By Michael Nam
On Sunday, May 17th, rival biker gangs, the Bandidos and the Cossacks, took part in a brawl that expanded into a deadly shootout at a restaurant in Waco, Texas. Though the melee left nine dead and 170 charged with various crimes, critics of the media pointed out some stark contrasts between how this violent outburst was reported versus the largely racially charged unrest in cities like Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore.
Starting with the way the aftermath looked via photographs taken at the scene of Waco juxtaposed with the way law enforcement responded in Ferguson in the wake of Mike Brown’s death, social media was particularly relentless in pointing out the disparity:
White Waco gang members that justkilled 9 people v. a Black man walking home in Ferguson. Oh, America.: pic.twitter.com/Zy4Csi4uWK
BrownBlaze (@brownblaze) May 17, 2015
Considering that the less than militaristic stance shown in the biker gang arrest photo is going on while Waco police are under the impression that there is a potential for a reprisal from biker gangs over the incident, it seems extremely different from the way riot cops descended on Baltimore high school students based on a rumor about a gang assault on police officers.
#LIVE #SATELLITE #MondawminMall …”Cops in Body Armor for H.S. STUDENT” A photo posted by Antonio Butcher (@magava_da_9) on
“One of the most distinct characteristics of white privilege is the privilege to be unique,” Sally Kohn, activist, explained on CNN. “When white people commit violent acts, they are treated as aberrations, slips described with adjectives that show they are unusual and in no way representative of the broader racial group to which they belong.”
This is particularly represented in how FOX News will discuss the nuanced, difficult problems with “motorcycle club culture,” which hardly generalizes all white Americans, versus how the Washington Times will talk about Black culture’s “collapse” in terms of the misery in Baltimore.
Headlines among various outlets also show a subconscious bias towards how media professionals present the news with different standards attached. Stories about the biker gang shootout tend to be briefer, with neutral language and a flat use of the casualty numbers. Ferguson and Baltimore received wordy headlines with some inflammatory, descriptive language, as shown in three separate news sites:
What should not be shocking in light of this disparity is how the information from authorities was disseminated by media outlets on who they considered responsible for the different, high-profile incidents. Whether it’s the mayor of Baltimore and the governor of Maryland blaming “gangs of thugs” or Rudy Giuliani blaming Blacks themselves for police presence and brutality, when the topic shifts to the bikers in Texas, a good deal of the frustration seems directed at the restaurant that refused to close to the gangs despite warnings from cops.
“They absolutely have a right to refuse service to people that may be a harm to their patrons and employees,” Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said. “They didn’t do that, and today is the ultimate aftermath of what their decision was.”
Biker culture shaming, irresponsible restaurants and an appropriate response by uniformed officers all feature prominently for the Waco massacre, but when a relatively few rioters become visible in Ferguson and Baltimore, suddenly it’s about denigrating an entire racial minority, blaming them for the brutality they receive and responding in kind with tear gas, batons and tanks.