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Baltimore, Freddie Gray, and the Making of Media Narrative

Baltimore, Freddie Gray, and the Making of Media Narrative

I hear a lot of
people asking, “How is rioting helping?” How is rioting and destroying a community furthering the cause of social justice? Well it’s not, nor was it ever
supposed to. It’s interesting that people have found the time to flood their
timelines with tweets about how much they abhor the looters and rioters, about
how they don’t understand why anyone would ruin their city, but not once
question the policies of law enforcement and their role in the death of Freddie
Gray, which has inevitably led to a city in chaos. 

Why don’t these
people redirect these same questions to the police: How is police brutality
helping Baltimore?
How is covering up the death of this black man helping the
city? These questions aren’t being asked by most of America because they don’t
fit into the popular narratives we’ve grown to embrace. The narrative, popularized
by American news, TV programs like COPS, and films that portray police officers
and agents of the law, as good, wholesome people who just want to fight crime
and rid our streets of the “bad guy.” Well, that narrative no longer works in
this country. There are cops who try to protect citizens, there are cops who
misuse their authority, and sometimes there are cops who do both. A black man was severely injured while in police custody, (his spinal cord severed and voice box crushed), and no one
seems to have any answers. The police have no answers, the man’s family has no
answers, and the community has no answers. In this whirlwind of silence, anger,
and grief, some people have decided to burn down buildings, and loot
businesses.

Their actions
have managed to become the highlight of mainstream media coverage- not the family’s
grief at losing a son, a brother, a lover, not the silence and lack of
information around how this man died, not the peaceful protests and community activism, not the man himself- but stores on fire, businesses burning
down. There’s a popular narrative that helps people to believe that this
burning of property is the problem, not the burning of bodies, the burning of
lives from this world. Not the routine covering up of police harassment that
has mounted to a point of implosion. We are taught, through tight sound-bites
and 30-second clips that a man stealing bread and teens running down the street
with stolen shoes has set us back. And, maybe it has. Maybe these people will
be the end of us, but who was the beginning?

Freddie Gray,
Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner were once alive. They had lives ahead
of them. That was the beginning of the narrative that many people seem to
forget. These were human beings with emotions, with favorite foods, and
pastimes. They had their own narratives that many will never know because we’ve
become so obsessed with the easily crafted narrative- the “1-2-3” easy-bake way
of seeing things and people, that freezes out any complexity, nuance, or
humanity. If people, and not just black people, were half as concerned about
these people’s lives and the senseless taking of them, as they are about the
media blitz they help sustain, we’d be in a different place. 

We’d be in a
different place if people stopped conflating “rioting” and “looting” with black
bodies. If people understood that the history of rioting and looting in this
country, belongs not to black people, but to people creating mayhem out of rising frustrations, some of which don’t warrant the damage and destruction
that is caused as a result. When a group of white sports fans
“riots” over their team losing, turning over cars and lighting trash cans on
fire
, why is that good
fun? Why is that traditional rowdiness? Where’s the media blitz? Was it also
tradition when white people in Tulsa, Oklahoma “rioted” through a black
self-sustaining town called Black Wall Street and burned down houses, businesses, and
people, as the actor Jesse Williams pointed out on his Twitter account?
That’s a riot that no one seems to know or talk about. The actions of those
people weren’t morally sound, they didn’t help anything, but they helped
reinforce the white supremacy on which this country was founded, so it was
okay? 

The narrative
of black disorder and violence is one that we are so comfortable in reinforcing
that we forget that black people did not create violence or disorder. “Black on
black violence” has become a ready-made sound-bite for anyone needing a
counterargument to why police shouldn’t murder unarmed civilians. “Well blacks
need to stop killing each other,” they say. Well, so do whites, because studies show that people are
most likely to kill those they live in close proximity to.
Yes, I agree that black people should
not kill each other, but I also agree that invoking “black on black crime” to
distract from a human being losing their life unjustly, is not balanced or
fair.

Violence
doesn’t appear overnight. No one wakes up in the morning ready to shoot someone
in the head without symptoms leading to this decision. We are a country of
symptoms. We are a country of symptoms that linger and go untreated to a point
that all are afflicted without even recognizing that they are.  The symptoms of police corruption, of
government denial, of white privilege, of racial and economic hierarchies have
plagued our minds and bodies for so long, we think it is normal. We think it is
normal to mourn property destruction over dead human beings. That is a safe
narrative. 

We loved
watching “The Wire,” and being let into a world of police misconduct, street
lingo, and drug-dealing, but the narrative has now become real and many can’t
take it. It was okay when they could consume it, and then turn off the
television and go to work the next day. Now, the disorder and dysfunction that
became apart of our entertainment narrative has morphed into an every week,
every-day occurrence. Every week, innocent people are killed, many of them
black, and people are on edge, frustrated, angry, sad while others are
indifferent. They don’t want to be uncomfortable, or implicated. There’s no
televised excitement or suspense around a 12-year old boy being gunned down and
then refused CPR for four minutes. And, maybe Rekia Boyd, a black woman shot down by a police
officer, didn’t fit the “black lives matter” narrative that has been afforded
so many of black men who’ve been murdered. At all sides, we fall victim to
rhetoric and division that does nothing to push forward calls for justice.

I am a storyteller.
I write movies, short stories, and poems. I’ve spent years trying to understand
the ways that narratives underscore society, how the stories we create, retell,
and amplify influence our thinking, our actions, our ways of life. I cannot
tell you how many times someone has had a pre-packaged idea of me before I even
opened my mouth or entered a room. These people had a “black woman narrative”
already constructed and were waiting for me to fulfill it. When I didn’t, they
appeared confused. I just breathed and existed. But sometimes, even doing that
is cause for violence and brutality. Because narratives of black beasts, black demons, of black criminals are so strong, that
just breathing, and existing, might get you killed.

Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. She is currently in post-production on a short film, “Dream,” and is developing several feature scripts.

This Article is related to: Features