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Demonstrators begin to make their way down West North Avenue in the April 25 demonstration demanding accountability in the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore police. (AFRO/photo by Roberto Alejandro)

(Updated 4/26/2015)  A largely peaceful demonstration that sought to keep the city’s focus on the lack of answers in the death of Freddie Gray was soured as day turned to evening April 25 when a small group of demonstrators made the protest about their anger towards police, instead.

Marchers had started to gather at the Gilmor Homes community in West Baltimore, where Gray had been raised, around noon on Saturday, preparing for a march that would take them up N. Mount Street, eastward down W. North Avenue, down Pennsylvania Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, eastward down Pratt Street on its way to Camden Yards, and then on to the War Memorial Plaza outside City Hall.

“We’re here justice for Freddie Gray,” said an unidentified man, who spoke at the rally in the plaza.

It was a common refrain heard throughout the day’s march. Young men who grew up with Gray were there to demand answers in the death of their friend who was fatally injured while in Baltimore police custody on April 12 (Gray died a week later on April 19).  They said a number of times they were not interested in making this about race, and they were not even principally there to vent any frustrations with the police, whether in Baltimore or in general; they just wanted accountability for their friend.

“They said a young Black man couldn’t lead his people down here, no violence, no nothing,” said Juan (no last name given), one of the young Gilmor residents who has emerged as a voice for that community, at the rally. “Did we prove them wrong? Did we prove them wrong or what?”

Police in riot gear form a line at the southern mouth of the intersection of South Howard and Pratt streets, remaining there until the crowd dispersed a little after 8 p.m. (AFRO/photo by Roberto Alejandro)

The crowd cheered for the young men, and it was a moment they had earned, since throughout the rally they often moved quickly to address anyone in the demonstration who wanted to act unruly. But as the rally drew to a close, it was decided the march should continue, returning to Camden Yards, where the Orioles were set to play a night game against the Boston Red Sox, in order to disrupt the traffic and commerce that inevitably follows any professional sporting event and to send a clear message about the need for answers in Gray’s case.

At Camden Yards, the marchers met a heavy police presence, with officers in riot gear standing at the ready.

“I’m not afraid of cold stares,” shouted one demonstrator facing the police line, drawing a laugh from those around him.

It was a moment of levity that spoke to the peaceful nature of the protest up to that point, but shortly after a number of demonstrators who seemed less concern with what happened to Gray and more concerned with airing their grievances against police would upset that tenor.

The skirmishes began around 6:30 p.m. near the intersection of W. Camden and Howard streets, with some demonstrators throwing objects at police vehicles that were arriving on the scene, smashing the back window of at least one of the police vans. Police quickly formed a line blocking access to the vehicles now behind them on S. Howard Street, and spraying pepper spray at a couple of protesters still trying to engage the officers.

A marked police vehicle parked on South Howard Street had its rear windshield smashed by some demonstrators. (AFRO/photo by Roberto Alejandro)

This turned the demonstrators northward on S. Howard Street, where they found a number of empty police vehicles unattended, which some took as an invitation for more property damage.

Some of the demonstrators began throwing what appeared to be chunks of asphalt at the cars until they managed to break some windows, and they deflated the tires with pocket knives. One group managed to smash the back windshield of one of the marked police cars, and then dumped the contents of a nearby trash can into it.

The line of police in riot gear, backed up by a mounted unit and reinforcements from other police agencies, began to move forward and worked to push the crowd back and away from the vehicles, generally about 10 yards at a time.

For the most part officers avoided engaging demonstrators directly, focusing on crowd control and eventually forming a line at the intersection of S. Howard and Pratt streets.

“I just want everybody to be peaceful,” said a somewhat disappointed William Stewart, one of Gray’s friends who grew up with him in Gilmor Homes.

Demonstrators gather on the War Memorial Plaza outside Baltimore City Hall for a rally. (AFRO/photo by Roberto Alejandro)

With demonstrators now occupying the intersection of S. Howard and Pratt, those who had decided the protest was about their own anger moved on, vandalizing a number of nearby businesses as they went.

Demonstrators remained in and around the intersection until around 8 p.m. when the police began announcing dispersal orders from helicopters flying overhead. The crowd, much smaller at this point, meandered a bit but a man on a megaphone seems to have effectively convinced many still present that it was not worth getting arrested when he noted that any fines they might incur as a result would just end up paying the police’s salaries.

A couple demonstrators tried unsuccessfully to get those still hanging around to keep marching, but the energy had been zapped and the setting of the sun had dropped much of the temperature outside as well as among the protesters.

But some lingered in the downtown area, and according to various reports, additional arrests were made after midnight on Sunday morning as demonstrators continued their unruliness.

ralejandro@afro.com