It was less than a year ago that protests spread across the nation with the slogan, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” Only some months before that there were live video feeds of the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, at night, with residents shouting at police armed with assault rifles. In light of the protests today, it seems the media forgot the lesson that they learned back then: Stop reporting sensationalist aspects of civil rights protests — especially the ones that result from an action of violence.
In stories from Ferguson, we saw reporters focusing on the looters and arsonists that were automatically associated with the protests. Suddenly, the protests as a whole were labeled violent. What reporters failed to discuss were the Ferguson residents who cleaned up the broken windows of shops, and even gang members who protected businesses from looters because they were afraid of media coverage taking away from the more important issue: police brutality and the institutional racism that allowed it.
Earlier this week, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interviewed activist Deeray McKesson. Blitzer kept asking McKesson about the violence in Baltimore, the police cars being burned and injuries sustained by both civilians and police. Blitzer asked him, “There’s no excuse for this violence, right?” McKesson, frustrated, responded, “And there’s no excuse for the seven people that the Baltimore police department has killed in the past year either, right?”
Reporting with such a clear agenda as Blitzer’s doesn’t just fail to do justice to the nature of the protesters, but also the nature of the whole city. Just as often as CNN and Fox News show us images of burning police vehicles and broken windows, there are unseen scenes of Baltimore residents cleaning up after the nights of the protests, taking brooms — not Molotov cocktails — to the the streets of the city. Videos of protesters standing with their arms outstretched in front of the crowd, trying to calm the tension by saying, “Don’t give them a reason,” seem to fail to reach media coverage. Instead, we watch on as a mother beats her son who was participating in the riots — a disturbingly subtle nod of approval from the media to treat protesters this way.
Peaceful protesters are still putting their hands up. They’re still linking arms. They’re still painting signs, singing songs, chanting chants, hoping for a better future. They’re still marching. We’re just not watching.