Protesters in Baltimore demand answers over death of black man in police custody

BALTIMORE (AFP) - The police arrested two people on Thursday on a fifth day of street protests in Baltimore over the death of an African-American man in police custody that has yet to be fully explained.

More than 200 protesters rallied mid-afternoon outside Baltimore's stately city hall, chanting "No justice, no peace" and demanding to know the circumstances that lead to Sunday's death of Mr Freddie Gray, 25, a week after his arrest in a rundown housing project.

He was the latest of a growing list of African-American males whose death at the hands of the police have put a harsh spotlight on law enforcement and race relations in the United States today.

"It's really inconceivable that a young man, 25 years of age, in the prime of his life, would end up dead for absolutely no reason at all," said Reverend Jamal Bryant, an organiser of Thursday's protests.

Two people were arrested on Thursday for disorderly conduct and destruction of property, the police said, as protesters marched at rush hour through downtown Baltimore, snarling traffic, en route to the Western District police station, scene of nightly protests since Mr Gray died.

There, a largely African-American crowd - with a good turnout of white supporters - faced off against a thin blue line of mostly white police officers, with six mounted police at the ready in a dark alley but no riot-equipped officers or equipment in sight.

Several white-shirted police lieutenants, captains and majors - some black, some white - ventured up to the barricade and listened patiently as protesters vented frustrations.

"What needs to happen, and what the people want, is that someone gets indicted, that someone is held responsible for the death of Mr Gray," Ms Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), told AFP.

Concern about police conduct vis-a-vis African-Americans has been a hot-button issue since the Aug 9 shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which touched off sometimes-violent protests nationwide.

But Mr Gray's case is unique, in that it has unfolded in a blue-collar port city - scene of the hit TV series The Wire - where Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, and police commissioner Anthony Batts are both black.

Videos of Mr Gray's arrest on April 12, taken by bystanders, show two bicycle-riding white police officers pinning him to the ground at the Gilmor Homes housing project, in a known high-crime area.

He can be heard howling in apparent pain, before more police officers are seen packing him into a white police van.

"They had him folded up like he was a crab or a piece of origami," Mr Kevin Moore, who took one of the videos, told the Baltimore Sun newspaper. "He was all bent up... just screaming for his life."

Within an hour, however, Mr Gray was rushed to hospital, in a coma, with 80 per cent of his spine severed at his neck, according to his family's lawyers. Despite shock trauma surgery, he never recovered.

It remains unclear what transpired inside the van, or why exactly he was stopped, although the police said he was found after his arrest to be carrying a switchblade knife.

The police said Mr Gray had asked for his inhaler and requested medical attention after his arrest.

Mr Batts has promised that a police investigation will be completed by May 1, but has not said whether it will be made public.

"We're not bashing the police, but we want answers," Reverend Charles Neal, a Baltimore pastor and protest organizer who knew Gray, told AFP.

He said he remembered Mr Gray as "a young man trying to find his way" after previous run-ins with the law that included petty offences and drug charges.

Recently, Mr Gray had been working at a local flower shop with a policy of giving young men like him a second chance, Rev Neal said.

Several other investigations are underway as well, including one announced on Tuesday by the US Justice Department into whether Mr Gray's civil rights may have been violated.

Six officers have been suspended with pay in the meantime, and five of them have given statements. The sixth is reportedly exercising a right not to do so.

Members of Mr Gray's family appeared briefly before Thursday's city hall crowd, but did not speak.

Mr Gray's funeral is set for Monday, to be preceded on Saturday by a downtown protest that organizers hope will attract a crowd of 10,000.