At 11:27 on Monday morning, as the family of a Baltimore man who suffered a fatal injury while in police custody gathered at the New Shiloh Baptist church for his funeral, the Baltimore Police Department used its Twitter account to spread news of a “credible threat to law enforcement” from gangs, who had allegedly united to “take out” police officers. The police offered little corroborating evidence or information about where the tip came from, but the media took the story and ran. The narrative of the Baltimore police as victims spread quickly, and tinted much of the coverage of the protests later that night.
There had in fact been a report earlier Monday that the Bloods and the Crips and the Black Guerrilla Family had come together—but not for some sort of cop-killing strategy summit. Instead, they were showing respect for Freddie Gray at a demonstration at Baltimore’s City Hall. “We did not make that truce to harm cops,” one gang member told a television reporter. “To stop what’s going on—that’s all we’re trying to do. We want justice for Freddie Gray.” A Crips member identified as Charles told The New York Times that he and others tried to protect black-owned businesses from looters—though he admitted they directed vandals “toward Arab- and Chinese-owned stores” instead.
The “credible threat” alert was just one of many pieces of information spread by the Baltimore Police Department via its official Twitter account that seemed to cross the line between public-safety information and propaganda. The feed from Monday night sounded like a dispatch from an urban dystopia in which there are only a few good guys with badges, against everyone else. Many of the tweets are written in language that does more to evoke fear and lay blame than to inform. “In an act of violence and destruction—a group of criminals have set another car on fire at North Avenue and Fulton Ave,” read one tweet. Another: “Groups of violent criminals are continuing to throw rocks, bricks, and other items at police officers.” The word “criminals” appears over and over again, so often that someone reading the feed could be forgiven for thinking that Baltimore really did turn into a scene from The Purge.
Some of the information that the department has provided to its 127,000 Twitter followers seems to have been at best incorrect and at worst deliberately misleading. “A group of criminals have just started a fire outside the library located at Pennsylvania Ave and North Ave,” the police tweeted on Tuesday night. But according to Guardian reporter Jon Swaine, it was the police themselves who caused the fire, when sparks from a tear-gas grenade landed on trash.