following morning, before dawn on Tuesday, dozens were out in the streets helping clean up the city. Cleanup on North and Pennsylvania avenues, which experienced looting and fire Monday, started before dawn when a diverse group of people from the neighborhood and beyond showed up.
A front loader earlier in the day moved large pieces of trash, the city brought in a large dumpster around 9 a.m. that residents used to dispose of bags of trash, broken doors, twisted metal shelving from stores. People were sweeping and hauling trash, while others gave out free drinks and snacks.
Molly Amster, Baltimore director of Jews United for Justice, who attended Saturday’s protests, said her organization was heartbroken after Monday’s violence. She was out helping cleanup efforts on Tuesday.
“The message that is being sent by everyone, regardless of what types of actions they’re taking, the message is our system is broken,” Amster said, adding that she condemns Monday’s violence.
“The issue of police brutality and the lack of accountability that we see when it occurs is what people are asking to be addressed and be fixed.”
On Tuesday morning, City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young held a press conference where unidentified gang members pleaded for the violence to stop. Videos and photos of members of the Bloods, the Crips and the Nation of Islam coming together to condemn violence circulated social media the day before.
In press conferences Monday night, Young, Rawlings-Blake, Hogan, the City Council president and Spector referred to Monday’s rioters as “thugs.”
“This is not what Freddie Gray’s family wanted,” Young said, noting that the riots remind him of the 1968 riots after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. “These are thugs who are seizing upon an opportunity to show their anger, their distrust and their frustration at the police department and this is not the way to do it.”
Councilman Brandon M. Scott was blunt: “I am simply pissed off,” he said.
Rawlings-Blake added, “It is idiotic to think that by destroying your city, you’re going to make life better for anybody.”
Beth Am Synagogue Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, who was out at the protests on Saturday with Jews United for Justice, did not think the same people who peacefully protested Saturday were responsible for Monday’s destruction.
“This seems to be a social media instigated [event] that quickly turned violent,” he said. “It’s different people, not community leaders, not the social justice community. It’s a reflection of the overall racial tensions in Baltimore, but the comparisons need to stop there.”
Burg was firm that there are problems that need to be addressed, but Monday’s events were not the right way.
“There’s no excuse for people stealing, throwing rocks and bricks at police,” he said. “It’s never helpful, never called for.”
In northwest Baltimore County on Monday night, Shomrim was at work coming up with a plan, were the violence to migrate north to the Orthodox community, where things were quiet, spokesman Nathan Willner said.
“The biggest concern is that most of the police resources are deployed to the harbor and where the riots are taking place, which means our community would have less resources, Willner said around 9:45 p.m. Monday night. “We are at a high alert. We are making sure that our responders are available.”
Less than five miles from Monday’s incidents, Harbor East area was relatively quiet. A handful of restaurants hosted dining patrons but almost everything was closed, including the 24-hour CVS.
Deirdre, a Baltimore County native and a manager at Gordon Biersch Brewing Company on Lancaster Street in Harbor East, was moving large tables and chairs inside from the patio with help from her staff.
“We’re just trying to get closed up so everyone can get home safely, we don’t know where all of the commotion is happening or where it’s coming [from],” she said. “We’re [bringing in] and locking up our patio furniture, anything that can be lifted and thrown is now locked up. We never do this. We usually lock things up with cords and master locks. So, right now we’re getting everything safe.”
At the same time, neighbors helped each other clean up broken glass, helped board up windows and stood guard just half a mile away on Broadway in Fells Point where a 7-Eleven, another convenience store and a MetroPCS mobile phone store was broken into and looted.
Because of the protests on Saturday, Rabbi Ariel Fishman, his wife and their son walked back from Lloyd Street Synagogue Saturday mid-afternoon to Judaic Heritage, near University of Maryland Baltimore, where he is director.
“We decided to walk down Lombard thinking we’d be off the main Pratt Street protest traffic, but still saw tons of people pouring out,” he said, noting that some wore anonymous Guy Fawkes masks. “It didn’t feel unsafe, but there were a lot of people moving out of that area.”
“Some of the people had a pain and sadness on their faces,” said Fishman. “I always think of what MLK said, ‘Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.’ And that resonates with Jewish ethics, to love all people, love all creation. It’s a concept that has a firm hold in Jewish tradition.”
Tolle expressed concerns over what impact this week’s events may have on the city from things such as business insurance, taxpayer costs and the city’s economic future. But there needs to be dialogue, she said.
“These are conversations we need to have about how to better our community,” Tolle said, “how we can come together and make sure this doesn’t happen again and address the issues that started all this.”