Thug vs. Loner: the Implicit Racial Bias of the Mainstream Media
It has been a very active few weeks for the Black Lives Matter movement. In protest of the death of Jamar Clark, community members in Minneapolis occupied the area outside the 4th Precinct for 18 days, before the police department bulldozed the encampment on early Thursday morning. In Chicago, activists have been on the streets every night since the very graphic Laquan Mcdonald video was released, and impacted Black Friday sales in one of Chicago’s busiest shopping districts. New York City had a wild march in solidarity with Minneapolis against white supremacy, and also held an action on Thursday night for the one year anniversary of Eric Garner’s death. However, as loud as our voices are, the murder of unarmed black people continues.
Three days ago, Mario Woods was surrounded by at least six officers in the Bayview area of San Francisco, and after allegedly refusing to drop a knife, was shot at least fifteen times. The video seemed reminiscent of a firing squad:
WARNING: This a VERY GRAPHIC footage. Viewer discretion is advised.
Please Retweet! Recorded from my phone. Let's make this go viral pic.twitter.com/AnLbjPo8ai
— Christian (@krispyyyxchris) December 3, 2015
Police were responding to a stabbing which occurred an hour earlier. However, the point here isn’t that Woods committed a crime, but why so many officers surrounded a man with a knife and had no choice but to execute him even though he was drastically outnumbered and didn’t appear to pose much of a threat to the officers. San Francisco Public Defender, Jeff Adachi, voiced similar concerns:
Based on that snippet of video, it does seem as if the person was not posing a direct threat and certainly did not have to be shot. I certainly would want to know more about why this individual supposedly posed a risk that the officer felt that he or others were in harm of being killed.
Rather than debate about whether this was a case of justified use of force, the media has immediately begun to demonize Woods, with articles detailing his criminal past as a documented gang member, despite the fact that he had already done his time in prison. Here is the first paragraph from the CBS San Francisco article on the incident:
A 26-year-old man fatally shot by five San Francisco police officers in the city’s Bayview District on Wednesday was previously included in a gang injunction requested by the city attorney’s office.
This is only the latest chapter in the media’s demonization of black victims of police violence. For instance, earlier this week, CNN faced backlash in their framing of Freddie Gray in an article which covered the beginning of the trials of the officers who had him in their custody when he died:
The first of six city police officers went on trial Monday in a closely watched case involving a 25-year-old black prisoner who died after being shackled and placed without a seat belt in a Baltimore City police van.
The April 19 death of Freddie Gray, the son of an illiterate heroin addict, made him a symbol of the black community’s distrust of police.
It was never known why Gray was actually arrested, other than that he ran from police, and he died in police custody with his spine severed 80 percent at the neck, allegedly from a “rough ride” the officers gave him in the police van on the way to the station. How does mentioning the situation of Freddie Gray’s parents add context to how officers treated him on that April day?
Last year, the New York Times ran a profile on Michael Brown, the teenager who died in an altercation with Office Darren Wilson, sparking protests and fueling the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement. The article was titled “Michael Brown Spent Last Weeks Grappling With Problems and Promise”.
Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.
Sure, maybe Michael Brown wasn’t a perfect teenager, few of us on this earth are model citizens. Millions of Americans used drugs and drink alcohol, and rapping is a form of art which is often used to express the anger which comes with living in a disadvantaged community. As far as I’m aware, there is nothing written in the law which states that if you steal cigars, you are subject to execution by police.
In fact, Robert Dear, the domestic terrorist who killed three people, including a police officer at the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, was brought in peacefully after a four hour stand-off. Apparently, those officers didn’t “fear for their lives” like Jason Van Dyke, who shot unarmed Laquan Mcdonald 16 times in Chicago because, according to the police union, he “squared his shoulders” toward Van Dyke.
The New York Times did some digging into Dear’s past, and found that he was a religious man with rage issues. However, there was also another article, which has since been taken down, which shows very plainly how the media frames white terrorists:
— Jack Mirkinson (@jackmirkinson) November 29, 2015
This same media dynamics were seen earlier this year, after Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC and sat for an hour at a bible study, before killing nine people, including a State Senator. He had a history of expressing white supremacist ideas but rather than say that he was some sort of thug or terrorist, the media also widely portrayed him as a misunderstood loner with mental issues. Check out the first line from this Wall Street Journal article profiling the terrorist:
About a month ago, Dylann Roof’s family was concerned. The once-quiet, bright boy from a middle-class South Carolina family was espousing troubling racist views.
A video from ABC News also pushes this narrative. Even though the clip is mainly about Roof’s radical racist views and his erratic behavior, the title is “Suspect in Charleston Shooting Where 9 Killed Described as a Loner and a Drop Out”, which was quickly said in the last sentence of the video. This same framing has been used repeatedly for white mass shooters, including James Holmes and Adam Lanza. According to the mainstream media, they were just misunderstood individuals who suffered from a mental illness and despite killing many people, were brought in peacefully and allowed to live and stand trial.
Let’s recap. If you are white, even if you are a mass murderer, or kill a police officer and terrorize a Planned Parenthood because you believe they are selling baby parts, you will not only be brought in peacefully by police, but the media will view you favorably. However, if you are black, the police have the right to shoot you on site because they fear for their lives, and the media will demonize you by finding the worst elements of your past
The issue here goes beyond finding a few examples of media bias. These narratives are implicit throughout the mainstream media and run parallel to how the police treat heavily armed white mass murderers as opposed to unarmed black people who get into minor altercations with officers. America will not achieve racial justice until we can successfully alter the paradigm which works to criminalize black life while valuing white lives at all costs.