This weekend's deadly brawl and shootout involving more than 170 alleged biker gang members at a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, Texas, has seemed to capture the left's imagination, not for the gruesome details of the violence but because of the perceived differences between the way this story was played out, covered and engaged with and, depending on who you ask, either black on black violence or the police reform protest movement.
The comparisons to the police reform protests are the more problematic of the two. The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates seemed to make that comparison in a series of tweets Monday night that emulating right-wing reactions to the police protest movement. One curious tweet asks "Why won't America's biker gangs be more like Dr. Martin Luther King?" What is the comparison Coates is trying to draw? If there were violent protesters in Baltimore with legitimate grievances—and they were urged by some to be more peaceful—does Coates believe the bikers, too, had some kind of legitimate grievances at the Twin Peaks restaurant? If he doesn't believe so, does he believe there are white people out there who believe that? I certainly haven't heard or read anything about either the bike gangs allegedly involved or anyone in the press trying to ascribe legitimate grievances to the thugs at the restaurant.
Coates, like other left-leaning pundits, also glommed on to the distraction of the moment about the supposed racially charged nature of the word "thug," asking why no one was calling the bikers thugs (except most of his hundred fifty thousand Twitter followers and the rest of the left-wing Twitterverse, as well as a good portion of the right-wing Twitterverse). The argument over thug blew up when some protests in Baltimore turned violent and began to be co-opted by the kind of people who want to riot and loot (like the two Baltimore corrections officers charged last week—what legitimate grievances could willing and paid participants in a system being protested against hold, and how would snacks at a convenience store come into play?). The argument was that thug was simply a code word for nigger. Tonight Show band leader Questlove made the point on Twitter after Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called rioters and looters who appeared in the streets the afternoon and evening after Freddie Gray's funeral on Monday, April 27, "thugs."
That weekend before, Rawlings-Blake appeared to be trying to keep cops on a hands-off approach to what were largely peaceful protests. After some violence on Sunday, the mayor lamented that while attempting to "make sure" protesters could "exercise their right to free speech," the city also "gave space" to those who "wished to destroy." Conservative pundits, and then the mainstream press, ran away with the comment as evidence that creating space to destroy was the mayor's intention. Perhaps that poor showing at reading comprehension and the subsequent media frenzy contributed to the decidedly more aggressive and pre-emptive stance taken by police in Baltimore that Monday, when cops reportedly shut down transit service around a hub students from around the city got home though and emptied buses—all because of a rumor spread over social media that there'd be a "purge" there that afternoon. Eventually some students started throwing rocks at cops—and some cops threw rocks back—and the situation deteriorated throughout the afternoon, with looting and rioting across parts of Baltimore. While that weekend saw the high-profile destruction of a police car, as did some of the protesting in the early afternoon Monday, by the evening the destruction mostly avoided government property, instead targeting local businesses and one church's $16 million "Transformation Center," where a senior citizen home, community and health center were being built. That night, an exasperated mayor, who at least in her mind thought she had done everything possible to keep Baltimore from turning into Ferguson, called those criminals destroying property and creating the political space—demand, even—for the National Guard to come in "thugs."
And it wasn't just Questlove who accused Rawlings-Blake, and others using the word "thug," of actually wanting to say the n-word. Councilman Carl Stokes, who ran for mayor back in 1999, said the same on CNN. The distraction got even bigger when President Obama used the word "thugs" to describe the criminals who co-opted police reform protests, peaceful or otherwise, for their own violent ends. Questlove's still got a picture of himself with the president as his Twitter profile.
But the argument over what the word "thug" really meant was a distraction. It helped guide the discussion away from issues of systemic police violence arising from Freddie Gray's death and the sustained protests over it and toward the more emotional but less meaningful argument over whether thug meant nigger and who was a racist for it. Arguing about whether black lives matter or whether all lives matter is a cleverly constructed distraction, meant to give both sides a feeling of accomplishment while the system can go on destroying lives. It's a lot easier to lay all the problem of police brutality at the feet of hundreds of years of racism than it is to ask ourselves which policies, which laws, that we have supported and that our democratically-elected governments have passed, created the conditions where something like the death of Freddie Gray happened.
