Family and friends gathered Monday for the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose death in custody triggered a fresh wave of protests over US police tactics.
Thousands of people arrived at the New Shiloh Baptist church to pay final respects to Gray, who died on April 19 of severe spinal injuries, a week after his arrest in Baltimore.
His death sparked heated demonstrations over the weekend in the blue-collar port city, and police said some 34 people were arrested and six officers injured in street violence.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Police Department said Monday it had received a “credible threat” that several gangs had “entered into a partnership to ‘take-out’ law enforcement officers.”
It was not clear if the threat was related to the recent protests, but the department urged officers to exercise precaution.
Friends, family and strangers came together Monday to bury Gray, who lay in a casket next to a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap and a sign reading “Peace y’all.”
Crowds swayed to hymns at the service, chanting “justice shall prevail, peace will prevail” in the church, where a photo of Gray was displayed among floral wreaths.
“I’m here to pay my respects,” said Kenny Nicholson, a friend of Gray’s who attended with his wife.
Supporters, many dressed in all white, filled the building’s 2,200 seats and hundreds of others stood, with the words “Black lives matter and all lives matter” projected on the wall.
Another family friend said she had come to give Gray a proper farewell.
“At first, I didn’t want to come. I didn’t feel comfortable. I saw this little boy growing up,” the elderly woman told AFP, without providing her name.
Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson spoke ahead of the funeral, denouncing the “epidemic of murders in the country.”
“We have become too violent, too full of hate,” he told reporters.
“We need training, employment, housing, access to health, a reconstruction project. Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction.”
Gray’s family lawyer echoed calls for reform, and called for police across the country to wear body cameras to capture confrontations with suspects.
“We are here because of Freddie Gray, but we are here because there are a lot of Freddie Grays,” attorney William Murphy said at the service.
“There is a corrosion of justice around here,” he added, calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into Gray’s death.
– Protests turn violent –
White House cabinet secretary and head of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, Broderick Johnson, was at the service, according to a senior administration official.
Heather Foster, an advisor in the White House office of public engagement was also present, along with Baltimore district Congressman Elijah Cummings, who gave an emotional address to the crowded room.
Gray’s death sparked days of protests last week, and turned violent Saturday night as crowds hurled traffic cones, soda bottles and trash cans at police officers, before randomly smashing store windows, looting merchandise and vandalizing police cars.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who attended Gray’s funeral, had called for calm Sunday.
“I hope that as the eyes of the country are on Baltimore, that we see very clearly that this is a community that’s willing to confront tough issues, that’s willing to demand accountability, but also demands peace and progress at the same time,” she said, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Tensions have risen in Baltimore since Gray’s death, which lawyers said was caused when 80 percent of his spine was severed following his arrest.
Authorities have launched an investigation into the incident, and six officers have been suspended with pay.
Police confirmed Gray requested medical help and an inhaler after he was detained and said he should have received medical attention sooner.
They also revealed that Gray, contrary to police department policy, was not buckled into his seat in the van, which made at least three unexplained stops on its way to the police station.
Gray’s arrest was caught on video by bystanders, and he can be heard howling in apparent pain as his limp body is dragged by police.
His death is the latest in a string of high-profile confrontations between African Americans and police, including the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in August in Ferguson.