An irresponsible accusation

May 6, 2015

I HAVE no doubt that the statement "Reporters singled out by police" printed at on May 2 accurately describes police activity that was brutal, racist and outrageous. Much of the analysis, however, is well wide of the mark.

The authors describe an incident in which a bucket is thrown from a crowd at the police, who respond with characteristic brutally. "While we can't know for sure who threw the bucket," they write, "given the peaceful nature of the day's protests and the presence of several recognized undercover police officers in the crowd, we believe there is a strong possibility that this was the work of state agent provocateurs."

This is just irresponsible. The truth is, at every protest that ever finds police responding to an unidentified individual breaking windows, throwing objects or settings things on fire--and this happens quite a bit in Oakland--there are always people who insist that it was a cop who did it, and they are always wrong. Ultimately, there is no evidence of police provocation beyond wild speculation which ignores the far more likely conclusion. In fact, we really do not need to look far and wide in Baltimore to find people willing to throw things at the police. There are dozens of incidents of people throwing things at the Baltimore. Do we really need to imagine that cops did it?

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They write that there were undercovers in the crowd--there probably were. But undercovers are looking to gather intelligence and arrest people and not to initiate police responses by throwing things or breaking windows. This is a common liberal myth used to attack the very idea that somebody might do something like throw something at the police. This unsubstantiated claim keeps arising because it plays a useful role in delegitimizing anything that cannot be described as "peaceful protest."

The authors play into this very mentality as they describe a day of protest that was "entirely peaceful," as though this was an asset. This was during a week of riots that led to unprecedented charges against the police who killed Freddie Gray. It is substantially more likely that the person who threw the bucket was inspired by the historic rebellion in Baltimore than by payment from the state.

There is a term for accusing somebody of being an undercover agent of the state with no evidence--it is called "snitch-jacketing." The fact that nobody knows who this bucket-thrower actually is provides only a little consolation, considering how common these accusations are. Many people who were involved in Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland will be aware of incidents in which people who committed illegal and provocative acts were accused of being cops and/or tackled and stripped of their masks, trying to either expose them as provocateurs or turn them into the police. Yes, this is a contradiction, but that hardly bothers the people trying to keep things "peaceful" at all costs. I doubt that this is what the authors intend, but this is an actual consequence of this common misconception that really does happen. In the end, these unsubstantiated allegations help the state, not hinder it.

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We might conclude that there was no point throwing the bucket thing in this situation, or that the person was just doing it from the back of a crowd under cover of their protection. We certainly do not have to defend every rock that is thrown as being unquestionably strategic. But we also might conclude that the person really did not care about what the police might do to the journalists in front of them, which is a bit of a reckless attitude, but we can hardly hold all journalists up as innocent paragons of virtue.

IT IS important that radicals and revolutionaries do not identify with the aspiring professionals who really do just want to make a buck and a Pulitzer off of other people's suffering--even when we are primarily documenting abuses--but with the rebels who are throwing things. These journalists will soon go cover another story or, worse, help the status quo restore order by attacking the "vandals" and helping the police prosecute people. It is already happening, and I have no doubt that many people on the ground are well aware of this.

Many journalists have been posting photos of Black people breaking windows and throwing things at the police and this will continue to lead to criminal charges. This will have far more severe consequences to the rebellion and to the Black lives that are destroyed as a consequence of prosecution. Many of these journalists are not innocent parties in this situation and we should not paper over the genuine and rightful hostility toward them. Photojournalists are often assaulted for taking these photos because of these dire consequences, and it would not be surprising if this was the motivation behind the bucket-throwing. Sure, this is speculative, but it is far less speculative--not to mention less politically confusing--than the idea that this person was a cop.

It is certainly an attack on basic democratic rights for the police to hinder the ability of people documenting their racist brutality, whether they are mainstream reporters or individuals with a cell phone camera. These acts are outrageous and should be opposed, but neither journalists nor "peaceful protests" made the current uprising, which has involved quite a bit of throwing things at police. In fact, there are people who will want to see the events in Baltimore redirected into "peaceful" avenues, including the courtroom, the ballot box and symbolic marches with marshals who stop anybody from doing anything other than marching.

We should have none of it. The role of the radical left should be to resist this pressure, not to play into unfounded allegations that reinforce it.
Scott J., Oakland, California

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