There's no guarantee that Gray would be alive even if racism were to have disappeared from the world just before his arrest—three of the officers involved in his death, including the driver of the van, were African-American. Rather than racism on its own, the policies emanating from the war on crime and the war on drugs, policies that have degraded the Baltimore police force's policing capability, created the condition where cops, white and black, chase after predominantly young black men—because there are so many rules both the cops and the young men know they may be breaking. The cops involved in Gray's arrest insist they believed the knife he was in possession of was illegal. It wasn't, but confusing knife laws give cops a way to justify interactions like the one with Gray. They also should not have chase after Gray just because he ran. So either less onerous knife laws, or stricter, constitutional rules of engagement for police, with real penalties for breaking those rules, may have prevented Gray's death, and both would bring us back closest to a state of constitutional policing. Instead, the Baltimore police department has several officers who have been convicted of crimes and remain on their force—because of privileges granted to them not by their race or by the white supremacy infecting their police department but by laws, written by men and women, into books and ledgers, laws that can, theoretically, be written out, just as easily. There's a very specific reason the cops involved in Gray's death had ten days to speak to investigators—without the threat of termination for not cooperating with their employers—and a very specific reason they remain on the city payroll: Because the democratically-elected government wrote such privileges into the law. In a democratic society, people should also be able get such privileges written out of the law—in a republican society such laws should not have been permitted to pass in the first place. But isn't it so much more satisfying to complain about why rioters in Baltimore were called thugs but bike gang members in Texas weren't, even though they were? It's a much easier argument to have, over whether to use the word thug, because it plays into our pre-set racial sensibilities, than at is to talk about what to actually do to limit police violence.
But the "thug" argument, and arguments like it, isn't just a distraction, it impedes progress on the issue of police brutality. Many people on the Internet left complained about the differing treatment suspects in Waco got and protesters in places like Ferguson and Baltimore got. The police response in Waco appeared far less militarized than the response in Ferguson and Baltimore. An important caveat: police admit they may have shot a number of the bikers. Provided the dead were actually participants in the shootout, the shooting appears justified. But things aren't always what they seem. The Michael Brown shooting at first appeared unjustified—thanks in large part to the police department's lack of transparency after the shooting—but eventually the Department of Justice (DOJ) found Brown was most likely advancing toward the officer and had briefly taken control of his gun earlier in the altercation. In the distractions over whether Brown was an "angel" or not, whether he strong-armed a store clerk, and so on, the point of whether Officer Darren Wilson (who didn't know Brown could've been a suspect in a robbery) should have engaged with Brown and his friend, who were allegedly jaywalking, in the first place was lost. How strongly does the community in Ferguson want jaywalking laws enforced? Any time a police officer is asked, ordered, or decides to engage with a person who believes he is free the situation can escalate. A separate DOJ investigation found Ferguson's local government was using the police department and petty laws to extract a significant amount of revenue from the population it served ruled. It was a situation the Washington Post's Radley Balko found across St. Louis County. But the argument over the narrative around Michael Brown took up all the air in the room, even though whether or not Brown's shooting was justified was irrelevant to the wider issues the shooting brought up.
Like that issue of militarization. Officer Wilson wasn't a militarized police officer but the Ferguson and other St. Louis area cops deployed on the streets over the next days to deal with protesters were. Police in Waco did not appear to be nearly as militarized in their response. There didn't appear to be any tear gas used and no tanks on the scene. The obvious conclusion, from a critical race perspective, is that this is just naked American racism in action. But could there be something more going on too? Police in Ferguson responded to mostly peaceful protests by deploying their favorite military gear. Police in Waco managed to take control of a brawl and shootout, apparently without such military gear. So there is a way to deal with chaotic, highly violent situations without resorting to a militarized response. The White House this week announced a long overdue rolling back of some of that police militarization. It took the police response in Ferguson and the growing concern about police violence after that to get the White House there almost seven years into the Obama administration. None of this is to say that racism doesn't play a role in police violence. But Rep. Lacy Clay, and most of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), voted against an amendment to limit the transfer of military gear to local police departments. Of the seven (out of 41) CBC members who voted for the amendment, most were veterans of the civil rights movement. It ought to be a stinging indictment of the dangerous assumption that a politician will be clued in to certain issues, like civil rights or police brutality, just because of the color of their skin. After the fact, Clay said he never expected the militarized gear he voted for would be deployed the way it was in his community. That makes him profoundly historically illiterate and politically ignorant, not someone who ought to be representing anyone in Congress, especially not a marginalized community. You have to be able to anticipate unintended consequences and exercise restraint to prevent them, not ride on best intentions.
