Magazine June 1, 2015, Issue

The Riot Show!

(Marvin Joseph/Washington Post via Getty Images)
News media glamorized anarchy and reinforced lies in Baltimore

What if they held a race riot and the media stayed away? At the very least, we would be spared the nauseating spectacle of sycophantic reporters fawning on opportunistic thieves, as was repeated yet again during the latest outbreak of anti-police violence in Baltimore. More important, the vandals would lose a bounty as valuable as their purloined booty: notoriety and legitimacy.

The Baltimore riots of April 25 and 27 were held in the name of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old drug dealer with a lengthy arrest record who died from a spinal injury a week after being transported in a Baltimore police van. Gray had taken off running after making eye contact with an officer on bike patrol in a high-crime area; police reportedly claim he was involved in illegal activity. After a chase, he surrendered and was cuffed, searched, and arrested for possession of an illegal knife. According to the Baltimore prosecutor, he asked for an asthma inhaler but was not given one; he was not secured by a seatbelt while being transported in the police van, and though the officer driving the van repeatedly checked up on Gray, the officer did not provide requested medical assistance. It was during this time, according to the prosecutor, that he suffered his ultimately fatal spine injury.

These latest riots followed a drearily familiar script: Upon the first outbreak of violence, a crush of reporters flock to the scene with barely suppressed cries of glee. Surrounded by sound trucks and camera crews, outfitted with cellphones and microphones, they breathlessly narrate each police–looter skirmish for the viewing public, thrusting their microphones into the faces of spectators and thugs alike to get a “street” interpretation of the mayhem. The studio anchors melodramatically caution the reporters to “stay safe,” even though the press at times may outnumber both looters and the police. Meanwhile, the thieves get to indulge in the pleasures of anarchic annihilation while enjoying the desideratum of every reality-TV show cast: a wide and devoted audience.

The performative quality of the live, televised race riot has created a new genre: riot porn, in which every act of thuggery is lasciviously filmed and parsed in real time for the benefit of at-home viewers. “Did you see that?” CNN reporter Miguel Marquez asked studio anchor Wolf Blitzer as vandals slashed a fire hose brought in to try to save a burning CVS store on April 27. (Marquez is given to philosophizing on social justice as he walks alongside protesters during anti-police demonstrations.) “Wolf, if you just saw that, they just, while we were talking there, they just cut the hose with a knife, trying to — and then ran, trying to thwart the efforts of the authorities to actually turn out this fire.”

Wolf confirmed that he had in fact seen the close-up footage: “I just saw that guy, yeah, I just saw that guy cut the hose as well, [a guy] with a gas mask.” Naturally, the TV audience also got to see the vicious sabotage. The street scene at these televised riots can be eerily static. People mill around listlessly like extras on a movie set, while more energetic thugs, perched on the roofs of police cruisers, stomp out the cars’ windshields or throw garbage cans through the rear windows. The smartphone camera has only magnified the specular nature of the anarchy, as passers-by memorialize their own presence at the festival of lawlessness.

As in last year’s Ferguson, Mo., race riots, CNN topped all other television channels for relentless oversaturation, keeping a round-the-clock phalanx of reporters in West Baltimore to meditate portentously on the meaning of the riots long after the looting was finally suppressed. Among national print outlets, the New York Times’ output was the most frenzied, with four or five stories a day on policing and racism, topics the Times had already been obsessively pursuing for the last nine months. Both organizations have only marginally diminished their coverage of Baltimore since the fires were extinguished.

The ideological yield from this latest urban tantrum has been considerable. Inevitably, academics and pundits conferred political legitimacy on the riots, deeming them, in the words of the online publication Vox, “a serious attempt at forcing change.” Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake apologized for calling the rioters “thugs.” And President Obama and Hillary Clinton both affirmed the dangerous myth that the criminal-justice system is racist. Speaking at Lehman College in the Bronx a week after the Baltimore riots, President Obama opined that young black men experience “being treated differently by law enforcement — in stops and in arrests, and in charges and incarcerations. The statistics are clear, up and down the criminal-justice system. There’s no dispute.” Hillary Clinton seconded this theme at Columbia University several days after the riots. “We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America. There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts.”

