This article was written by Will Dizard and Trey Yingst. It originally appeared on Medium. The accompanying video was produced exclusively for News2Share.
As President Barack Obama praised Washington’s media elite for their service to democracy at the White House Correspondents Dinner on last Saturday, West Baltimore residents said they felt the media doesn’t serve them. Baltimore and Freddie Gray are back in the news this week, with the start of the trial of one of the officers facing charges over his death.
“You all look great, the end of the Republic has never looked better,” was Obama’s opening joke, which got a chorus of hearty laughter at what the president quipped was perhaps “my last and perhaps the last White House Correspondents Dinner.”
One year ago, as the WHCD (aka “Nerd Prom”) got underway in Washington, just an hour’s drive north angry young people smashed cop cars and looted stores following the passing of Gray, who’d suffered a broken spine in the custody of the Baltimore police department after an arrest for allegedly possessing an illegal knife. At the time, the glitzy celebrities and overdressed journalists were blissfully unaware of the rage up I-95, unless they were flipping through their phones on Twitter.
Video journalist Trey Yingst, working independently, and myself, reporting at the time for Al Jazeera America, were both there last year, covering the civil unrest and the community’s response to it. From many outraged residents of the area, we heard deep distrust and hostility for the media, who West Baltimoreans feel only show up to showcase chaos and violence. We went back to see what had changed over the last year, and what we found were residents fed up with the American media’s depictions of their neighborhood as violent, crime ridden and hopeless.
The portrayal, residents say, makes them feel like nobody cares or hears them.
The portrayal, residents say, makes them feel like nobody cares or hears them. To one young Baltimorean, Deandra McNeill, 15, that was the original reason for the unrest — and perhaps the reason for the next.
“The media makes it seem like everybody wants to mess up their own neighborhood. They’re not looking at it from our standpoint, like they just look at how we express ourselves. But that’s why that riot happened it’s because nobody would listen to us. So I feel like if they don’t listen to us, it’s going to happen again,” she said.
But Baltimore activists try to get attention in dramatic ways. Last August, an anti-violence group, 300 Men, which tries to keep kids out of gang life, marched 35 miles from Baltimore to Washington D.C. in 94 degree heat to raise awareness of a climbing murder rate in the city. The march did not receive much national coverage, with The Los Angeles Times the only out-of-town paper running a story. The Gray unrest was months before, and do gooders standing against murders wasn’t exciting to editors, nationwide, that morning.
Residents feel almost all coverage of their city has been negative, focusing on a dramatic rise in murders over the last year, on track to crush last year’s record, according to The Baltimore City Paper. Last year was the bloodiest in the city’s history, per capita, The Baltimore Sun reports, with 344 killings.
Police link the increase in violence to addictive, over-the-counter drugs looted during the unrest having flooded the streets. This new supply caused prices to plummet, and created more dealers to fight for a fixed number of buyers, The New York Times reports. But Baltimoreans say there are also stories of normalcy and good will, and community organizations working hard to keep young people out of life-destroying behavior. But that doesn’t get national airtime. Only burning cars or spiking murder rates do.
An older Baltimorean, Dante Dixon, 49, an anti-violence activist himself, echoed McNeill’s statement.
“If you promote positivity you’ll get positivity so shoot more positive stuff,” said Dixon.
But it’s hard to pitch “positivity” in an editorial meeting — and forget about normalcy. The metabolism of most news organizations don’t digest those. It’s like asking a dog to eat salad. Not many dogs will, and the ones that do are strange. Like dogs, news outlets would rather chew on something bleeding and squealing. But that metabolism means that few hear about the everyday struggle of West Baltimoreans to make their community better.
For journalists, focusing on conflict and discord comes almost by instinct, and we saw it in ourselves that night. Trey and I were walking around Pennsylvania and North Avenues that night when we saw undercover cops stopping a driver and searching his car, with him and two black male passengers standing around it, speaking to the police. Immediately, Trey and I walked up to the scene to figure out what was going on.
But Charisse Freeman, 40, waiting for the bus, scolded us for running up to the traffic stop without providing the larger context — this was a fundamentally normal neighborhood, where people are trying get by, stay out of trouble and educate their children, just like anywhere else in Baltimore.
“I want you all the visualize this area as not just a drug area. I know it’s a year after the Freddie Gray, but I want you to understand that there are people in this neighborhood that are productive, go to work, take care of their children the live just like anybody in a suburban neighborhood, it’s no different,” Freeman said.
The police let the guys in the car go. Freeman gave it as evidence not only of unwarranted police harassment and that not everybody there was a criminal. “See, they didn’t have anything. Nothing was wrong,” she said.
Being discouraged by residents against filming a traffic stop presents a conundrum for both the journalist and the person being stopped. A person being stopped by police might welcome cameras being there, to back up their side of whatever story unfolds.
Freeman’s words reminded me of the tension between journalists and Baltimoreans I saw last year, when some residents expressed open disdain for the reporters and photographers who arrived to report on the Gray unrest. Television news crews mostly stayed hunkered down by their satellite trucks at the corner of Pennsylvania and North Avenues, to which Yingst and I returned April 30.
One man articulated the frustration another the city with the media in passionate terms, telling Fox News anchor Geraldo Rivera, and the rest of the journalists gathered at the intersection, to leave the city because their interest was only in making the city and African Americans look bad.
