I watch the television news tonight out of Baltimore until my heart feels crushed, and I have to stop. Doctor’s orders.
Sheesh. I came out of Alexandria Hospital this afternoon to see flames and cops on the tv screen and it is too much déjà vu for my wounded heart. Why does a trip to the hospital always seem to trigger conflagration for my family? Not to mention our distressed neighbors in Baltimore, and my (former) colleagues in blue.
In 1993, 22 years ago this month, I left Columbia Hospital for Women after the birth of my daughter to see news film of the federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Twenty years ago, I came home after the birth of my son to see the Oklahoma City bombing. Today, after three days in Intermediate Care after an ambulance ride Friday (another heart-related false alarm, thank you. More later) I came home to see looters and burning police cruisers and fires and disorder. No deaths so far. I pray. But at least 15 police injured so far.
And I can’t turn it off.
The restrained and professional police response has given the press little to criticize, until tomorrow when cops will certain face criticism for failures to act or predict or be everywhere at once. As if a cop or a dozen or a hundred can stop a crowd of motivated thieves set on “getting paid” today, using a funeral and a protest as cover for thievery and crime. A CVS is raided, emptied and burned. A liquor store is stripped, and the crowd moves one storefront to the right and crashes/trashes a cellphone business. More and more, and I can’t keep up. My wife, as she has so many times since I retired, clutched my arm and said, “I’m so glad you’ re not on anymore.”
I’m not. I want to be on duty, out there, in Baltimore, or in Alexandria where our community has so far escaped the rift of anger and lack of communication and trust that flashes to violence like we see tonight. Where the good cops, like so many truly are, serve and protect and earn the trust of the people. The good people, who are out there but hidden under the smoke of the arson fires in stores and burning cars.
But not all are hidden. Helicopter cameras show lines of men in black suits, white shirts and black ties trying, gently but forcefully, to curb the flow of criminals in the street and protect the violated stores, presumably Nation of Islam members acting for calm as they so often do. Brave reporters (for brave, read: white press wading into angry black crowds) to interview masked men who identified themselves as peacekeepers. And it helps the optics that the mayor, police chief and patrol commander are black, since there is the clear and undeniable racial component in Baltimore that started with the revelations last week that a black male had died in the custody of white police. An angering event, in light of the recent history of protested and press-highlighted deaths of black men at the hands of police. That many or most of these have been reviewed and resolved, and that this most recent case in Baltimore has led to every available response by authorities – suspension of the officers involved, ongoing investigation by the police and the U.S. Department of Justice – should be reason for the protestors to back down. There is no step available that protesters can demand, at least logically. But today Baltimore moved far beyond logic.
Logic. What is that? Just now, the local Fox news station reported that a peaceful group of ministers had marched through a violent crowd and up to police, knelt in the street and raised their hands in the recognized “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” anti-police protest. Logic might dictate that this gesture be discredited with the Department of Justice report that such an event, attributed to the late Michael Brown in Ferguson, Illinois, never happened.
And what else didn’t happen? We still don’t know what happened to Freddie Gray, the beloved son of Baltimore lovingly described in Saturday’s Washington Post as a gentle and friendly sort. The part where he ran from police while illegally armed is somehow forgotten. We don’t know how his spine was damaged, but could it have been at the skidding, rough tackle at the end of a police foot pursuit? It is alleged that he was not seat-buckled in the back of a Baltimore PD prisoner van, implying some vehicular movement, deliberate or otherwise might have inflicted injury. But I have seen a prisoner unbuckle his own belt and throw himself face-forward against a police cruiser safety screen, in anger or frustration or because rumors were rampant in Alexandria that the city would pay for such injuries in lawsuits. So we don’t yet know what happened to Gray.
And it is too early to parse out the mistakes, misstatements and misrepresentations that the news media will feed to us as the night goes on, and tomorrow and the weekend continue. But there has recently been a reason to hope for better from the press.
Last week television screens and computer monitors lit up with the dramatic and ghastly drama of a police cruiser deliberately ramming a pedestrian in Arizona. Dash-cam footage showed (till cut by sensitive editors) the man’s body pinwheeling away as the cruiser struck him. At first glance, it appeared to be a terrible accident and fit well into the nationwide police misconduct story.
At first glance.
But this time, glimmers of understanding shone through early. But only when the entire video was shown, explaining that this man had that morning allegedly robbed a convenience store, broken into and torched a church, burglarized a house and stolen a car, then stole a rifle and bullets from a Walmart and was at the time of the filmed event marching down a populated street with the loaded gun under his own chin. That the gun was loaded was emphasized by seeing him raise the rifle and fire a shot in the air.
After a Today Show intro that highlighted “a new wave of protests across the country condemning police brutality,” the video from Marana, Arizona was shown in which Officer Michael Rapiejko forcefully ended the deadly threat posed by suspect Mario Valencia and his stolen rifle. Even the police chief admitted it was unorthodox.
But the most unusual thing occurred next. Today host Matt Lauer, wrapping up the Arizona coverage, admitted that there might be more to the story than the press was seeing, or saying. “I think if you just see the video and you know nothing about the story, you immediately jump to one conclusion. But if you hear more of the details of what happened before, it’s much more nuanced.”
Give that man a cigar.
Why dig out the truth when the unexamined imagery keeps viewers enthralled. Or outraged. Why do your journalism job (which, of course, is only filling a few minutes of airtime between paid advertisements) when the narrowly edited and unexplained visual – of a flying body, a police shooting, a driver beaten by officers with clubs – is so much easier to file. And of course, don’t question statements made about the event by axe-grinders like, for example, the suspect’s attorney who told CNN: “Everything in the video seems to point towards an obvious excessive use of force. It is miraculous that my client isn’t dead.” I won’t hold her strident advocacy against her, she’s just doing what she’s paid to do.
No, I hold it against the reporters who don’t challenge such one-sided statements. Who don’t ask, “What else could the officers have done against this deadly threat, what tools did they have to end this confrontation safely, what choice did Valencia give them?” Who don’t give Matt Lauer the details, or wait for them before pronouncements.
No. Just show the video.
We’ll see what they say tomorrow. But I can’t watch anymore tonight.