Complaining that the suspects in Waco weren't openly brutalized, weren't met with military force—even with the knowledge that police were able to control the situation without resorting to such excessive use of force—is in I want white teenagers shot in the back territory. Achieving racial equality in policing by extending systemic police violence deeper into white communities would seem to be a pyrrhic victory, particularly if the explicit goal is to ensure black lives matter. It's a lot easier to point at Waco and Ferguson and say "look, racism!" than it is to ask why the political leaders in the St. Louis area were so enthusiastic about accepting more and more military gear for their police departments and deploying it while political leaders in Waco appear to have perhaps helped cultivate a more restrained police culture, or even why governments are more likely to deploy militarized police to deal with protesters than crime situations, and what that says about how much militarization is actually necessary or desirale? After all, the police brutality protests over the last year aren't the only time Americans have seen militarized police deployed to deal with protests. They've seen it, if they were paying attention, from Seattle 1999 to the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011, all pretty multiracial, even majority-white, movements.
The distractions get better. Salon, for example, finds racism in the media not describing the massive brawl as a riot:
Nine people have died after a shootout between rival motorcycle gangs in Waco on Sunday, when gunfire erupted in the parking lot of a Twin Peaks restaurant in the central Texas city.
I use the terms "shootout" and "gunfire erupted" after reading numerous eyewitness reports, local news coverage and national stories about the "incident," which has been described with a whole host of phrases already. None, however, are quite as familiar as another term that's been used to describe similarly chaotic events in the news of late: "Riot."
How similarly chaotic were they? What's inaccurate about the descriptors used, which are more precise than riot? The objection to not using riot comes from the idea that "riot," too, might be a racially charged word. Yet every time a protest turns violent and the word "riot" starts to be used, sites like Salon trot out all the examples of how whites riot too, usually over stupid things. Mostly these are sports riots, which are generally called "riots" in the media. Here, too, liberals appear to be trying to prove a point other than the one they say they're trying to make. If whites riot, over stupid stuff, because they want an excuse to destroy things, why is it out of the realm of possibility that mostly peaceful protests over police reform could be co-opted by people who want an excuse to destroy things? The presence of those people shouldn't take away from the legitimate grievances of the protesters—but denying their presence even as rioters burn down community improvement projects makes it a lot easier for those really seeking to deny legitimate grievances to do so.
Oh, and here's a massive brawl in a casino in Queens described as a "massive brawl" with chair-tossing "combatants" where "all hell broke loose." And "brawls" and "shootouts" are what "biker gangs" do, sometimes over who gets to hang out at the local Starbucks. I get it—can it get any whiter? In Europe, biker brawls can include grenade attacks and someone once brought an anti-tank missile to a turf war.
Most bikers in the U.S., and around the world, are not criminals, but most are members of motorcycle clubs. Biker gangs call themselves motorcycle clubs too. When Sally Kohn complains that a Muslim can be labeled a "terrorist" after killing one person, and a black man can be called a "thug" just for getting shot and killed by a cop, but when 9 people are killed in a biker shootout the perpetrators are still only called a "biker gang," she misses not just all the white and black people calling the Waco bikers thugs but also the kind of discrimination law-abiding bikers face in society because they're all labeled members of "biker gangs," whether they're in lawful motorcycle clubs or in "outlaw motorcycle gangs" (OMGs to the feds). Bikers face stereotypes too. And bikers also come in all colors. The 170+ people involved in the Waco shootout were largely, but not exclusively, white, while lawful motorcycle clubs are also popular, and multiracial, in bigger cities. Members of any race might do something less than considerate or downright illegal on the road that's then used to stereotype all bikers as "biker gangs."
About 170 of the 192 alleged biker gang members arrested over the weekend now face charges of "organized crime resulting in death," in Texas a capital offense that could mean the death penalty for those convicted. Given the disappointment some on the left seemed to express that more brutality wasn't used to stop the brawl and shootout, it'll be interesting to see how strongly this case plays as an argument against the death penalty. Someone caught in the middle of this riot, who likes to bike and maybe fell into the wrong crowd could now face the death penalty for defending himself. It seems like a good example of how the death penalty can be too onerous. The death penalty matters to some on the left. Along with gay marriage, it matters enough to David Simon that he'd vote for former Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley for president even though he blames O'Malley for the awful state of policing in Baltimore (where black lives don't appear to matter).
