Media Watch: The Fictional BPD Memorial Day Riot
BREAKING NEWS: Saturday evening, May 25th, one or more hundred youth hung out at the Inner Harbor.
Well, that's not really a story. It's a city.
What if I told you some of them acted out, engaged in light vandalism, and fought with each other?
I guess that is what would happen... I mean, suburban kids take bats to mailboxes...
And a few committed assault?
I mean... assault is bad, but for Baltimore on a Saturday night, that's still a low number...
Okay, so, disregard all that. What if I told you that hundreds of juveniles in mobs robbed, assaulted, and destroyed the property of families and visitors to the Inner Harbor?
What? That's terrible...
Well, I'm not saying that happened, but I'm also not saying it didn't happen.
Now I'm just confused.
Welcome to Baltimore!
The So-Called Riot of Memorial Day, 2019
On Saturday, May 25, Baltimore local media and some officials gave the suggestion that *something terrible* happened at the Inner Harbor when hundreds of kids showed up that afternoon. Rampant criminality was implied and, when the evidence didn't seem to support that, some of these people doubled down.
It took several days, but now we know what the terrible thing was that happened and traumatized so many who witnessed it. The journey to get there has been both archetypical for Baltimore media and police and especially messy. No fewer than three headlines had to be changed in the process.
Another Saturday Night Online
I happened to be visiting my dad in Florida on Saturday but paying very close attention to Baltimore Twitter. The first tweet about what was happening at the Inner Harbor to catch my attention came from a WBAL reporter.
"Wait, are you sure?" some of us asked. "You really mean to say that hundreds of youth were committing crimes?" That's a riot, by definition, and not a small riot!
Immediately, our skepticism was challenged by the true believers of police and media. Baltimore, they reminded us, is a hellscape where these things like that happen all the time. Some of them referred to Baltimore's children as "feral" and the like.
But we were just asking. One would think there would be videos circulating and helicopters overhead if literally hundreds of youth had been committing robbery, assault, and other crimes. But media only had images and video of the police response. No reporters saw serious crime for themselves.
It also didn't make sense. Teens don't rise up en masse like that on a Saturday for no reason, breaking the law in the most visible part of the city.
We were told that this story came came from Citizen App account, the police scanner, and the witnesses mentioned above. Those were compelling forms of evidence, but they didn't prove that there was a riot. Perception is a mighty force. Ask any two people if squeegee kids are dangerous and you might get very insistent but opposite answers.
In response to the skepticism, Ms. Campbell said that she would wait to hear BPD confirm what happened. That wasn't promising either. Many in Baltimore live with the memory of BPD claiming that April 27th 2015, a "purge" broke out at Mondawmin Mall, with children hurling rocks and bottles at police unprovoked. (Here are two more in-depth accounts of what actually happened.)
Before we could say, "Where is the CCTV please?" for the fifteenth time, the Baltimore Sun got a story out there that very night, short on evidence:
The story could only verify that there was a large crowd, some kids were "rowdy," and there was an intense police presence. A Sun reporter quoted police saying that "masses of juveniles" were "fighting." I don't believe "masses" is a precise police term, but it leaves an impression. As usual, the reporters were not talking to any teenagers whatsoever.
(As "juveniles" is essentially a punitive term in criminal justice reporting, I advocated to get it changed. The story no longer exists in its original form, even in the archive. Here it is, updated the next day.)
Meanwhile, Councilman Eric Costello offered an alarmist account on Facebook:
The next day, we found out that there were six arrests and probably not that many kids. Mr. Costello walked a fine line between creating alarm around the mere number of kids and not outright saying that their presence was the problem. He slid seamlessly from presence into criminality.
Us Verses Them
The local FOP was less concerned about walking any lines:
By the time Mancuso sent this inflammatory and highly criticized tweet, the major activity had long since died down. His goal was purely rhetorical.
Even a traditionally conservative police union, by this point, could have expressed their pride or concern in the rank-and-file in any number of tempered ways, such as:
"Stay safe out there! You're doing a great job, officers."
"You've handled the situations at the Harbor well."
