Twenty-five-year-old Freddie Gray died in police custody on April 19 after being arrested by the Baltimore police a week earlier. Gray suffered a spinal injury; his family attorney said his spine was 80% severed at the neck.
America is not without its own terrorism – although Americans will fail to see it this way – and this is often at the hands of the police who intimidate the public with brute force, with black males often falling victim and losing their lives.
Baltimore’s deputy police commissioner, Jerry Rodriguez, has since admitted that Gray gave up without the use of force during his arrest, but somewhere between being handcuffed, placed in a police vehicle and taken into custody, some severe police brutality occurred.
There are countless narratives like this. Not so long ago the world observed as residents of the Missouri town of Ferguson protested the gunning down of another black youth – again at the hands of the police.
The United States, at least in my eyes, is a country whose institutionalised racism is becoming difficult to disguise; more than that, it is becoming harder for the African-American demographic to just tap out of it. The façade of the American Dream is turning into a nightmare as America burns, one city at a time.
#Baltmoreriots trended on Twitter for three days straight. Tied into the narrative of the US police force versus the African-American male is the media’s insistence on perpetuating that very demographic as angry, unruly and almost deserving of whatever comes their way.
It paints a picture that, in not so many words, tells the story of a group of young black men who are destructive and aimless, the type of men society needs to be warned about. Here, the media itself is playing the role of the alarm bell, signalling to the public to look out. “Look, look at what they do and why you should fear them and why they need to be punished,” it says.
On Saturday, protesters marched to the Baltimore City Hall to demonstrate against Gray’s death. Many other protests and marches to speak out against his fate – and the fate of many others at the hands of the police – have taken place since.
The protest is a reaction to a flawed system; it’s a voice that is making itself heard. It’s people coming together and speaking out against something that is unacceptable and it’s drawing attention to these crimes against humanity so that others can be made aware of them.
A protest is not a passive thing. It is fuelled by the passions, emotions and anger of the people who give it motion, the same things that are necessary to take a stance against anything, really. And such stances are necessary.
Explosions in the media
But somewhere between the protests and the people who passionately participated in them, the media found a riot. And riot the media certainly did.
Suddenly, the anguish of the community, the loss of a life and any degree of disgust and humiliation the police force should have experienced was replaced with the imagery of destruction and acts of violence at the hands of young black Americans.
The media in its coverage lost track of the point of the story. The portrayal of the desperate and determined outrage against police brutality took a back seat and instead, we received an overwhelming amount of coverage on the criminality of the riots.
The irresponsibility of this kind of coverage only lends itself to further embedding an already backward kind of thinking – that all black men are criminals and that the police are just doing their job.
According to Al Jazeera America, about 100 people were responsible for the violence, smashing of windows, setting of fires and general throwing of things.
CNN made fleeting reference to the fact that the protesters were overwhelmingly peaceful and when angry demonstrators started reacting at the City Hall march, peaceful protesters created a barrier between themselves and the police lines.
The actions of the disgruntled minority, however, has exploded on to the front pages, Twitter feeds and websites of mainstream media – but the peaceful majority not so much.
Dear media houses, when you sell your paper, you are also selling an idea. You are selling an idea that becomes an action. You are selling racism.
You are stealing away from the actual acts of violence, the ones executed at the hands of the police force and, instead of critically engaging consumers in the nature of the issues, you are portraying something that is happening as an aside.
You are dismantling change and fuelling the very acts of transgressions that the majority of these protesters are trying to stop.
You are asking the general public to ignore a bigger problem and instead focus on the violence created by a fraction of a community.
You are painting that fraction as an entire demographic and asking the public to believe that these people are intrinsically violent and need to be dealt with.
No one is asking you to not tell the story of the angry protesters and their transgressions, but the imbalance of your coverage is shifting the focus from a massive problem of vicious misconduct.
When you cover the news this way, you’re asking the public to not care about the vicious misconduct, but to participate in it instead.