In weary Baltimore, welcome mats begin to replace riot gear

Monday night’s looting and burning shook the city to the core. But on Wednesday, despite the presence of Humvees at City Hall, Baltimoreans seemed eager to clean up and get back to work.

Amy Davis/The Baltimore Sun/AP
A National Guardsman patrols Baltimore Tuesday. Hundreds of National Guardsmen patrolled the streets against unrest for the first time since 1968, hoping to prevent another outbreak of rioting.

The two National Guardsmen stood in front of Baltimore’s City Hall in the spring sunshine, automatic weapons slung downward across their chests. Suddenly a large man wearing a WMFD ball cap darted from the crowd lazing along the perimeter fence.

He thrust a shrink-wrapped tray of muffins at the troops. “Courtesy of the White Marsh Fire Department,” he said. “Thanks for serving.”

The Guardsmen thanked him in return. One turned to carry the tray back toward the Humvees parked across the building entrance. This wasn’t their first donation, though they’d only been in Baltimore since 3 a.m.

“We have so much food we don’t know what to do with it,” said the remaining soldier, who declined to give his name because he wasn’t really supposed to be talking to reporters.

Welcome to the aftermath of the worst riot to afflict the Queen City of the Patapsco since 1968. Monday night’s looting and burning shook the city to the core and left physical and emotional scars that may take a long time to heal. Baltimore’s powers that be have yet to fully explain the circumstances of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, the spark for the violence. Hard-hit areas remain tense.

But for now Baltimoreans seemed intent on helping. Free food and volunteer sweep-ups seemed the order of the day.

Take the situation at City Hall. It was ringed by military equipment seldom seen in the downtown of a mid-major American city. The National Guard was there to guard, not tan. Rifles were deployed, police were present, and media swarmed the plaza facing the building, cameras at the ready.

But the few sign-carrying protesters weren’t provocative. Pedestrians were mostly the areas usual mix of office workers and hang-abouts.

“Everything’s fully operational in town. Where’s the state of emergency?” said ShaiVaughn, a student out to survey the scene.

Across town at Pennsylvania and North Avenues, the epicenter of the worst of Monday’s clashes, it was the public library that was leading the struggle back to normality. The Enoch Pratt Pennsylvania Avenue branch is a two-story brick building that sits right at the intersection, its plate glass façade glistening in the sun. That glass didn’t get smashed in the fighting. Instead, when the nearby CVS pharmacy started to burn on Monday, the staff welcomed in all who wanted to get out of the way, then locked the doors.

Like the famous library of Ferguson, Mo., the library became a refuge, filing station for reporters, and general beacon of hope.

“That is what the library is here for,” said Enoch Pratt Free Library communications director Roswell Encina.

The library was open again on Tuesday, and was filled with kids, since Baltimore Public Schools were closed. It was open again on Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

“It feels like a regular day,” said Mr. Encina.

Nor were Guardsmen the only group to benefit from Baltimore free food. Red Emma’s, a collective-owned bookstore and cafe in the Penn North area with a liberal bent, was concerned about kids eating while the schools were closed and offered free meals to students. A high percentage – 84 percent – of Baltimore children come from low-income homes and qualify for free breakfast and lunch at school. Those might be the best meals they get.

Red Emma’s sits about a mile from the Pennsylvania-North Avenue corner. They also fed residents of a nearby housing project as well.

Throughout the week, it’s been hosting lessons on legal rights for those who might get arrested in protests, and demonstrating tips on how to help people afflicted by tear gas and pepper spray.

“We’ve been trying to do what we can,” said Red Emma’s book buyer/owner Cullen Nawalkowsky.

Back downtown, city workers were back on the job after a two-day interregnum.

Paperwork had piled up on their desk and they had lots to do.

Inside the Abel Wolman Municipal Building, the workaday folks of city government piled into elevators as they returned from lunch. Inside one, packed to the ventilators, one last woman crammed in as the doors closed.

She turned, facing away from the crowd.

“Are you all having a great day today?” she said. The space exploded in laughter.

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