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Why Baltimore Is Different

The conflicting narratives and media coverage of the recent protests demonstrates signs of progress in the coverage of criminal justice and a reminder of how far it has to go.

April 29, 2015

There is always intellectual space between condoning the anger and violence of a riot and understanding the direct and proximate causes of it. One emerging theme from the early coverage of this week’s protests in Baltimore it is that more  correspondents (professional or otherwise, and regardless of ideology) seem to be looking for and then candidly acknowledging that space. Not all, mind you. But some. This is, in and of itself, a victory for the earnest, non-violent protesters there and a defeat for those whose policies and practices they legitimately protest.

The death of Freddie Gray earlier this month — another unarmed black man who did not survive his brush with the police — was the proximate cause of the protests but the spark flowed from the embers of three seasons’ worth of intense national media coverage of police killings of minority citizens and the growing awareness of how feckless our justice systems are in responding to those killings. It flowed, too, from perhaps 300 seasons worth of social and economic inequality in Baltimore, a vital point made Tuesday by President Barack Obama at the White House and on Monday, unexpectedly, by John Angelos, the C.O.O. of the Baltimore Orioles, who lamented (even before two Orioles’ home games were postponed due to the unrest):

the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.

Even the civilian officials directing the law enforcement response to the Baltimore protests seemed (in sharp contrast to their counterparts in Ferguson, Missouri last summer) to make earnest efforts to acknowledge amid the arrests and fires that many of the people in the streets had good reason to be cynical and frustrated not just about what happened to Gray but also about the injustices of their own social and economic circumstances. For this those officials were praised by the President for their forbearance and criticized by police union officials for their candor and by some conservatives for issuing a “license for lawlessness.

The media coverage from and about Baltimore isn’t over, of course. Things can change just as suddenly today or tomorrow as they did yesterday and Monday. And the cable news channels will inevitably, as President Obama said Tuesday, continue to focus on the images of fire. But the inescapable duality of the narratives — both the protests and the context in which the protests have occurred — are nuanced this time in a way they might not have been a year ago. This is both a sign of progress in the coverage of criminal justice and its impact upon American life and a reminder of how far that coverage still has to go. 

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Flickr/Dorret