BLACK VOICES

300 Men March Movement Aims To Be 'Neutral Force' During Baltimore Protests

BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28:  Young people in cars drive towards a phlanx of Baltimore riot police honking their horns and raisi
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28: Young people in cars drive towards a phlanx of Baltimore riot police honking their horns and raising their hands with peace signs the night after citywide riots on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Freddie Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

BALTIMORE, April 28 (Reuters) - There were taunts, followed by a thrown bottle, and then the police pressed forward. Officers grabbed the man who attacked them and dragged him, thrashing, away. The crowd surged and a policeman fired pepper spray.

Quickly and quietly, a dozen men wearing black T-shirts inserted themselves between the officers and the throngs gathered to protest the death of a black man, urging calm on the crowd.

"We're like the neutral force," said Munir Bahar, co-founder of the 300 Men March movement, whose disciplined followers may have helped prevent greater violence on Tuesday at the protest's nexus at North and Pennsylvania avenues.

Bahar, a tax accountant and fitness enthusiast, said he founded 300 Men two years ago to reduce gun violence and murder in a city that has plenty of both. Now Baltimore is in the midst of some of the worst urban unrest in years, prompting a state of emergency and a citywide curfew.

Baltimore erupted in violence and looting on Monday, following the funeral for Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died on April 19 after suffering a spinal injury while in police custody.

The ensuing confrontation has brought in plenty of outsiders, from national politicians to international news media to representatives of Billy Graham Ministries, several of whom were in the crowd on Tuesday.

Bahar sees his job as bolstering an anxious local community where, he said, the presence of police is often not reassuring.

The beefed-up police presence, which was reinforced by the Maryland National Guard on Tuesday, "may not exactly make everyone feel comfortable," he said.

"We're here to bring comfort to the community," he said. "It's really just to inspire hope and more importantly to show these young guys that there are some older guys who care."

Earlier Tuesday, several miles east of the main protest site, about 100 men from the group were met with scattered applause as they marched down Monument Street in east Baltimore, in an area that also been the site of disturbances on Monday.

Bahar chatted with police and with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

But down one side street, a young man drinking what appeared to be a large bottle of vodka, challenged the members of 300 Men March to return after nightfall.

Asked what would happen if his men were attacked, Bahar replied: "It's never happened in two years."

One of Bahar's top lieutenants, Oba Obaseki, said he and Bahar got to know each other at Maryland's Morgan State University, where they were involved in a mentoring program for young men called Brother 2 Brother.

Obaseki, who now lives in Washington, DC, said he and others walked the neighborhood around the main protest area on Monday, trying to calm tensions.

"The community was really taking care of each other," he said.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker)