Instead, Mancuso went with the most extreme version of "us verses them" imaginable. The "them" was minor children, cast as villains.
A lot has been said on social media about the rhetorical work the FOP's tweet was doing, what it reveals about how the city's powerful guard view the young black people of this city, who are its residents and its future. The tweet not only prioritizes police safety over children; it shows no concern for the safety of children at all.
What the FOP tweet accomplished above all was to advance the perception that there was some kind of a dangerous riot. Why else would grown adults - with badges, training, arrest powers, and weapons - need to be so cautious of adolescents?
Days later, on May 28th, WBAL Radio published a story still pushing this agenda:
Once again, I pushed to get a headline changed, this time a clearly incorrect one. Ms. Campbell thankfully advocated internally, but it still pops up on a Google search. Here is the new headline:
I was lucky to have had the time and privilege to advocate for these media changes. I'm sure others would have too. The fact that two outlets immediately realized they had printed unethical and/or incorrect headlines is a testament to how sloppy editorial oversight is in this town. Still, the damage was done.
A Propaganda Campaign
Over the next few days, my mentions and timeline were filled with two types of witness accounts:
1) People who swore that, yes, there were hundreds of out-of-control teens committing acts of vandalism and violence. They saw it for themselves.
2) Accounts who said that it wasn't that bad.
The second group looked like it came from real people.
None of the first group had twitter identities, names, or pictures. These nameless/faceless accounts trolled the conversation for days. They created straw men and shifted goal posts, claiming that we had denied that anyone was hurt. (No, we just denied that hundreds of youth were criminally active.) I saw these trolls influence the narrative.
They circulated a video, of unknown origin. It showed three fights of some sort. The first one seems to resolve quickly, with all parties still friends. The second one is truly upsetting. It shows nearly a dozen kids assault a man and steal his bike. It's a terrifying scene. It's hard to identify the location, though. There's a car with an out-of-state plate. It may have happened that night, but the video's origins are undetermined. (If you have information confirming its origins, I would like to know.)
In one 24 hour period, I was sent this video 11 times. I've experienced a lot of police-related trolling on social media. This all seemed more organized than usual.
*Something Terrible* Happened, We Swear
Despite the anonymous trolling, I could still sense that there were actual people who felt strongly that *something truly terrible* had happened at the Harbor, on a large scale. They were angry at being dismissed by "woke" activists, responding often snidely and aggressively. I was told to "please please" visit the Inner Harbor on a Memorial Day holiday, based on the assumption that I had never been in such an environment before.
If *something terrible* had happened on a large scale, I surely wanted to know. The story just was not adding up at all to support it though.
Then someone prominently took up the cause and explained what that *terrible thing* was, for many people.
Rodricks' article didn't insist that there was a riot or even mass criminality. It briefly mentioned the various rumored incidents.
Instead, Rodricks admitted the thing that everyone else was dancing around: To him and others, it was the mere presence of hundred or more of Baltimore's youth at the Inner Harbor that was the problem. They were invaders.
Rodricks got a terrible ratio of "likes" to angry comments on social media. And, his headline was also changed to something innocuous and truthful, if nonsensical:
The Compilation Video
During and after the holiday, BPD leadership remained quiet. There were no statements whatsoever from our new Police Commissioner, Michael Harrison, about these events.
It turned out that BPD was busy behind the scenes. On May 29th, the department released a roughly five minute video compilation of events from that night from CCTV and BWC. This must have been quite an exhaustive effort to put together.
Initially, BPD refused to share it with the public, to protect the identity of juveniles, it said. At first, selected reporters shared their impressions of it.
I won't pretend that I trusted Rector to provide an unbiased take on the video, however even-handed he appears to be. I'll just say that I've studied several years of his reporting in depth... and leave it at that.
The propaganda campaign was infuriating by this point. BPD had effectively shifted the conversation: None of us had ever denied that there were incidents, in isolation, that may have required a police response. We just did not believe that the situation was so extreme that hundreds of teenagers were committing crimes or even behaving badly, which was the implied and stated story for those first 48 hours.
