Baltimore gangs unite in call for peace

Hours before the riots erupted in Baltimore Monday, police issued an alert saying they had received a "credible threat" that members of rival gangs — including the Black Guerrilla Family, Bloods and Crips — had “entered into a partnership to ‘take out’ law enforcement officers.”

But in the aftermath of Monday's unrest, members of those gangs denied the accusation, saying they were actually on the frontlines trying to prevent the kind of violence and looting that rocked the city.

"We did not make that truce to harm cops," one unidentified gang member told Baltimore's WBAL-TV. "We're not about to allow y'all to paint this picture of us."

The gangs, he said, came together to stop the riots and bring peace to the neighborhood.

"We got soldiers out here, we’re dirty," he continued. "They threw [smoke] bombs at us for trying to stop what's going on right now. ... That's all we're trying to do: We want justice for Freddie Gray."

The violence, he said, makes the gangs look bad, and as a result they are being unfairly blamed for the riots.

"It's backing up what they're saying about us," he said. "They're saying we're animals and we're acting like savages out here."

"Because we’re black, and we have flags on, they assume we’re going to hurt somebody," another gang member said. "Most of us, as older people, we bring everybody closer, make sure they got jobs, go to school on time. They just make it seem like, 'He’s black, he got a flag on, he’s doing the wrong thing.'”

Not everyone in the media feels that way.

Justin Fenton, a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, said he was pulled to safety during Monday's unrest by a member of the Rollin' 60s Crips gang.

Baltimore has one of the largest gang populations in America. According to a study cited by Newsweek, there were roughly 170 criminal street gangs active in the city as of 2006, and 2,600 gang members.

"We're all united right now," another unidentified gang member told CNN. "There's a bigger systematic problem we've got to deal with."

The destruction in Baltimore was not gang-related, according to the groups.

"We've got nothing to do with that," another gang member said. "We're the ones out here trying to bring peace."

"Kids are the ones acting out in that manner," another said.

According to police, the riots were sparked by a group of high school-aged students who organized themselves on social media and confronted officers with rocks and bricks near a mall in downtown Baltimore. At least 20 officers were injured during Monday's riots, officials said. According to the mayor's office, there were 144 vehicle fires and 15 structure fires.

The gang members said that while they don't condone the violence, they understand it.

"The children are going off because they have no recreational parks," one said. "And they're angry."

“I don’t agree with what’s going on, but I understand what’s going on,” said another. “I understand why people are mad, but we have to handle things another way.”

"We're not out here trying to say we're saints," another gang member added. "We're trying to say that we're making effective changes in our community."

Not all gang members were saints Monday. Several told Newsweek they participated in the riots in retribution for enduring years of police harassment.

"The police been out here beating on us, killing us like dogs," "Benzo" Woodard, a member of the Crips, told the magazine. "They created this situation. They made us radical."

"You beat on somebody long enough, they going to become radical in their actions," said "Wes" Hollis, a self-identified member of the Bloods. "A leads to B."

At a press conference at Baltimore's City Hall Tuesday, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young praised members of the Bloods and Crips gangs for their efforts to bring peace to the city.

"The notion they were planning on harming our police officers is false and simply deterred the resources we needed to focus on the individuals who instigated these riots," Young said. "I applaud these young men for standing here and speaking out for our city."

Still, some criminologists questioned Young for elevating the gang members.

"You're a de facto gang-controlled city if you give them any power," George W. Knox, director of the National Gang Crime Research Institute, told the Baltimore Sun. "They are not part of the solution. They are part of the problem.

"You embolden them when you recognize them," Knox added. "It gives them power and status. You are creating a bigger monster."