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BEFORE YOU GO

  • BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27:  Demonstrators climb on a destroyed Baltimore Police car in the street near the corner of Pennsylva
    Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images
    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: Demonstrators climb on a destroyed Baltimore Police car in the street near the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues during violent protests following the funeral of Freddie Gray April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, who was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Homes housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
  • A man dances in an intersection, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gr
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    A man dances in an intersection, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a Baltimore Police Department van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
  • A Maryland Transit Authority patrol car burns at North and Pennsylvania Avenues on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA
    Baltimore Sun/ABACA
    A Maryland Transit Authority patrol car burns at North and Pennsylvania Avenues on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
  • BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: People run as smoke and tear gas is thrown during a protest for Freddie Gray near Mondawmin Mall in
    The Washington Post via Getty Images
    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: People run as smoke and tear gas is thrown during a protest for Freddie Gray near Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
  • BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: People stand with their hands up as officers move toward them near a CVS pharmacy near West North A
    The Washington Post via Getty Images
    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: People stand with their hands up as officers move toward them near a CVS pharmacy near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
  • BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: A man throws an object at officers during a protest for Freddie Gray near Mondawmin Mall in Baltimo
    The Washington Post via Getty Images
    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: A man throws an object at officers during a protest for Freddie Gray near Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
  • BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: A protestor yells as a CVS burns near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest fo
    The Washington Post via Getty Images
    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: A protestor yells as a CVS burns near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
  • BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: A man runs in front of officers during a protest for Freddie Gray near Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore,
    The Washington Post via Getty Images
    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: A man runs in front of officers during a protest for Freddie Gray near Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
  • BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: Officers pepper spray people near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Fr
    The Washington Post via Getty Images
    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: Officers pepper spray people near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
  • BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: Officers look for people throwing objects at them near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue du
    The Washington Post via Getty Images
    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: Officers look for people throwing objects at them near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
  • BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: A man who was pepper sprayed has his eyes washed out near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue
    The Washington Post via Getty Images
    BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: A man who was pepper sprayed has his eyes washed out near West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD on Monday April 27, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
  • A man, center, shields himself after being struck after a march to City Hall for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015 in Ba
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    A man, center, shields himself after being struck after a march to City Hall for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015 in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
  • A protestor, left, fights with a bar patron outside of a bar near Oriole Park at Camden Yards after a rally for Freddie Gray,
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    A protestor, left, fights with a bar patron outside of a bar near Oriole Park at Camden Yards after a rally for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015, in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
  • Police detain a man after a march to City Hall for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015 in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Police detain a man after a march to City Hall for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015 in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
  • Two men are on the ground after being struck after a march to City Hall for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015 in Baltimo
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Two men are on the ground after being struck after a march to City Hall for Freddie Gray, Saturday, April 25, 2015 in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
  • Men carry items, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray died from spi
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Men carry items, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a Baltimore Police Department van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
  • A man dances in an intersection, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gr
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    A man dances in an intersection, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a Baltimore Police Department van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
  • WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 27: Fire Fighter attempt to put out a building that was set on fire during riots in Baltimore, USA on
    Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
    WASHINGTON, USA - APRIL 27: Fire Fighter attempt to put out a building that was set on fire during riots in Baltimore, USA on April 27, 2015. Protests following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody have turned violent with people throwing debris at police and media and burning cars and businesses. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
  • Looters empty the CVS at Pennsylvania and North Avenues during riots on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by
    Baltimore Sun/ABACA
    Looters empty the CVS at Pennsylvania and North Avenues during riots on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
  • An injured police officer is carried away by his fellow officers on Westbury Avenue in Baltimore during riots on Monday, Apri
    Baltimore Sun/ABACA
    An injured police officer is carried away by his fellow officers on Westbury Avenue in Baltimore during riots on Monday, April 27, 2015. Photo by Erica Green/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
  • A member of the Nation of Islam stands between protesters and police at North and Pennsylvania Avenues where riots broke out
    Baltimore Sun/ABACA
    A member of the Nation of Islam stands between protesters and police at North and Pennsylvania Avenues where riots broke out on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
  • A protester with a stolen police vest taunts Baltimore police officers on Pennsylvania Avenue during riots on Monday, April 2
    Baltimore Sun/ABACA
    A protester with a stolen police vest taunts Baltimore police officers on Pennsylvania Avenue during riots on Monday, April 27, 2015, Baltimore, MD, USA. Photo by Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
  • Police with shields face a man near the subway station at Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, MD, USA, on Monday, April 27, 2015. Pe
    Baltimore Sun/ABACA
    Police with shields face a man near the subway station at Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, MD, USA, on Monday, April 27, 2015. People threw rocks at police and members of the media near the mall during riots Monday afternoon. Photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM
  • In this frame from video provided by WJLA, people gather near a store Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the fun
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this frame from video provided by WJLA, people gather near a store Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Rioters plunged part of Baltimore, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (WJLA via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
  • Baltimore police officers detain a demonstrator after the funeral of Freddie Gray, Monday, April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Baltimore police officers detain a demonstrator after the funeral of Freddie Gray, Monday, April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
  • Baltimore police officers respond to demonstrators after the funeral of Freddie Gray, Monday, April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. (
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Baltimore police officers respond to demonstrators after the funeral of Freddie Gray, Monday, April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
  • A police officer walks by a blaze, Monday, April 27, 2015, after rioters plunged part of Baltimore into chaos, torching a pha
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    A police officer walks by a blaze, Monday, April 27, 2015, after rioters plunged part of Baltimore into chaos, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
  • A demonstrator raises his fist as police stand in formation as a store burns, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    A demonstrator raises his fist as police stand in formation as a store burns, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
  • A boy throws a brick at police, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (AP
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    A boy throws a brick at police, Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
  • In this frame from video provided by WJLA, smoke rises from a store Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funer
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this frame from video provided by WJLA, smoke rises from a store Monday, April 27, 2015, during unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Rioters plunged part of Baltimore, torching a pharmacy, setting police cars ablaze and throwing bricks at officers. (WJLA via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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