The Baltimore Riots, Resident Info Beyond Mainstream Media
For over a week, CNN and other major broadcasters focused on the epicenter of the Baltimore riots at the large intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue. The arrest of Freddie Gray, apparently for possession of a legal pocketknife, which resulted in his death, sparked the riots. Despite the nearly 24-hour-a-day national television coverage of the situation in Baltimore that week, there was much the media didn’t cover. Some of these omissions, or facts only mentioned once and never repeated, appeared against the media owners’ more right-wing political agenda.
First, the mainstream media failed to show black people standing in front of their untouched stores throughout Baltimore City. For example, leftist national black books distributor, Nati Natakati, co-owner of Afrikan World Books and Everyone’s Place: Afrikan Cultural Center, has his office warehouse 100 yards south of the Penn North intersection, and his store outlet sits 50 yards east of the intersection. Natakati said he wasn’t worried about rioters vandalizing or looting his buildings; he was worried about police or undercover police agents using the opportunity to vandalize his buildings. Nati asked his friend, 7th degree black belt Kyoshi Arnold Mitchell, to stand in front of Everyone’s Place.
Natakati’s bookstore likely contributed to the protest against police murders by raising political awareness among Penn North neighborhood residents in particular and Baltimore in general. His bookstore sells many books covering the tactics of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program, particularly against the Black Panthers. After police arrested Freddie Gray and put him into the rear of a police van, African American Baltimore resident Donte Allen said police picked him up for no reason and put him in the same van, in an adjacent rear compartment; a metal partition separates each compartment. Allen said Gray already appeared unresponsive when the police picked him up as he heard police calling Gray’s name to no avail. Allen also showed his political education by saying police tried to turn him against Gray and the community, “the way they did to the BPP [Black Panther Party]…they infiltrated the Panther Party back in the day but I’m not no snitch and never will be.”
Another aspect of the riots that went unreported was the police provocations of high school students in the West Baltimore area where rioting first erupted. A Baltimore independent media source, therealnews.com, claimed to have “obtained Baltimore police arrest report documents” from an anonymous source describing how police were regularly harassing black students in the two weeks between Freddie Gray’s arrest and the Monday night riot. Police would arrest mostly young African-American students, as young as 14 and 15 years old, when they didn’t immediately get on their bus after school.
When media organizations such as CNN did report an important piece of information, usually by a more independent expert, they never pursued the story. For example, on Saturday May 2, Cyril Wecht, MD, president of the American Forensics Association, said that police actions surely injured Gray’s spine just before putting him into the police van. Wecht said that at some point in the ride to the police precinct, Gray was placed on his stomach in the van “hog-tied,” his handcuffed legs fastened behind his back to his handcuffed wrists.
While rioting occurred all over Baltimore that Monday night, and looting continued Tuesday night, the television news stations just focused on the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue on Tuesday and the following nights. Radio reports stated that protests, skirmishes with police, and arrests were happening in South Baltimore, too, but went unreported. Other protests and arrests happened in East Baltimore, where the one major arson took place. The New York Times made a map of the clashes with police that no other media organizations appeared to cover.
Another aspect of the riots that mainstream media ignored was the coming together of some notoriously warring Bloods and Crips gang members calling a peace truce and quelling some of the young rioters (some Black Guerilla Family gang members also took part). While officials first claimed these gang members were planning to kill police officers, they later admitted that to be a fabrication. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s spokesperson then said that the gang members could be used to quell some of the rioting, which they did.
Top sociologists Frances Fox Piven and her late husband, Richard Cloward, who wrote the award-winning book, Poor People’s Movements, showed that “disruptive mobilizations” such as riots, were the only tactic that led to national policy change with regard to various poor people’s movements throughout the 20th century. Some community organizers, such as social worker Ameejil Whitlock, agree with this notion. She organized the emergency training of legal observers and medical aid workers for the Freddie Gray protests, at Red Emma’s Bookstore and café.
Whitlock stated that the Nation Of Islam (NOI) co-opted the politicized gang members to get them to stop the rioting. While some NOI have done good work in politicizing black Baltimore residents to protest against police brutality, Whitlock implied that these NOI leaders were hurting the movement for their own political gain. The history of these gangs’ peace truces and politicization has been over two decades in the making. Former Black Panthers and other activists first helped broker peace truces of Blood and Crips gangs in Los Angeles around the time of the Los Angeles riots, after the police who brutalized Rodney King were acquitted. These activists also got many of these gangs to stop dealing drugs and become leftist activists. Rap icon Tupac Shakur’s business manager, former Black Panther Watani Tyehimba, confirmed that Tupac was aiding these gang peace truces and activist conversions.
In conversations, many in the Baltimore community attribute the Freddie Gray protests and riots to reasons other than a politically enlightened, fed up black community. One black resident whose husband is a police officer, blamed a coincidentally planned imitation of the Purge movies, which involved anarchic riots. Another black resident said her pastor preached that outside agitators traveled to Baltimore and sparked the Baltimore riots. A Baltimore teenager’s film belies these reports. Filmed within 100 yards of Everyone’s Place: he said police strip searched him and his friends, planted pills on them, and beat on them. Yet he said he’s “optimistic” and…doesn’t “do drugs,” ending with a shout “black power,” giving the pumped fist salute. The American Civil Liberties Union documented that over 100 people have died after encounters with Baltimore police in the last 4 years. Seventy percent of these people were black and forty percent were unarmed. Hopefully the riots and police charged with murder will stop this terrorist police behavior and set an example for other cities’ police departments. If the police charged with assault and manslaughter get off easy, young black Baltimoreans will likely riot again, whether mainstream media covers it fully the next time or not.
Baltimore resident John Potash is the author of The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders, and the newly released Drugs as Weapons Against Us.