Baltimore riots live and misunderstood

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On Monday Baltimore, the Charm City, burst into the flames of chaos and riots shortly after school let out for the day. Kids got the word through social media that there would a “purge” at the Mondawmin Mall after school. In today’s world law enforcement monitors social media for a variety of reasons, prompted by the attacks of 9-11.

Promotional poster from the film
Promotional poster from the film

Now, local law enforcement agencies use social media to help solve crimes and in this case, be prepared when hundreds — and maybe thousands — of high school kids showed up at this mall in northwest Baltimore to “purge,” a reference to the fictional 2013 and 2014 films. “Purge” in this sense meant a violent night of rioting and looting.

All the television networks with news divisions interrupted their regular programming to break into the growing actions by the teens and the police, which started shortly after 3 p.m. local time in Baltimore. It was reported the rioters were “outside agitators,” until the police said it was local high school students. Then some news networks modified it to say the local high school students were egged on by outside agitators … only to have local law enforcement dispel that line of conspiracy theory.

It was like the rioting in Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer. But then that was quietly being dispelled as well because Baltimore is a much larger community. Although, on Tuesday Morning some reporters were still linking the Baltimore riots to Ferguson, tangentially, as a reaction to systemic police and law enforcement brutality aimed at African-American men throughout the U.S.

The message sent to high school kids by their peers.
The message sent to high school kids by their peers.

Everybody had their own view of it, in their individual ways, but MSNBC and CNN were careful to separate the peaceful protestors from the rioting teenagers. On all three news networks, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, reporters and TV hosts were trying to get people on the ground at the riots to condemn the rioters.

Most did, but all of the people on the street, including local religious leaders and activists wanted to include in the conversation the systemic violence against the Black community that has taken place unabated for decades, especially since President Ronald Reagan ramped up the war on drugs, incarcerating more African-Americans than any other demographic group while targeting low income and minority communities for brutal occupations where a man, like Freddie Gray, can be arrested for “making eye contact.” And he ran from the police. Neither of which, the Baltimore Police Department admits, are crimes.

But the networks wanted none of that. Their focus was on the rioting, as if that was separate from any motivations — except the funeral of Freddie Gray, which had taken place earlier in the day.

It’s hard to count how many times either a reporter or a news anchor/personality asked, “Is this (the rioting) about Freddie Gray?”

If the answer veered to far afield of the answer “Yes,” the networks — all of them — tried to push the conversation back to the rioting being connected to the death and funeral of the man who died after being severely injured while in police custody.

Race relations between law enforcement and the African-American community have been terrible across the United States for a long, long time — well before the Civil Rights Movement began over 60 years ago. And, by most accounts, it is especially bad in Baltimore, a major American city, less than 40 miles northeast of our nation’s capital.

The distrust by the African-American community in Baltimore has only increased since new sentencing laws were passed in the mid-1980’s that disproportionately affect the African-American community. Their neighborhoods have turned into occupation zones where young people are routinely harassed and arrested for things like “making eye contact” or “having gaming cards and dice” — actual reasons, on police reports for some arrests of African-American men in Baltimore.

Students outside a high school in Baltimore right after school let out. (YouTube)
Students outside a high school in Baltimore right after school let out.

But that wasn’t the narrative the networks were looking for Monday: not even on super lefty MSNBC, although they did give the people they interviewed some latitude to talk about the atmosphere that leads to so much unrest in a community. Rachel Maddow spent much of her program talking about the long-term, systemic abuse of African-American men in particular. But on MSNBC, when it came to covering the riots, it was about the riots and are they connected to Freddie Gray.

There was one big exception to this standard, and it came from the unlikeliest of sources. Later in the afternoon, early evening, I tuned into Fox News when “The O’Reilly Factor” was supposed to be on. There was live footage showing the CVS pharmacy ablaze and rioting teenagers throwing rocks and other debris at police.

