Monday Night in America

Is this how it’s supposed to work?

That’s what I thought to myself as a Bearcat lumbered up beside me at the corner of Calvert and Pratt Streets in downtown Baltimore. This was on top of 20 cops in riot gear posted on every corner of the intersection. That was on top of the previous police brigade I had just passed leaving my hotel. Other than a live TV truck idling 10 feet away, I was the only civilian wandering through the Inner Harbor.

You know why the cops were there. I also know — in the literal sense of being aware of the facts — why they were there. But in another sense, I didn’t fully comprehend what was going on. I’ve never seen a show of force like this. What country am I in right now? Should I panic?

I guess I should have, given that 15 minutes prior I was in my hotel room being spoon-fed a cable news chyron that declared Baltimore an “ABSOLUTE WAR ZONE.”

Even days later, I have a hard time believing that someone sitting in a control room somewhere truly thought Baltimore had turned into a war zone. The events unfolding a few miles away were a deep tragedy, but a CVS being looted by West Baltimoreans was not on par with, I don’t know, something like this.

I pinged a friend who worked for that cable news outlet, prodding for solutions to something she and I both knew she didn’t have the power to change. “Per usual,” she said, knowing the unfolding riots were just grist for the 24-hour mill to grind into advertising meal.

Lately, nothing spins that mill faster than some good old-fashioned racial bloodshed. If your livelihood depends on what gets pumped into the nation’s televisions, what you saw hit all the right notes: Fires. Looting. Poor blacks rising against well-secured cops, ready to tear a city down due to the death of one of their own, by any means necessary. What sights! What sounds! What horror!

Forget that what most of us saw was devoid of any context or details. Don’t let it linger that a group of asshole kids used social media to antagonize a group of asshole cops, and the latter did very little to squash the former’s goals. Don’t hop on to Google to figure out that what happened Monday wasn’t a direct protest to Freddie Gray’s death. Don’t run to your On Demand cable menus to watch the news outlets give you wall-to-wall coverage of the actual peaceful protests that brought gang members together the prior weekend. We have a narrative here, America, please follow along.

No, what you saw on cable news might as well be the fuel that powers the vehicle I saw rumble down Pratt Street. You aren’t going to tune in while we wait for Baltimore police to figure out why Freddie Gray had his spine severed while he was in custody. Not while the National Guard is protecting Camden Yards from the Great Gang Uprising of 2015.

Plus, America, we need this excess to fuel your own personal outrage. Your tweets aren’t going to write themselves. That Facebook flame war in your timeline is just begging for your scorching hot take. Your friend’s father was a cop, so feel free to pipe in with that scholarly screed dedicated to the American justice system. You *LOVED* season 3 of The Wire, so you can definitely speak on the deeply fractured race relations in inner-city Baltimore. All in the game, yo!

Sarcasm aside, The Wire actually presents an apt metaphor for what I saw on Monday. The show often closed its seasons showing how its various subplots worked together to spin the virtuous cycle of drugs and graft, while the people suffering from the true problems at hand are pushed to society’s margins, left to fend for themselves.

So when I see an armored vehicle meet over 100 police in an section of a town that the national media has declared an ABSOLUTE WAR ZONE, yet it’s all calm and quiet and that armored vehicle could probably be better used in a section of town where things have moved way past protest, but those protests weren’t protests to begin with, because the real protests have been going on for days, and will probably continue for weeks because the people protesting don’t have answers to questions surrounding circumstances that violate their basic human rights, rights which have been increasingly violated across a country that’s supposed to be a beacon of the very rights that are being violated…the part that I didn’t comprehend earlier is suddenly clear.

The gears in this cycle worked exactly as they should. It’s the machine been broken for a long time, only no one cares enough to fix it.

Greg Otto is a journalist based in Washington, D.C.