This article originally appeared in Z magazine’s July/August 2015 issue.
For over a week, CNN and other major broadcasters focused on the epicenter of the Baltimore riots at the large intersection of Pennsylvania and North Avenues. 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 television coverage of Baltimore in general for that week, there was so much they didn’t cover. Some of these omissions, or facts only mentioned once and never repeated, appeared against their 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 and North intersection, and his store outlet 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 in raising the political awareness of the Penn/North neighborhood 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, African American Baltimore resident Donte Allen said police picked him up for no reason and put him on the other side of the police van, divided by a metal partition. Allen said Gray was already unresponsive when they picked him up as he heard police calling his 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 that they 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 going into the hospital in a coma, to 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, by a more independent expert, they never again mentioned it. 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 they proceeded to place Freddie Gray in a police van. Wecht said that at some point in police taking Gray to the precinct, they placed him on his stomach in the van “hog-tied,” with his hand-cuffed legs fastened behind his back to his hand-cuffed wrists.
While rioting occurred all over Baltimore that Monday night, and looting continued Tuesday night, the television news stations only focused Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue the following night. Radio reports stated that protests, skirmishes with police and arrests were happening in South Baltimore too, that went unreported. Other protests and arrests happened in East Baltimore, besides the one major arson. 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 presenting in context was the coming together of some notoriously warring Bloods and Crips gang members to call a peace truce and quell 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 was a fabrication. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s spokesman 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, wrote the award-winning book, Poor People’s Movements. This book showed that “disruptive mobilizations” such as riots, was 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, in leftist Red Emma’s Bookstore and café about another mile down North Avenue.
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 was 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 that 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 conversion movement.
In conversations, many in the Baltimore community attribute the Freddie Gray protests and riots for 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 movie that involved anarchic riots. Another black resident said her pastor preached that outside agitators traveled to Baltimore and sparked the Baltimore riots. A black teenager filmed in Baltimore belies these reports. Filmed within 100 yards of Everyone’s Place: Afrikan Cultural Center, he said police strip search him and friends, plant pills on them, and beat on them. Yet he said he’s “optimistic” and… doesn’t “do drugs,” ending with “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 four years. Seventy percent of these people were black and 40% were unarmed. Hopefully the riots and police charged with murder will stop this terroristic 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.