Video released over the weekend captures an unknown assailant firing indiscriminately into a police cruiser in an attempt to murder the two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies sitting inside. Thankfully, the officers appear to have survived the attempt on their lives. A manhunt is underway for the suspect, and police have offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to his capture.
As I sit down to write this, it is tempting to give in to my complete disgust with how the police usually frame and the media then cover a more common situation—police shootings of unarmed Black people—by offering some of my own “just presenting both sides” coverage. When a cop fires indiscriminately into a car, killing a man as his girlfriend sits beside him and her baby in the back seat—which is precisely what happened to Philando Castile—the media bends over backward to present the murderer’s side of the story. There’s no manhunt; the killer is allowed to turn himself in peacefully, at his convenience. Later, he gets cleared of all charges. The cops who kill us almost always go free.
I could write that piece, but I’m not going to, because, while such a piece would be righteous and justified, it would also be wrong. I hope they catch the guy seen in the video shooting those cops, I really do. I hope they take him alive and that he stands trial for his suspected crimes. I’d rather not use the attempted murder of two police officers as a Matthew McConaughey opportunity to say, “Now imagine the shooter was white.”
I just wish that the rest of the media could restrain itself from turning the attempted murder of police officers into an indictment of the protests against the police who murder Black people. As it is, the police stenographers employed by many mainstream media outlets are falling into that trap. Reporters are already republishing police narratives about why the shooting happened, without verifying the police stories or calling police speculation about why the shooting took place just that: speculation, in the absence of any evidence.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the official Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Twitter account tweeted out the following: “To the protesters blocking the entrance & exit of the HOSPITAL EMERGENCY ROOM yelling ‘We hope they die’ referring to 2 LA Sheriff’s ambushed today in #Compton: DO NOT BLOCK EMERGENCY ENTRIES & EXITS TO THE HOSPITAL. People’s lives are at stake when ambulances can’t get through.”
That tweet gave the impression that some kind of street uprising had sprung up at the hospital, and that the many people clearly involved had attempted in some way to deny injured police officers medical care. The narrative that protesters “blocked” the hospital entrance was then picked up by the press, so I heard MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson repeating it on her show when I turned on the television Monday morning.
After hearing the charge, I went to the Internet to look for the video of this alleged protest. Here is what the LA County sheriffs were apparently talking about. As you can see in the video, the “protest” appears to be about four guys hovering around the emergency entrance, shouting invectives. It wasn’t a protest, and they weren’t preventing any medical vehicles from entering or exiting the hospital. It was a few people who gave into the justified-yet-wrong anger I myself overcame this morning through the grace of coffee and the backspace key.
To call this group of individuals “protesters who blocked the entrance,” as the police did, is misleading at best. To repeat the disinformation, as journalists did, simply because it was on a police Twitter account, is bad journalism.
As the police were arresting one of the men shouting at the cops, an NPR radio reporter, Josie Huang, stepped forward to get a better look. Police tackled and injured her. Police claimed that Huang didn’t identify herself as a reporter and refused to leave the area when asked. Over the weekend, the media again reflexively reprinted this police narrative.
Then Huang released her own video of the event. It shows that she immediately “backed up” when told to do so and identified herself as a reporter even as police were throwing her to the ground.
Reporters who reprint or rebroadcast the official story for why police tackled a reporter, without first talking to the reporter tackled, deserve to be tackled by other, better reporters.
As nearly every Black person has been trying to tell the media since the invention of “police”: Cops lie. They lie, mislead, or issue untruthful statements all the time. White journalists must stop repeating police lies, uncritically, without demanding evidence to back up police claims or even doing a bare-minimum Google search to see if there is video that directly contradicts police statements.
Skepticism of police statements should be a basic requirement of competent journalism, but it is particularly critical in times like this, when police have a reason to lie. The police are angry at the attempted murder of two officers, and they want other people to be angry, so they are not even trying to provide an accurate account of events. Instead, they are trying to build a case against Black Lives Matter.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva (whose office tweeted out the misleading story about “protesters” at the hospital) could barely contain his contempt for BLM protesters in his statement about the shooting. “This is just a somber reminder that this is a dangerous job, and actions and words have consequences. Our job does not get any easier because people do not like law enforcement,” Villanueva said. “It pisses me off. It dismays me at the same time.”
In this statement, Villanueva is trying to draw a direct line between the “actions and words” of protesters to the attempted murder of police officers. He seems less interested in drawing a line from police brutality and the murder of Black people to the attempted murder of police officers.
The reality is that we don’t know why the suspect tried to kill those two officers, but we can see with our own eyes that his actions were wrong and dangerously misguided. Speculation into his motives is irresponsible absent evidence. It’s wrong for journalists to speculate, and it’s wrong for journalists to repeat the unverified, potentially unhinged speculations of the LA County sheriff without any evidence whatsoever.
It’s not like the social justice organization ambushed two police officers in a parked car. It’s not like social justice organizations have a history of targeting police officers for murder. But the person who did target and ambush police officers appears to be Black and thus, apparently, it’s all our faults. That’s how racial profiling works, don’t you know.
So the police already have their villain, and they are enacting their retribution. On Sunday, LA County sheriff’s deputies shut down a “protest encampment” across from LA City Hall. The holdouts had been there for months, living peacefully, but cops cleared it mere hours after the shooting. Cops claim it was taken down because of “deteriorating conditions,” but nobody is required to be addled enough to believe them.
The inability and unwillingness of the media to accurately report on police lies and sensationalism will have the effect of excusing additional acts of police brutality. The police will point to the one guy who shot police officers (for reasons not yet known) and the one dude who shouted “I hope y’all die” as justification for cops to go out on the street tonight and violate the constitutional rights of Black people, or beat Black people, or kill Black people. And by refusing to call out police hysteria, the media will make that hysteria seem reasonable.
Given the stakes, it’s not too much to ask the media to do its job. It’s not too much to ask journalists to act like journalists instead of stenographers. If I can restrain myself from being a snarky, irresponsible axe-grinder when it comes to “blue lives,” it’s not too much to ask mainstream sources to think before retweeting or republishing the latest round of blue lies.