Take the question of what role gang members played in Monday's events, about which there were feuding accounts of motivations and actions.
Just after midnight on Monday, The Daily Beast published a report saying that members of the Crips and Bloods, two rival gangs, had agreed to a truce to march peacefully against police brutality. At nearly noon, the Baltimore Police Department issued a statement saying there was a "credible threat" that members of gangs had allied to "take-out" officers. Yet in practice, Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, a Baltimore native, noted that gang members seemed to be the people most effective at maintaining some "semblance of order" on the streets. Multiple reporters on the scene said gang members had helped keep them safe and protected them from threats. It's a peculiar inversion of the warning from the Baltimore Police Department.
Who to believe in this situation? It's counterintuitive to trust the gangs, but there's also little reason West Baltimoreans would take the police at their word. After all, it was Gray's death in police custody that sparked the demonstrations, and that death is only the latest episode in the BPD's long history of brutality, attested by millions of dollars in settlements against the city (paid for by taxpayers, naturally).
Worried about the threat of violence, the police were out in force at Mondawmin Mall, near the church where Gray's funeral was held. The mall was shut down at 2 p.m., but ranks of demonstrators around it swelled with students from nearby high schools, who walked out of school in protest. As demonstrators and police in riot gear faced off, protestors started throwing bricks, rocks, and other projectiles at officers. In at least some cases, as attested in photographs, police picked bricks up and threw them right back at the demonstrators. It quickly became clear that police either couldn't or—given the genesis of the protests—wouldn't stop crowds. Residents describe the police as a frequent, menacing presence in West Baltimore, all the more so given the situation, but when officers began falling back, it created a vacuum.
Meanwhile, city officials—the default authorities, despite this uneasiness—made several decisions that may inadvertently have helped create rioting. Much of the discussion over Ferguson has focused on what happens when a poor, disenfranchised black population is divided from a white power structure. As any scholar of systemic racism might have predicted, Baltimore is showing that simply having African Americans in top jobs—including mayor and the police commissioner—is not enough. In the early days of protests, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seemed to be winning praise for sympathetically listening to protestors and staying above the fray. By Monday night, she seemed to have become just another politician, subject to criticism from people on all sides of the drama. First, there was her widely debated statement on Sunday that police had created space for destruction—she says she was misunderstood, and was only making the point that bad actors could take advantage of circumstances. Then on Monday night, she referred to protestors as "thugs," an often racialized term that, when used by white authorities in Ferguson and elsewhere, keyed strong reactions. Her linguistic slips, the fact that the city seemed largely unready even though protests were a week old, and the fact that there's still almost no information about what happened to Gray, have eroded her sway. As Rawlings-Blake balances the need to criticize police brutality against her support for Baltimore's police force, she has to contend with the precedent of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. He faced a serious backlash and a work stoppage from police after the death of Eric Garner and the murder of two officers. An uneasy truce seems to have prevailed there, but given the tension in Baltimore, Rawlings-Blake wouldn't want to risk the same sort of break with her own department.