Most of the media coverage of the protests that took place in Baltimore this week failed to provide context or give voice to those protesting, instead offering a simplistic narrative of “school-age youths” assaulting police officers at Mondawmin Mall. For example, this Washington Post article used the terms “mobs” and “looters” to describe students.
A protester faces Baltimore police officers enforcing a curfew Tuesday. (AP / Matt Rourke)
On Monday, the day 25-year-old Freddie Gray was laid to rest in Baltimore after fatal injuries sustained during an arrest, The Daily Beast reported that members of the Crips and Bloods had declared a truce and united to protest Gray’s death. Hours after the report was published, the Baltimore Police Department issued a press release citing a “credible threat” based on intelligence that “various gangs … have entered into a partnership to ‘take out’ law enforcement officers.” Later, gang members, upset that their truce had been spun by the police, told local NBC affiliate WBAL, “We did not make that truce to harm cops. … We’re not about to allow y’all to paint this picture of us. … We want justice for Freddie Gray.”
The WBAL report was so unusual that even the reporter admitted as much, saying in the beginning, “I’ve had a number of young people … stop me and say, ‘You really need to talk to us and you really need to get our voice heard,’ and I said, ‘You are absolutely right.’ ” Most of the media coverage of the protests that took place in Baltimore this week failed to provide context or give voice to those protesting, instead offering a simplistic narrative of “school-age youths” assaulting police officers at Mondawmin Mall. For example, this Washington Post article used the terms “mobs” and “looters” to describe students.
But left out of mainstream media coverage was what Marshall “Eddie” Conway, a reporter for the alternative media outlet The Real News Network, told me in an interview on “Uprising” a day after the protests. Conway, a former Black Panther Party leader in Baltimore who spent a whopping 44 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, explained that, “They [the police] closed the [Mondawmin] shopping center down, then … they let a high school out, then they closed down public transportation. So the students were released from school but they could not get on the metro system to go home or to leave the area. So they were stuck in that area and then massive police presence pushed them down to another area.” That is when students began physically expressing their anger.
Conway’s version of events is corroborated by a report published in Mother Jones, another alternative media outlet, after the interview was broadcast. Based on eyewitness accounts, reporters concluded that police “did not allow the after-school crowd to disperse.” One parent posting on Twitter was quoted as saying, “If they would’ve let them children go home, yesterday wouldn’t have even turned out like that.” It appears as though police were itching to prove the veracity of the “credible threat” they had issued by provoking students.
It is through this lens that we ought to view the “riots” in Baltimore this week, and what transpired in Ferguson, Mo., last summer when white officer Darren Wilson did not face charges in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Police departments are struggling to prove that they are needed to combat violence and keep order. In fact, Baltimore has requested 5,000 more state law enforcement officers, in addition to the hundreds of National Guardsmen that are already in the area. If there is no violence from protesters, police simply create the conditions for violence, as this study by University of California, Berkeley researchers found last year.
Such police responses to the burgeoning anti-brutality movement are part of a concerted campaign to maintain support for the status quo. That status quo has been in place since the end of slavery: Poor communities, especially communities of color, are expected to submit to the authority of the police state. The words and actions of the police are always beyond reproach, while those on the receiving end of force are to be considered criminal simply by virtue of police singling them out. Now, because smartphones and social media can confirm what African-Americans in particular have been saying about racism and violence by cops, a propaganda war to salvage the discredited authority of police is in full force. That war is aimed at the hearts and minds of Americans who have long believed in the sanctity of policing—namely white Americans.
Fortunately for the police, much of the mainstream media are on its side. The media watchdog group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) pointed out that when The New York Times covered the Baltimore protests, the first six quotations in the initial version of its story were entirely from police.