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Watch Reason TV's "How Martin O'Malley Helped Create the Baltimore Riots"
And there's the other problematic comparison being made in the wake of Waco: finding a double standard in the way white-on-white violence is treated versus how black-on-black violence is treated. The (mostly white-on-white) shootout in Waco could lead to up to 170 people being put to death. There's been 96 (mostly black-on-black) homicides in Baltimore since the beginning of the year, but none of the killers will face the death penalty. O'Malley banned the practice in 2013. Most criminologists agree that capital punishment does not appear to be a deterrent to crime. Support for the death penalty, however, is highest among whites. It could be considered part of the white community's approach to white-on-white violence (except for the huge racial disparities; as with Lacy Clay's support for more militarized police in Ferguson but opposition to it being used on protesters, a lot of death penalty supporters don't intend the negative consequences of their policy preferences either). The death penalty, though, certainly would seem to be the "white community" in Waco's answer to this weekend's white-on-white violence. There didn't have to be 170 capital charges filed within two days of the riot. Prosecutors are likely looking to get plea deals—but it's hard to argue they're not trying to send a message about (white-on-white) violence. So what's the point of this comparison, except to confirm your ideological fellow-travelers pre-existing biases?
The comparison between the way white-on-white and black-on-black violence is treated is problematic for another reason: black people talk about and organize around black-on-black violence all the time. When President Obama, who is black, speaks about black-on-black violence, and he started before he was president, the themes of broken black families and self-responsibility usually appear. Some liberal pundits don't like it, but by and large Obama is speaking the language of black political leaders around the country, whether they admit it when (mostly) white conseratives try to use it as a "gotcha" on police violence or not. Ras Baraka, now the mayor of Newark, led weekly anti-violence protests in the city for years, where some protesters called for the National Guard to come in to deal with the street violence. Last week Baraka announced a plan to "occupy the hood," where he is asking Newark men to join him to "hold court" in different neighborhoods three nights a week to stem the rise in homicides as the weather gets warmer, which could wipe out the drop in homicides seen between last year and this year so far. "I know some of us are better at complaining or wallowing in pessimism and hopelessness," Baraka wrote in one of part of the staff email released to the public, touching on the often unspoken but implied inconvenient truth in these conversations that there's only so much government can do to prevent homicides, and little on its own to thwart the development of homicidal personalities. Baraka has complained about Newark residents' unwillingness to deal with the "psychopaths" in their midst before, even suggesting residents should be finding killers themselves and bringing them to police. "Newark is our home," Baraka wrote. "We can't give it away to naysayers or those that wish to watch it crumble, or even the misguided that think destroying our city and its families is what makes them Newark." Black communities plagued by black-on-black violence aren't blind to the problem (you think destroying your city and being a "thug" is who you are, Baraka is basically saying), but when mostly white, conservative pundits bring up black-on-black violence when the issue is police violence, that's a distraction. And because it's an attack on black people, who are disproportionately the targets of police violence, it's easier for those concerned about police reform to identify the black-on-black violence canard as a distraction than to identify the endless arguments over whose a "thug" or whether cops shoot enough white teenagers as distractions.
But it's what makes bringing up white-on-white violence here so troubling: it strongly implies white-on-white violence, or black-on-black violence, or any other kind of privately-initiated violence is relevant to the discussion about police brutality and state-sponsored violence and the systemic reforms needed to limit that. The argument also shuts down important avenues of inquiry. Biker gangs, for example, can be involved in the drug trade, which fuels some of the violence as it does in inner cities. The fight in Waco allegedly started over a parking spot—and the meeting was reportedly being held over who could wear what colors. This is gang stuff in many parts of the country, irrespective of race. Officially, the weekend meeting in Waco was for a biker's rights organization to which motorcycle clubs belong. Displaying a bit of color-blindness when it comes to fear of gangs and reprisal killings, after the shootout police in Texas have warned of biker gangs coming to the state to kill cops—just as police in Baltimore and Jersey City have over the last year after prominent police killings in their cities.
Some of the bikers at the scene in Waco claim police shot first and at least one biker club blames an "outlaw club" that shouldn't have showed up showing up at the meeting. Police in Waco report the bikers shot at them first, and that's when police returned fire. Police report the preliminary investigation appears to show four of the nine dead bikers were killed by cops. No police officers or non-bikers were injured in the shoot-out. Is it possible Waco police shot first? Sure. But identifying so early on that four bikers were likely shot by cops does go some way in dispelling concern about a cover-up. So does the relative indifference of the "white community" to charges of police misconduct. Investigations played too close to the chest, and a lack of information available after a shooting, can often create tense situations, as happened in Ferguson when police left Michael Brown's body on the street for several hours while the officer who shot and killed him went home to clean up. The DOJ found the shooting justified—but the post-shooting process engendered no trust. In this case, mainstream police reform activists don't appear interested in finding out whether Waco police acted inappropriately, but rather in assuming the bikers had it coming to them because they were all in "biker gangs," and that police definitely acted appropriately, blaming racism for that particular justified outcome, and maybe even wishing that police hadn't acted so appropriately. And that does nothing to move much needed police reforms forward.