(BALTIMORE) — Officials have called them “thugs” and “criminals,” the 200-some people arrested in Baltimore after violence erupted in the streets Monday afternoon, but ABC News contributor and former FBI agent Steve Gomez has a broader interpretation of what motivated people to throw objects at police, set cars on fire and loot businesses.
They “are what we call opportunists,” Gomez said. “They recognize that there’s a lot of frustration … and they took their opportunity.”
“These people are clearly wanting to make a statement,” he added.
Fifteen structure fires and 144 vehicle fires were reported Monday, according to Howard Libit, director of strategic planning and policy at the mayor’s office. The violence followed the funeral for Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man who officials say died earlier this month from injuries he sustained after being arrested by police.
President Obama on Tuesday said the rioters need to be treated as criminals.
“They’re not protesting, they’re not making a statement. They’re stealing,” Obama said at a news conference in Washington. “They’re destroying and undermining businesses and opportunities in their own communities.”
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on Monday called the group “thugs who only want to incite violence and destroy our city.”
Police Capt. Eric Kowalczyk declined to speculate Monday on the reason for the violence, but called the group “criminals.”
“Right now it is a group of lawless individuals with no regard” for safety, he added.
Gomez, who was an agent with the FBI during the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, said the demonstrators in California had a similar goal.
“They were trying to make a statement that they are tired of the way the system is treating them, their community,” he said. “They’re not just going to protest and exert their first amendment right… They’re going to take it a step further to really get some notice.”
“[It’s the] same thing in Baltimore,” he added. “Whether they are thugs, gang members, or people that are frustrated… they want to take it a step further… they want to be heard and are willing to get arrested for it.”
Baltimore resident William Tyler cited a lack of opportunity in the area.
“It’s a lot anger that’s been piled up,” Tyler, 41, said. “They don’t know how to talk.”
“I have kids. They need to learn to do what I didn’t, to go to school,” said Tyler, who was carrying his 3-year-old child on his shoulders through a crowd in Baltimore Tuesday. “If we don’t do that, this is what they do. We have parents who are doing nothing.
“I take the blame,” Tyler said. “I should have told them, showed them. This is not us.”
Looking forward, Gomez said, “I don’t think that they’re going to listen to anybody other than their parents or someone in their family that they respect.”
“If there is a sports figure from Baltimore,” he added, “That’s the kind of person that could potentially come in and work with community leaders… could maybe get these rioters to slow down and to change their way of expressing themselves.”
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