People Hearing Without Listening: The media on Baltimore

The Baltimore riots have caused a lot of controversy in the media in the last few days over how they should be covered. The President has been alternatively criticized for his characterization of the people in the riots as ‘criminals and thugs’, and praised for his sympathy towards poor black Americans. Most people now seem to agree on and understand that the people are rioting because of institutionalized poverty and systematic racism, and it is good that these things are finally being addressed in the mainstream conversation. However, the size, scale, and violence of the riots seems to have people scared and confused. There seems to be a disconnect between understanding the causes and understanding the emotions of the black Americans who are actually living this reality.

People like Sean Hannity seem to want to know, ‘Is this the answer?’ without really knowing the question. They fail to see or understand the reason why people have resorted to violence, and continue to ask why they can’t just peacefully protest. But a protest requires the expectation that the people on the other side – the people in control – are listening and understanding. It requires that those people will care enough about the people protesting to hear them out and to do something. This rioting isn’t something that has happened instead of protests, it is something that has happened in spite of them.

Black people in America should not need to protest to let us know what their grievances are. It is written in every history book you studied in school, it is written into the very history of the country. Slavery, oppression, disenfranchisement, and the cycle of poverty shouldn’t be anything new to the average American, certainly not to a trained journalist. A friend told me recently that they were sick of hearing about racism, poverty, police brutality, and other issues that face black Americans being constantly discussed in the media. I responded that they should think about how sick black people are of living those issues.

The simple truth is that the level of desperation, despair, and hopelessness that leads people to turn to violence like we’ve seen in the Baltimore riots does not happen overnight. It is the result, not only of centuries of oppression, but of decades of being told that your oppression is over, only to walk outside and see it played out in front of you. It is the result of protesting again and again for the same issues and still not being heard. The riots are a voice crying out against the Kafka-esque struggle of a people who have been told that they have all the same opportunities as everyone else, and silenced when they dare to challenge that as untrue.

Black people are constantly being told by the media that they are protesting ‘the wrong way’, that the riots in Baltimore are the ‘wrong way’ to get what they want. But where is the ‘right way’? When all else fails, when all other avenues and platforms have been exhausted and your voice still isn’t being heard, it often seems that violence is the only way to get anyone’s attention. It may not be ‘right’, but the only other option would be to remain silent.

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