This claim of disparate treatment is simply untrue. For decades, liberal criminologists have tried to corroborate the Left’s cherished belief that the criminal-justice system responds to similarly situated whites and blacks unequally. The effort always comes up short. “Racial differences in patterns of offending, not racial bias by police and other officials, are the principal reason that such greater proportions of blacks than whites are arrested, prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned,” criminologist Michael Tonry concluded in his 1995 book Malign Neglect. A 1994 Justice Department survey of felony cases from the country’s 75 largest urban areas found that blacks had a lower chance of prosecution following a felony than whites, and were less likely to be found guilty at trial. Blacks were more likely to be sentenced to prison following a conviction, but that result reflected their past crimes and the gravity of their current offense.

The rioting also gave fresh impetus to the liberal narrative about cities: that their viability depends on government spending. “There are consequences to indifference,” Obama said at Lehman College. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman opined that the riots “have served at least one useful purpose: drawing attention to the grotesque inequalities that poison the lives of too many Americans.” Krugman blamed stingy federal outlays for the “grotesque inequalities.”

The idea that the federal and local governments have been “indifferent” to urban decay is ludicrous. Taxpayers have coughed up $22 trillion on over 80 means-tested welfare programs (not including Social Security, Medicare, or grants for economic development) since the War on Poverty was launched in 1964, according to the Heritage Foundation. In the 1990s, Baltimore “invested” $130 million in public and non-profit dollars to transform the West Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived, to no effect, as National Review’s Ian Tuttle has documented.

This lack of effect is not surprising. Baltimore’s crime rate has been among the nation’s highest for decades. In 2013, the only cities with higher murder rates were Detroit, New Orleans, Newark, and St. Louis. Baltimore’s violent-crime rate is over twice that of New York. That violence would have doomed any hope for economic revival in high-crime areas even without the latest destruction of 350 businesses by arson and looting. West Baltimore residents have been complaining to the tenacious post-riot crowd of reporters that Baltimore’s Inner Harbor area is spiffy and thriving, while their neighborhood is not. But if they have any other options, potential business owners are not going to locate in a neighborhood where they fear for the safety of their employees and customers. Lowered crime is a precondition to economic revival, not its consequence. New York’s economic renaissance began only when crime started plummeting in 1994, thanks to a policing revolution there.

The post-riot media narrative has virtually ignored Baltimore’s sky-high crime in favor of an all-consuming focus on allegedly racist policing practices. The Baltimore Sun, however, to its credit, has noted the shooting rampage that began after Freddie Gray was arrested on April 12 and escalated following the riots, as officers backed off from proactive enforcement. From April 28, the day after the most destructive riot, to May 7, there have been 40 shootings, including ten on May 7. Fifteen people were murdered during that period, more than one a day. The total of 82 homicides through May 7, 2015, is 20 more than it was at the same point in 2014. None of these deaths have dislodged the still-dominant “Black Lives Matter” conceit that the biggest threat facing young black men today is the police instead of other young black men. None of Baltimore’s post-riot killings have triggered protests. They are treated as normal.

Baltimore police officers now face a street environment that is even more dangerous and hostile than usual. Ninety-eight officers were injured, 43 seriously, during and immediately after the riots. Every arrest now brings a crowd of bystanders pressing in, jeering, and spreading lies about the encounter. On May 4, officers received a call about a man with a gun at the corner of a torched CVS store. His movements, captured on a police camera, also suggested that he had a gun. The suspect, 23-year-old Robert Edward “Meech” Tucker, had previously been convicted on gun and drug charges. When the officers approached him, he took off running (just as Freddie Gray did when he saw officers watching him). Tucker’s gun fired. Tucker then dropped to the ground and began screaming and rolling around as if he had been shot. Bystanders claimed that they had seen the police shoot him. The crowd threw bricks, Clorox bottles, and water bottles at the officers; one man lunged at them but was held back by other pedestrians. In fact, no officer had discharged his gun or even taken aim at Tucker. Even though Tucker had not been shot, not even by his own gun, word in the street continued to maintain that the cops had shot him.