But the voice over was Shepard Smith, calmly, without exaggeration or drama, talking at length about the abuse heaped on the African-American community in Baltimore for so many decades, talking about how the drug laws disproportionately affect the African-American community. Smith never excused the rioters and applauded them, but he understood the connection of long-term abuse by the system and the riots taking place in Baltimore on Monday.

Shaking my head in disbelief, I checked the channel guide to make sure I had the right channel. For at least 20 minutes I listened to Shepard Smith talk about the connection of the riots to civil rights, his memories of the Civil Rights Movement when he was growing up in Mississippi and the racism he witnessed . I had to wonder if his bosses at Fox knew what he was doing.

Not to worry though, Sean Hannity came on the air and it was back to business as usual on Fox. The commentary was often melodramatic with tough guys coming on to call on the police to start cracking heads. Some of his guests were dramatically distressed while watching footage of a police line backing away from the teens throwing rock and debris. They continually used the term, “cops in retreat,” as if it had never happened before. One Hannity guest even said he didn’t think he would ever live to see that happen.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on Saturday  when she said she was giving space to those that want to destroy. She will live with that comment for a long time. (YouTube)
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on Saturday when she said she was giving space to those that want to destroy. She will live with that comment for a long time.

Bo Deitl, the former New York Police detective, was one of Hannity’s guests who vilified Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for wanting to “… give those who wished to destroy space to do that.”

  • Her office quickly tried walking that back.

And for not calling in the National Guard quickly enough, like on Saturday when rioting broke out around Camden Yards, resulting in the mayor locking down the stadium, holding the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox, as well as all the fans, in Orioles Stadium.

If Bo Deitl were in charge, by golly, those police would have been charging on the teenagers with riot batons a-waving, cracking skulls and restoring calm after the first rock or bottle was hurled in their direction, just like they did in New York under Mayor Rudy.

And of course this couldn’t have anything to do with race because, look: the mayor and police commissioner in Baltimore are Black, as is much of the local government and the police department, as Hannity put it, a “majority-minority” department. Actually, African-Americans make up 47 percent of the BPD.

  • copsDid you know that the Baltimore Police Department was segregated until 1966 and Black officers were not allowed to use patrol cars?

Hannity and his guests got really tough when the memo from the police was mentioned, the one about the local gangs, the Black Guerilla Family, Crips and Bloods had apparently called a truce and agreed to “take out” cops. The Baltimore P.D. said it was a credible threat and because all three gangs are represented across America, many law enforcement agencies are going on alert. In Los Angeles all police officers were required to ride in pairs as a result.

Sheriff David Clark, one of Hannity’s guests, said that if the gangs wanted to declare war against law enforcement, “More criminals than cops will end up dead if the gangs declare war on police!”

Yeah, you tell’em Sheriff!

That’s what you need in times like these: tough guys on TV talking tough and by golly, Fox News has them.

Later in the evening we were reminded of the words by the Rev Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Riots are the voice of the unheard.”

Even today, as the news networks talk about the riots, this sentiment continues to be ignored or forgotten, until on MSNBC Thomas Roberts  had the Rev. Al Sharpton on the phone, who tied in the riots, the arrest of Freddie Gray and the long, long history of abuse heaped on the African-American community by the system. And still Sharpton did not excuse or applaud the rioters, even though, you can bet, the right wingnut media will have a Facebook meme by the end of the day saying just the opposite.

  • Screen shot from Fox News video
    Screen shot from Fox News video

    The Conservative Tribune has been referring to Freddie Gray as “the criminal” on their website.

Coverage of the riots is ongoing, although now the three news networks have moved on to other topics. We are still waiting to hear the official explanation of how Freddie Gray was so severely injured while in police custody.

On Tuesday Morning former Maryland Lt. Governor and RNC Chairman Michael Steele spoke eloquently on the conditions in the Black community that led to the riots, and then spoke eloquently on why the violence shouldn’t be excused and the participants should be prosecuted. The rioters are, after all, destroying their own communities.