Residents, business owners and police had braced for another night of large, possibly violent demonstrations on Thursday, but only about 100 protesters turned out to march down Church Avenue, at times yelling at each other more than they yelled at police.
Tensions spiked when one contingent, led by City Councilman Jumaane Williams, tried to move the protest into a church, so it could become more of a community forum about Gray, who was shot seven times after he allegedly pointed a loaded .38 caliber revolver at two police officers late Saturday night.
But another group — led by Jose LaSalle, the founder of the group End Stop and Frisk, who has rallied people from outside the neighborhood to attend the protests and had clashed with Williams earlier in the day — wanted to continue marching toward the 67th Precinct stationhouse to confront police there.
"March! March! Why are we stopping?" LaSalle shouted as he tried to get the crowd moving away from the church.
After members of the two sides began screaming in each other's faces — causing police officers to rush over to see if they needed to intervene — the group split up, with about half following Williams into the church and half marching toward the 67th Precinct with LaSalle.
"NYPD, KKK, how many kids did you kill today?" LaSalle's group chanted as they walked to the precinct.
Deborah, a Harlem resident in her 40s who declined to give her last name, said she joined LaSalle's march because she thought the protest needed to be more active.
"It seemed like they were being moralizing," she said of Williams' contingent, "like they were urging people into being complacent."
Williams, though, said earlier in the day that the community is a tinderbox that needs resources and solutions, not agitation.
Gray's death has sparked calls for an investigation and nightly demonstrations that have previously turned violent, with protesters throwing bottles at police and ransacking a Rite Aid on Monday night and attacking a police officer with a brick and shattering a squad car's rear window on Wednesday night, officials and reports said.
After dozens of angry demonstrators were reportedly arrested Wednesday night, the NYPD appeared to be preparing for another confrontation with the protesters on Thursday, setting up large floodlights and some barricades at East 55th Street and Church Avenue in the late afternoon.
Malia Francis, a cashier at Island Pride restaurant on Church Avenue near East 54th Street who works until 11 p.m., said she feared for her safety after seeing teens come in to buy glass-bottled drinks that they later threw at cops. She was also concerned that the confrontations would continue to escalate.
"It's very scary," Francis said Thursday afternoon. "You're wondering if you should write your will right now."
Amnon Ambalo, who opened Blink Boutique on Church Avenue near East 48th Street about six months ago, said he closed his business early Wednesday night because of the clashes between police and protesters.
But he added that the neighborhood's biggest problem is the heavy police presence, not the demonstrators.
"You wouldn't believe the amount of cops in the area the past few days," Ambalo said. "I think that's really what's scaring people off more than anything. I mean, talk about making people feel uncomfortable in their own neighborhood.... It's affecting everybody in every way."
While Thursday evening saw a strong police presence, there were many fewer protesters than the night before and there did not appear to be any violence.
Both Williams' and LaSalle's groups had largely dispersed by 10 p.m., but back at the corner of Church Avenue and East 55th Street, where candles lit a makeshift memorial to Gray, a quieter gathering was taking place.
Barry, 17, who went to school with Gray, was among the dozens of teens standing with hoodies pulled tight around their faces against the cold. He said all the shouting among the protesters was distracting from the real reason everyone ought to be there.
Asked what that reason was, Barry said simply, "My friend died."
With reporting by Jill Colvin and Joe Parziale