Just then, an anonymous cop began sending me still photographs from the compilation video to prove that there was a riot. Was he was leaking them straight from BPD's media department? The still images hurt his case. Some of them didn't show anything at all, just crowds. At one point, he claimed to show me 30 kids involved in criminality. Most of the kids did not seem to be fighting.
BPD somehow managed to screw up its own propaganda campaign in less than a day. They released their own video, hours after they said they wouldn't, and it didn't support their case very well. Here is the video that BPD created.
From hours upon hours of CCTV and Body Worn Camera (BWC) footage, this was the strongest evidence they could produce supporting the FOP's statement, if that was their intent. It wasn't not strong at all. Mostly what it shows is...
[drum roll please]
It is now clear that this was the unspeakably *something terrible* that happened at the harbor. Kids were running in large groups, on sidewalks and in the street. They may have been making noise too. That is what Costello said too, right? He said that up to 400 kids were running. The video shows maybe 100 running, if that.
The CCTV camera purposefully follows one group of mostly black male teens, far fewer than 100, running through the otherwise calm crowd. They run, change direction, then run into the carnival area and disperse, many walking.
The video shows a few incidents of concern. There's a BWC arrest while someone, who maybe looks like a victim, is on the ground. Later, a female cop calls out an assault and tells guards to protect the victim. One kid is seen running on top a car.
There's a moment described by Rector as a kid running into the protective arms of cops. I've watched that moment many times over. The cops tell him to "relax" a lot, which is a positive de-escalation move, but I'm not clear that he was in danger before. It's confusing.
While kids are running, a few of them seem to tussle over something for mere seconds. That breaks up immediately, and they keep running. This was the still image that the troll had sent me, swearing it showed 30 kids fighting or rioting. They were just running.
The last shot shows a kid appear to kick someone in the face and get a high-five from his friends. That part is suddenly in black-and-white. Why? Did Fellini jump into the editing room? It's odd.
That is about it. Most of the video, again, is just kids running.
I'm not saying kids running around like this in packs wasn't notable or cause for observation and concern. It's a fraction of what happens when a Super Bowl lets out. It's just, again, not proof of what those initial reports said happened.
So why were these kids running around like this? It's curious. At some points, they were clearly running away from cops. I can't say for sure that they were running away from police the whole time, but they definitely were some of the time.
The media reports suggested that police at the scene were angels. Maybe they were, but for some reason BPD included BWC of a cop at one point running through crowd of kids that are just standing there, grabbing them, and tossing them aside.
I'm not saying the cops didn't do their jobs well that afternoon, however defined. They don't come off incompetent or cruel on the video or audio. It's just baffling to me that BPD thought this would help their case.
Where is Commissioner Harrison?
We still haven't heard from Commissioner Harrison on any of this, odd considering how much news this story has occupied.
I can't imagine its easy to start a job in a city like Baltimore, restructure a famously corrupt department, and also deal with how to respond to hundreds of people downtown and several reported incidents. Batts, Davis, and DeSousa would probably all have given at least two press conferences on the matter, albeit arrogant and infuriating ones.
Harrison is very well paid and in no danger of going anywhere anytime soon. His silence, however, is probably not what Baltimore needs now, after more than a year in a leadership vacuum. His role in the police response and media campaign should be disclosed.
Cynically, I don't believe it matters how frequently and deeply we deconstruct BPD's narratives. For now, they probably succeeded at confirming what some people wanted to hear. BPD and local media know that most people don't make it past headlines. They know that "masses" of running black children is the apocalypse to them.
I wonder what Healthy Holly would say about kids burning so many calories like that.
Thanks to the attentions of one anonymous retired officer, known as @charmcitycop on Twitter, we have an answer to the question of "Where was Commissioner Harrison?"
That is Harrison in the upper right corner, attending the Conference of Police Chiefs in Miami during Memorial Day Weekend. He is taking the microphone at a Town Hall hosted by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). I wrote about PERF and its history with BPD, as well as its relationship to Harrison's lucrative BPD hire, in this essay.