When two NYPD plainclothes detectives shot and killed Brooklyn teenager Kimani Gray in early March, the media took a while to catch up. News reports slowly trickled out the day after, but as tensions rose between sharply differing accounts of eyewitnesses and the police, news reports built their own implicit narratives of the tragic tale. This sordid and tragic ordeal speaks volumes about the cultural narratives at play surrounding race, violence, and the presumptions of “mainstream media.”
The story, according to the police, is that Gray pulled a gun on them. Eyewitnesses counter this version of events, claiming instead that Gray did not brandish a gun, and that officers neglected to identify themselves.
Incredibly, however, initial reports at outlets like The Huffington Post neglected to mention allegations that officers didn’t identify themselves, or even that they were in plainclothes – though these changes were appended later.
In this case, it is quite clear how a story might change upon learning that a teenager walking through Brooklyn – all presumptions of innocence aside – might react to two strangers jumping out of a car, ordering him to freeze. The uniform in this case is essential, so is the identification.
By neglecting to mention both of these factors in their initial reports, various media outlets – most of whom are impossible to identify at this time, due to corrected and updated versions of stories – implicitly pushed a dangerous narrative of police power and violent teenagers of color.
This narrative only strengthened a few days later, when undercurrents of emotion erupted during a candlelight vigil for Gray, and demonstrators marched down the streets of Flatbush in anger. The majority of demonstrators marched, but some vandalized a local drugstore. This anger, righteously provoked by Gray’s death, revolves around a conception of his death as being far from an isolated incident, but rather another tragedy provoked by tensions between police and marginalized communities.
Again, as initial reports made their way onto Twitter, a hashtag was formed: #BrooklynRiot. Some Twitterers, fearing the negative implications of using the term “riot,” chastised their fellow Twitterers and attempted to change the hashtag to #BrooklynProtest, which soon gained significant traction.
However, reports the next day in outlets like CBS New York (not to mention the New York Daily News, infamous for articles such as their Central Park Jogger piece in the eighties) were read with headlines like “Bottles Hurled, Drug Store Worker Injured In Disturbance Stemming From Brooklyn Police Shooting.”
How does this speak to the way we think about marginalized communities and police power? How would middle-class or wealthy suburban communities react if one of their own was shot and killed in a potentially-unprovoked altercation with police? Would property damage receive headline attention – prioritized over justified communal anger?
Headlines like these are dangerous, and only serve to feed narratives that marginalized communities are dangerous and untrustworthy. The media needs to do more to police itself and recognize its role in creating such narratives, shaping public opinion in the way that it does. But this can only be done when readers and citizens speak out – not just those affected, and not just “the typical activists,” so to speak, but the public-at-large.
The phrase “mainstream media” is one that has been co-opted by the conservative blogosphere, primarily referring to a perceived liberal bias in media outlets claiming objectivity. However, the term is not one that should be limited to the hard right: in this case, “mainstream media” applies to all the outlets who either paid very little attention to the death of a teenager at the hands of the NYPD, or those who pushed racial stereotypes and sensationalized coverage in the aftermath of his killing.
While public anger seems unlikely to hold forth, as Gray’s death fades into the background, becoming yet another in a long line of those subjugated to police violence, it remains essential that those in power are held accountable – not just those who create the narratives, but those who enforce them.
– Molly Korab
(Featured photo: The Eyes Of New York, Creative Commons, Flickr)