CAMBRIDGE -- A spate of violence during the past two weeks, including the first police shootings in nearly 25 years, has rattled many African-Americans here who remember a time when racial strife set this Eastern Shore city ablaze.
The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is calling for a federal investigation of the May 6 death of a Cambridge man during a pre-dawn drug raid.
Cambridge police say Andrew Wayne Cornish, 31, who was black, was shot twice in the head after refusing to drop a 15-inch knife when ordered by officers.
The officers were serving a search-and-seizure warrant at two units at a High Street duplex where Cornish lived. Cornish, who was named in the warrant, was shot after brandishing the knife and approaching a detective, said Lt. Wayne Bromwell, department spokesman.
In an unrelated incident April 26, Bromwell said that Paul Monroe Trigger, 45, died under similar circumstances.
Officers confronted Trigger, who was white, after receiving two 911 hang-up calls. Trigger refused to drop a .22-caliber handgun and was shot "four to five" times, Bromwell said.
Maryland State Police detectives are investigating both shootings. The two officers involved, Detective Brian Lewis and Pfc. Benjamin Allen, are on paid administrative leave.
To many in the black community, the incidents have revived stark memories of the 1967 riots that brought National Guard patrols to city streets.
That was when black activist H. Rap Brown, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, stood on a car here and told a crowd, "It's time for Cambridge to explode, baby. Black folks built America, and if America don't come around, we're going to burn America down."
Brown, who changed his name to Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin in the 1970s, was charged with inciting a riot that saw residents exchanging gunfire with police and a fire that engulfed a school and much of the black business district. Then-Gov. Spiro T. Agnew sent in 600 guardsmen.
Speaking of the recent shootings, Jerome Tilghman, Cornish's cousin, said, "It just shows that the police are gun-happy. There was no need to kill anybody. It's not the '60s anymore, but people don't trust the police."
Residents say they also are concerned about two other incidents that occurred minutes apart Sunday night. First was a brawl outside a city nightclub in which five people were stabbed and one was shot.
Two blocks away, shots were fired from a car at four people as they walked to their car. No one was injured. Police have charged two Delaware men in the case.
"All of this might be an opportunity for the community to be strengthened," said Inez Stafford Grubb, coordinator for Sojourner-Douglass College in Cambridge. "There ought to be thorough investigations of all that's happened. Let in the investigators, and the chips will fall where they may."
The turmoil in Cambridge comes a month after three people were killed in a two-state shooting rampage that ended in Salisbury. A Delaware man has been charged with first-degree murder and handgun counts.
In Easton, two shootings in two months a few blocks from the town's historic business district prompted calls for a curfew.
In Chestertown, with a population of 4,800, a 32-year-old man was fatally shot April 2 during a drug-related argument. Raymond E. Jones, 21, accused in the killing, is being held without bond in Kent County.
No one is suggesting that anger and frustration are approaching the boiling point in Cambridge, but community leaders say there is deep suspicion of the 45-member Police Department, which has five African-American officers.
Octavine Saunders, a longtime civil rights leader and former city councilwoman and a next-door neighbor to Cornish, said her neighbors want answers.
"I'm keeping a low profile on this, but an outside investigation is exactly what we need," Saunders said. "The last thing I'd want is to see this town blow up. It's not worth that. It would set us back 20 years."
Lorenzo Hughes, president of the Dorchester County branch of the NAACP, said Cambridge residents deserve an independent investigation to clear up lingering mistrust.
"It is our hope and prayer that no one resorts to any extreme," Hughes said. "We want to clear up rumors and see that justice is done. It's OK for people to be angry, but we want to channel it in an effective way."
Community activists, county officials and others were angered Wednesday night when Hughes and other members of the NAACP executive committee met in private with Mayor C.L. Rippons, two City Council members, State's Attorney Michelle Barnes and police Chief Kenneth W. Malik.
William V. Nichols, the lone African-American member of the Dorchester County Council, said the closed meeting in which he and about two dozen residents were asked to leave, sent a poor message. About 100 people turned out last night for a public briefing by NAACP officials.
"This an issue that affects everybody," Nichols said. "The last thing we need is to keep people from being involved."
Rippons, who is white and narrowly won re-election last summer with strong support from black voters, said he has faith in state police investigators but would not object to an independent investigation.
"There's no set precedent for handling this because we haven't had a police shooting since 1981," Rippons said. "It's not 1967, but that is a part of our history. Maybe it's something that's always in the back of people's minds."