Such lying about officer–civilian interactions is endemic in urban areas. But even though the country has just witnessed the evisceration of the Michael Brown “hands up” hoax by none other than the federal Department of Justice, the media and the authorities continue to seek out allegations of officer misconduct and to treat them as the gospel truth. The New York Times quoted a drug dealer as an authority on the Baltimore police: “They trip you, choke you out, cuss you out, disrespect you.” Maybe so. (The anti-police bar has won judgments or settlements against the Baltimore Police Department in over 100 civil-rights and brutality cases over the last four years, a fact that could reflect a pattern of abuse or a pattern of aggressive litigation and a supine city law department.) But it is also possible that that dealer is lying through his teeth. It never occurs to elite opinion-makers that the pervasiveness of crime in the inner city creates a large block of residents — not just criminals but their friends and families as well — who view and treat the police as antagonists.

The riots also led to rushed and likely excessive criminal charges against the six officers involved in the arrest and transport of Freddie Gray. (Four officers face homicide counts ranging from involuntary manslaughter to second-degree murder.) Upon announcing the charges mere hours after receiving Gray’s autopsy and a day after receiving a police report on the arrest, Baltimore’s prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, declared that she had heard the “call for ‘no justice, no peace.’” Positioning herself as the head of a crusade rather than as part of a legal system dedicated to prosecuting individual cases, not causes, Mosby continued in an Obama-esque vein: “Last but certainly not least, to the youth of the city: I will seek justice on your behalf. This is a moment. This is your moment. Let’s ensure we have peaceful and productive rallies that will develop structural and systemic changes for generations to come. You’re at the forefront of this cause and as young people, our time is now.”

Mosby had already displayed her penchant for the crassest of racial rabble-rousing following the decision of a Ferguson, Mo., grand jury last November not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown. Mosby questioned the “motives” of St. Louis County district attorney Robert McCulloch, reports St. Louis Public Radio. “In Ferguson, over 68 percent of the population is black and less than 6 percent votes,” Mosby said on Baltimore TV. (Mosby did not explain why that low turnout is the fault of anyone other than the non-voters.) “So you have an individual who is in office and does not share your interests and values and is making decisions about your daily life. . . . We say bring in special prosecutions.”

Mosby has reversed herself regarding special prosecutors now that the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police is charging her with several financial and familial conflicts of interest in the Freddie Gray case. “I can tell you that the people of Baltimore City elected me, and there’s no accountability with a special prosecutor,” she said at a post-indictment press conference. One can only hope that the criminal-justice system will backstop whatever accountability to the facts Mosby herself feels.

While the second-degree-murder charge against the driver of the police van carries the direst individual consequences, Mosby’s charge of “false imprisonment” against the arresting officers raises a risk of shutting down policing across Baltimore. Mosby alleges that the switchblade knife possessed by Gray was not illegal under Maryland law. The Baltimore police respond that it was prohibited under a city code. Even if Mosby’s reading of the knife statutes is correct, her imposition of criminal liability for an officer’s good-faith interpretive error is preposterous. The remedy for an arrest not supported by probable cause is to throw the case out at the station house or prosecutor’s office, or in court. If officers now face prison terms for trying to keep the streets safe, they will stop making discretionary arrests. Baltimore’s recent spike in gun violence suggests that such depolicing may have already begun. (A little over a week after the riots, Mayor Rawlings-Blake requested that the U.S. Justice Department investigate the Baltimore police for systemic civil-rights violations. Lynch agreed the next day.)

A riot’s unchecked destruction of livelihoods and property is certainly newsworthy, threatening as it does the very possibility of civilization. The breakdown of law and order is a policy concern of enormous note. But the 24-hour cable-news cycle, with its insatiable craving for live visual excitement, creates a codependency between reporters and rioters, and the politics of the mainstream media guarantees a “root causes” exculpation of the violence. Short of a filming blackout on the actual violence, riots should be covered in sorrow, shame, and dismay.

Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Are Cops Racist?

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