the struggle to control images from Baltimore

“10,000 Strong Peacefully Protest In Downtown Baltimore, Media Only Reports The Violence & Arrest of Dozens”

There is a struggle underway to influence how Baltimore is portrayed visually to America. My news feed is full of images like the one above–of peaceful protests or hardworking Baltimoreans cleaning up the streets. I doubt many of those photos are getting through to the mass TV audience that is watching hurled stones and burning police cars.

For my own part, I believe the property damage and physical conflicts with police were pretty much inevitable; but images of them don’t communicate two other crucial facts: that thousands have protested peacefully (which is difficult to organize and sustain, by the way), and that everyday life in cities like Baltimore is deeply oppressed.

The experience of the 1960s teaches us that it matters which images predominate.

In 1964, the summer’s urban riots/insurrections were seen to benefit Barry Goldwater’s campaign. Johnson’s aides called them “Goldwater rallies” because they played into the Republican presidential nominee’s narrative about America. LBJ nevertheless beat Goldwater soundly. But 1968 was different. As Clay Risen writes in the Guardian,

The [1968] riots thus provided an entrée for conservatives to finally, fully assert law and order as a national political issue. Something that had been brewing for decades at the local level, and which had played a role in the GOP victories of 1966, became after April 1968 the single most important domestic concern in the 1968 presidential race. Polls repeatedly put it at par with, and even above, the Vietnam war. Richard Nixon, who had largely avoided talking about riots and civil rights before April, now made law and order – and the revulsion of white suburbia against the violent images of rioters reacting to King’s death – a central theme in his campaign.

The riots also vaulted Nixon’s eventual running mate, the obscure Maryland governor Spiro Agnew, to national prominence. In the wake of the violence in Baltimore, Agnew had called local civil rights leaders to a meeting and then ambushed them with accusations that they had facilitated the racial militancy that he – and much of white America – believed to be the cause of the riots. Nixon aide Patrick Buchanan clipped a news story about the speech and handed it to his boss. And while Nixon toyed with other running mates, he ultimately chose Agnew based on his newfound fame as the standard-bearer of the “silent majority”.

To be clear: I don’t care whether Democratic or Republican politicians benefit or suffer from the images from Baltimore and other cities. But it is important which direction the nation takes. And (fairly or not) it’s people far from Baltimore, Ferguson, and Cleveland who will decide. That is why we should all be drawing attention to the alternative images from Baltimore.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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