BALTIMORE (AP) — The death of Freddie Gray, a Baltimore man critically injured while in police custody, has sparked demonstrations across the city that touch on the fears many from his neighborhood say they feel about their everyday interactions with police.
"He was a typical Sandtown kid," said Sean Price, who grew up in Baltimore's Sandtown neighborhood where Gray lived. "He wasn't perfect but neither is anybody. This isn't anything new. Freddie Gray is just a microcosm of what happens every day in Sandtown, in Baltimore."
The Sandtown neighborhood in West Baltimore surrounds blocks of red-brick public housing called the Gilmor Homes. Trees are sparse amid abandoned lots overgrown with grass and crumbling, burned-out row homes, their doors and windows boarded up.
Gray was arrested April 12 after police "made eye contact" with him and another man in an area known for drug activity, police said, and both men started running. Gray was handcuffed and put in a transport van.
Exactly what happened in the van and how he was injured are still unknown. He died a week later in a hospital of what police described as "a significant spinal injury."
In an interview with Baltimore station WJZ-TV on Wednesday, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said a second man who was in the police van at the same time as Gray has said the driver of the van didn't drive erratically.
"He didn't see any harm done to Freddie at all," Batts said. "What he has said is that he heard Freddie thrashing about."
Independent groups planned to announce their own investigation into Gray's death at a news conference Thursday. Representatives of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Peoples Power Assemblies said they will get help from a civil rights investigator and will interview neighbors. Local authorities and the Justice Department have also announced probes.
Danielle Hall, a friend of Gray's, said the relationship between law enforcement and the neighborhood is so contentious that many believe it's safer to run from police than stand still.
"People run every day from the police. Why wouldn't you run when every time you turn, you're getting harassed?" Hall said. "Why stop when you already know what they'll do to you? Rough you up, throw you on the ground?"
The six officers involved in the arrest have been suspended with pay. Five officers voluntarily gave statements the same day as Gray's arrest, while one officer invoked his right to remain silent.
For days, demonstrators have poured into the streets, carrying signs, chanting "hands up, don't shoot" and calling for transparency and accountability for the police department.
A statement released Wednesday by the Baltimore police union comparing protesters of Gray's death to a "lynch mob" drew criticism on Twitter by users who called it racially insensitive and inappropriate, given that the demonstrations have been peaceful.
As demonstrators marched onto a highway onramp and faced a line of officers blocking their way Wednesday night, Pastor Wesley West of Faith Empowered Ministries linked arms with Gray's cousin, Carron Morgan, and they faced the crowd. After West led chants for justice and peace, and called for a moment of silence, protesters headed away from the interstate. Morgan, 18, turned and shook the officers' hands.
"At the end of the day, I don't think all cops are bad," he said, "just that some are corrupt."
Associated Press writer Matthew Barakat contributed to this report.