The Corner

Law & the Courts

The Media’s Half-Hearted Interest in Milwaukee’s Riots

Milwaukee suffered riots for two nights, but the national media is showing much less interest in this event than Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cases of African-Americans clashing with police over allegations of unjustified shootings.

Lest you think the events Sunday night were minor:

For a second night, disorder hit Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood late Sunday, with protesters throwing rocks, bricks and glass bottles at police, shots ringing out and a shooting victim rescued by officers and whisked to a hospital in an armored vehicle.

The previous night, six businesses were set on fire and either destroyed or heavily damaged, four cops were injured, and multiple gunshots reported.

This morning, coverage of Milwaukee is on the middle of the front page of USA Today, ‘Wis. calls up Guard after unrest.’ Last night’s “unrest” didn’t make the front page of the Boston Globe, Washington Post, or New York Times.

Is it the Olympics? The presidential race? Everybody’s on vacation in August?

Perhaps the most optimistic interpretation of the muted coverage is that the media learned from its mistakes after the shooting and protests in Ferguson. After months of angry coverage that treated Michael Brown as an innocent victim and officer Darren Wilson as a merciless executioner, official reviews concluded that the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative wasn’t corroborated by ballistic and DNA evidence and multiple witness statements. The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart had the guts to conclude, “‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ was built on a lie.” Having been fooled before, perhaps the media is less eager to spotlight Milwaukee as a cause for national outrage.

The shooting of Sylville K. Smith in Milwaukee doesn’t fit the familiar narrative at all. He was armed and refused to put down a weapon. The police chief and mayor say that the body-cam footage will confirm the officer’s account. (The officer was African-American.) Smith was far from a model citizen:

The man shot and killed by a Milwaukee police officer Saturday was charged last year in a shooting and then charged with trying to intimidate a witness in that shooting.

Sylville Smith, 23, was fatally shot after he refused to drop a gun, which was loaded with 23 rounds, police said.

Smith had been in trouble with the law dating back at least to 2011, according to arrest records released by the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office late Sunday. He was arrested or ticketed nine times in that period — for the shooting, a robbery, carrying a concealed weapon, theft, possession of heroin and more. His most recent arrest was July 22 for possession of cocaine, records show.

A more pessimistic interpretation is the media recognizes the protesters in Milwaukee are ridiculous for reacting as if the shooting of Smith is a great outrage or reason for rioting, and that extensive coverage will tarnish the arguments of Black Lives Matter. Larry O’Connor spotlights an African-American protester in Milwaukee who declared, “The rich people got all this money and they not like, you know, tryin’ give us none.” The people setting fire to businesses aren’t really upset by police brutality or systemic injustices; they’re just angry at the world and want to destroy something. 

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