Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Freedom, security, and flagrant misquoting in Baltimore

Baltimore's Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake raised an important issue in her comments to the press Saturday night. Unfortunately, her point was drowned out by certain pundits who either totally misunderstood or cynically twisted her words in order to mount a diatribe against her.

Here is her complete answer to a reporter's question:
We've had these types of conversation before, and I've made it very clear that I work with the police and instructed them to do everything that they could to make sure that the protesters were able to exercise their right to free speech. It’s a very delicate balancing act, because, while we tried to make sure that they were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well. And we worked very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to deescalate, and that’s what you saw.
That is, if you protect peaceful protesters, you're going to be inadvertently protecting the thugs as well. (Yes, she did call violent protesters "thugs.") It isn't easy to balance freedom and safety.

That isn't how the usual blowhards read her words, however.

Glenn Beck opined that "during a recent press conference, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake confirmed that the protesters were being given 'space' to 'destroy.'”

Fox News changed her words into “I wanted to give space to those who wished to destroy,”

Rush Limbaugh--after changing the punctuation in what the mayor said so that half of the disputed sentence made no sense at all and the other half said the opposite of what she meant--suggested that Rawlings-Blake is "probably a racist."

Rawlings-Blake was not amused.

The thing is, Rawlings-Blake was discussing something that should be very important to all Americans, whatever our political leanings, and it's a shame her point was lost in the uproar:

How can we guarantee First Amendment freedoms, which include free speech and "the right of the people peaceably to assemble," and at the same time assure public safety?

As the mayor pointed out, "it's a very delicate balancing act." If we allow people to gather in a public space to express their anger, some of them just may go out of control. There may even be a riot.

But would we really rather have a government that prohibits public demonstrations in the name of law and order, and backs up its prohibition by preemptively sending in the National Guard? (Do the words "Kent State" ring a bell?)

A lot of Americans complain that their freedom is being infringed when they are required to wear motorcycle helmets or register their guns or remove their shoes at the airport, even though such regulations are intended to keep them safe. Some of these people can get pretty mad at the government. Do they really want the police or the military to forcibly keep them from getting mad in public?

Obviously (at least to anyone with a sense of punctuation) Mayor Rawlings-Blake chose freedom, even at the risk of disruption. The results were more than messy. But would it really have been better if she had tried to shut down freedom in the name of security? And what do you suppose would have happened then?
I'm new to the Baltimore area, and I have no personal experience of the decades (and even centuries) of strife that have led up to this month's conflicts. If you'd like to look at the Baltimore situation through genuine Baltimore eyes, read Baltimore native Ta-nahesi Coates in The Atlantic, "Nonviolence as Compliance," or Baltimore native Rafael Alvarez in USA Today, "Baltimore Is Broken, But It's Home."


Beth said...

Well said, LaVonne, though I believe there probably was a middle position of allowing free assembly while using the National Guard to protect property and ensure that the peaceful assembly stayed peaceful (or at least limited in its violence). I don't quite understand the use of national guard after the fact.
The ridiculous attempts by cable "news" to parse her words and give them different meaning is a great demonstration of what is wrong with cable news. I like that Jeff Toobin said "it really isn't important" and refocused on the larger issues.

LaVonne Neff said...

Beth, I'm not sure that the National Guard can be called unless a state of emergency is declared - which in the case of a riot would be only after it has begun. Also, I believe it's the governor, not the mayor, who activates the National Guard. Baltimore's mayor was in a hard place - she could certainly deploy a lot of police preemptively, but since they were the cause of the demonstration, even that could invite trouble.