For the second time in five months, an American city erupted in protests and unrest following a police killing of an unarmed black person. On Saturday evening, scores of people took to the streets of Baltimore to protest the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody a fortnight ago.
City officials reported that 31 people were arrested, and a half dozen police officers hurt, after demonstrators clashed with police, destroyed a few cruisers, smashed storefront windows, and ransacked several convenience stores.
Christie Lleto, a reporter with CBS Baltimore, reported breathlessly, “This seems to be the work of a few outside agitators.” Another anchor on Baltimore’s Fox affiliate actually remarked, “The police have said that outside agitators are responsible for this, so it must be true.”
In fact, according to the mayor, only one of those arrested hailed from outside Baltimore. But “outside agitator” is an old slur. As Richard Seymour, writing in Jacobin at the height of the Ferguson protests last August, put it, the term “reeks of good old boy vigilantism, the co-mingling of race-baiting and red-baiting that was typical of Southern counter-revolution in the dying days of Jim Crow.”
The biases and allegiances of these journalists affected their coverage. Lleto’s voice was tinged with sadness as she and the in-studio anchor, Denise Koch, applauded the protesters who invoked the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture.
“Those are the good protesters,” the anchor said.
Earlier in the evening, an anchor at NBC Baltimore applauded the cops for showing restraint, after letting the viewers know that one of his friends was a cop. Another anchor on Fox Baltimore attacked the protesters for attempting to bait the police — calling to mind a notorious episode from last December when the same TV station selectively edited a video to make it appear as if demonstrators, protesting the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, were chanting “kill a cop.”
Anchor after anchor, reporter after reporter, complained about how the protests disrupted the traffic and prevented Baltimore Orioles fans from heading home after the game concluded.
The protesters, strategic in their choices of targets, converged on Camden Yards — home to the Orioles. They destroyed some commercial property and got into skirmishes with onlookers who were there to enjoy the baseball game, as news helicopters hovered above. The police argued that because of the unrest, they were forced to lock down the stadium and force fans to stay put until the disturbances died down. Baltimore’s press dutifully blamed the protesters for this abuse of state power.
The media’s obsession with middle-class fans getting home from a ballgame and traffic problems in the restaurant quarter speaks volumes about how the news establishment acts as a mouthpiece for law enforcement and the government.
In February, the Guardian reported on a site in Chicago used by police there to illegally detain suspects. I asked Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, why local press hadn’t covered the issue, and he responded, “That’s the million dollar question. The problem is a lot of reporters agree with the police perspective.”
Naturally, the media doesn’t portray all rioting mobs in the same fashion.
In 2013, the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl. Mostly white fans then flooded the streets in what NBC Baltimore labeled a “celebration.” It was not entirely peaceful, however. The same station described Saturday’s demonstrations as “tense and violent.” The double standard is familiar. When white people spread chaos in the streets, they are drunks who’ve made drunken mistakes; when black people erupt in justifiable rage after decades of oppression, they are depicted as violent and intimidating agitators.
It’s little wonder then that black protesters over the last eight months have lashed out at members of the media. After Michael Brown’s killer, Darren Wilson, was not indicted last November, a protester shouted “Fuck CNN” at Don Lemon, who had earlier that night found a marijuana joint that perplexed him. In August, after Fox News reporter Steve Harrigan called Ferguson protesters children, one of the demonstrators confronted him on air. Once more, viewers were treated to a satisfying “Fuck Fox.”
As Baltimore protesters vented their rage, a mere 40 miles away in Washington, D.C. elite journalists rubbed elbows with other insiders at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. That night, cable news networks provided scant coverage of the clashes in Baltimore; CNN opted to cover the narcissistic red carpet of Washington’s Nerd Prom, while Fox News and MSNBC showed documentaries.
Ultimately, there’s no such thing as objective journalists, particularly as it pertains to police killing unarmed black people. We all have our perspectives, biases, and experiences. Univision’s Jorge Ramos had it right when he said:
The best of journalism happens when we take a stand—when we question those who are in power, when we confront the politicians who abuse their authority, when we denounce an injustice. The best of journalism happens when we side with the victims, with the most vulnerable, with those who have no rights. The best of journalism happens when we, purposely, stop pretending that we are neutral and recognize that we have a moral obligation to tell truth to power. . .We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.
It appears, however, that much of the media has taken the side of the oppressor.
Despite it all, Freddie Gray’s broken spine will always be more important than the broken window of some store in downtown Baltimore.
Editor’s Note: February 2, 2016
After uncovering misattributed quotes in stories written by Juan Thompson, a former staff reporter, The Intercept conducted a review of his work. The anonymous quotes from television anchors in this story could not be confirmed.
Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP