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Baltimore business owners sue city for not stopping violence during 2015 riots

Baltimore business owners filed a 700-page lawsuit alleging that city officials did not do enough to protect their properties from rioters in 2015. The riots were in response to 25-year-old Freddie Gray's death while he was in police custody. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Dozens of Baltimore business owners are suing local officials for not doing their jobs after riots broke out in the city two years ago.

More than 60 business owners whose stores were damaged or destroyed in the riots filed a lawsuit in Baltimore City Circuit Court in March, but the case was moved to federal court this week, WBAL-TV reported.

Allegations in the complaint stem back to 2015, when Black Lives Matter protesters and rioters took to the streets after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died while in Baltimore police custody. The riots resulted in an estimated $13 million in damages to around 380 businesses, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby filed criminal charges against six Baltimore police officers in the wake of the shooting. None of the six officers were convicted. In September 2015, Baltimore city officials agreed to pay the Gray family $6.4 million in a wrongful death civil settlement.

The lawsuit names as defendants former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, current Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, Baltimore City Council, Baltimore City Police Department, and the state of Maryland.

WBAL asked the lawyers for each of the defendants for a comment, but only the state of Maryland responded, saying it would not comment on ongoing litigation. The Sun reported that Rawlings-Blake declined to comment. As of Thursday afternoon, no court date had been set.

Peter Hwang, who is representing the plaintiffs in the case, told the Sun that the plaintiffs brought the lawsuit because the defendants "failed to do right by these property and business owners."

Specifically, the complaint alleges that police officers were told to stand down.

"The city and other defendants failed them when they adopted a policy of restraint and issued stand-down orders, caring more about the public perception that they feared would result with increased police presence than preventing what were clearly preventable riots," the suit alleged.

The Sun quoted one police union report that reportedly told officers that "looting is expected. Let it happen."

A Rawlings-Blake spokesman disputed the police union report. The spokesman called the document a "trumped-up political document full of baseless accusations, finger-pointing and personal attacks," according to the Sun.

The suit explained that by the time Rawlings-Blake signed an executive order intended to halt the violence, "much of the property that the executive order was passed to protect was already being destroyed."

The document also drew attention to a comment that Rawlings-Blake made not long after the 2015 rioting for which she drew fierce criticism.

"We also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well," Rawlings-Blake said.

The former mayor later clarified her statement. Rawlings-Blake said she had made it "very clear that we balance a very fine line between giving peaceful protesters space to protest." She then added, "in doing so, people can hijack that and use that space for bad."

"I did not say we were accepting of it," Rawlings-Blake said in 2015.

In addition to alleging that officers were told to stand down, the suit filed this week accused city officials of "underhanded tactics to try to trick" business owners whose livelihoods were affected into signing documents that would waive their rights to press charges. And many of the business owners the city tricked into waiving their rights to take legal actions were residents who didn't speak or read English, the Sun reported.

The so-called "underhanded tactics" were allegedly done through a grant program called the Storefront Recovery Grant Program, which the Baltimore Development Corp. administered. The program offered business owners $5,000 to repair their businesses, as long as they signed a document saying they would not hold the city liable for the damages. All of the plaintiffs in the case filed this week did not accept the grant, according to the Sun.

The dozens of plaintiffs whose businesses were either damaged or destroyed in the riots did not say exactly how much money they are seeking.

John Chae, who owned Fireside North Liquors, told the Sun that looters came in and knocked him unconscious using bottles and bricks. The perpetrators reportedly left Chae lying on the floor as the business he worked so hard to build literally went up in flames. Fortunately, Chae woke up just in time to escape the fire. Chae said his insurance would not pay for all the damages to his store, which totaled around $500,000.

Chae, his wife, and infant son, who was born just before the riots broke out, moved out of the city to open a UPS Store in Baltimore County, Maryland. The family does not plan to move back into the city. As Chae told the Sun, "Why would I?"

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