“Report for us!?” he told Rivera. “You’re working for Fox News. You’re not here reporting about the boarded up homes and the homeless people under MLK [Boulevard],” the young man said, begging Geraldo to “just talk to me.”
“You’re not here reporting about the poverty levels up and down North Avenue. But you’re here to cover the black riots that happened. You’re not here for the death of Freddie Gray,” the man said. “I want the white media out of Baltimore city until you come here to report the real story.”
A few days after the worst of the looting and arson, on Tuesday, April 29, neighborhood activists would plead for journalists to go home and obey a midnight curfew, saying our presence was encouraging young people to disobey the emergency ordinance aimed at quelling chaos.
That presented another Catch-22. The media couldn’t go home, at least not until our bosses told us to, or we’d get fired. The same went for the police, who’d totally get fired if they had walked away from the scene (although not fired for other infractions, perhaps). But there was mostly nothing happening.
The surreality fell into perspective when officers ordered everyone out of the intersection of Pennsylvania Ave. and North Ave. upon threat of tear gassing. If they had done so, they’d have tear gassed a crowd of reporters milling about, waiting for their bosses to tell them to go home.
Now, nearly a year later, on April 30, 2016, there were just a handful of commuters waiting quietly for the bus near a reopened CVS that had been burned down twelve months before.
“You see us all out here waiting for the bus? Could be any bus, the 13 or the 54 or whatever. Nobody here is fighting or fussing with each other,” Freeman said, refuting the notion she believes the media presents ofWest Baltimore as non-stop mayhem.
“Hundreds of kids go to that library after school to do their homework,” Freeman added, pointing to a public library at the corner Pennsylvania and North Ave, where a year before Baltimore police tear gas had sent Yingst and I, along with hundreds of others, running with eye-searing urgency.
But that Saturday night, everything was calm. The weather was cool and rain sprinkled down sporadically, everything was calm, and the only crowds were there for a performances by “The Delfonics Revue,” a Delfonics cover band, and the Philadelphia soul group “Loves’ Magic.” At about 1:30 Sunday morning, we spoke to two women who’d just come out of the soul concert: Kim Lambert, 39, there with with Octavia Green, 65, her aunt.
Both are from West Baltimore. I asked Lambert what she thought of the job journalists at the WHCD had done covering her city.
“Oh lord, Jesus..” Kim exclaimed, laughing. “They try.”
“They portray it based on what they believe it to be, because they haven’t been here. But because we’ve lived here all our lives we know what it is. They don’t understand desperation because they were never poor. The struggle is real.”
Lambert and Green both felt that the journalists couldn’t appreciate the full tragedy of plight of the neighborhood — the poverty, the persistent violence — because they have never had to deal with it as regular people trying to make their lives through a labyrinth of obstacles.
“They portray it based on what they believe it to be, because they haven’t been here. But because we’ve lived here all our lives we know what it is. They don’t understand desperation because they were never poor. The struggle is real,” she said.
Of course, some journalists come from humble beginnings, and some of them were certainly in the audience that night at the WHCD. But what’s important is the perception Green has of the media elite never having faced poverty themselves. In her view, they don’t just serve the wealthy; they are the wealthy.
“What would you say to the White House Correspondents Dinner about their coverage of Baltimore, if you could?” I asked Green.
“I would say ‘Live it.’ If they lived it, and they’d gone through what we’ve gone through and how we’ve had to struggle, they would not say the things about us that they do. They believe that everybody in this neighborhood is of a criminal element. Everybody is not like that. My niece has her masters,” she said, referring to Lambert, “My daughter is working on her PhD. She grew up in this neighborhood. So it’s not everything they think it is.”
Lambert continued by saying that the national media had ignored West Baltimore’s completely until Gray’s death, but the anger at police brutality had been there for a long time, and was important before Gray as it is now.
“It was there before. But then they came because he [Freddie Gray] got his back broken in the back of that paddy wagon. The paddy wagon’s been there. People have been getting their backs broken in paddy wagons. They just chose not to publicize it. But now that they chose to publicize it — ” the unrest making it impossible to ignore — “guess what, now it’s important. But it was important in 1952, it was important in 1962, it was important in 1972, it was important in 1982,” Lambert said.
I asked what kind of news Lambert, a Republican, and Green, a Democrat, did enjoy watching.
“I like John Oliver,” Lambert replied, referring to the host of Last Week Tonight.
“I like that new girl. What’s her name?” asked Green.
“Samantha Bee?” I guessed.
“Yeah, that’s her!”
Kim continued about Oliver: “He’s just real and he’s to the point and he keeps it straight. He don’t have no cut cards. He doesn’t have time to be bullshiting with you,” he said.
Green added she loves Bill Mahrer and also “[Stephen] Colbert, I love him, because he will say the real deal.”
It’s fitting that Colbert’s roasted George W. Bush in 2006 in a way full of shade that it has its own Wikipedia article.
This year, trials are set to take place for the officers involved in the arrest that lead to Gray’s death. Already, one has ended in a mistrial. The journalists at the White House Correspondents will head back to Baltimore, at least to the courthouse. It’s possible that the rage West Baltimoreans showed in 2015 will come again. Baltimore wants the media to start listening.