In the summer of 1919, a period that became known as “Red summer” because of bloody race riots that convulsed the country, racial violence broke out in Washington D.C. The violence was hardly a surprise. Local newspapers, including the Washington Post, had published an unrelenting series of stories about a “Negro Fiend” on the loose.  In the weeks prior to the rioting, local headlines included 13 SUSPECTS ARRESTED IN NEGRO HUNT; POSSES KEEP UP HUNT FOR NEGRO; and NEGRO FIEND SOUGHT ANEW.  The Washington Office of the NAACP had been so concerned, they wrote the editors of the local papers accusing them of “sowing the seeds of a race riot.” On July 19 that year, rumors flew across the city that a “Negro rapist” had been released by the authorities.  White mobs gathered and attacked the black community, assaulting residents and burning homes and businesses. Before the rioting ended, 54 people were killed.

I am reminded of this episode of media misbehavior in light of the Justice Department Report on the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson last year. Early on, the media latched onto a “witness” statement that Michael Brown had his hands raised and was pleading “Don’t shoot” when fatally shot by Officer Daren Wilson. The “Hands Up” gesture and phrase “Don’t Shoot” became both the symbol and slogan for anti-police protests across the country.

The problem is — It never happened.  The phrase and gesture originated with Dorian Johnson, the man accompanying Mr. Brown on that fateful day. The media repeatedly relayed Johnson’s supposed “Eye-witness” statement as though he was an objective outsider who witnessed the event. In fact, as the media well-knew, Johnson was a participant in the convenience store robbery just minutes prior to the shooting and the DOJ investigation released last week should put to rest the assumption that Brown was a victim of police brutality.

The DOJ Report has sparked at least the beginnings of some soul-searching by the media. Johnathan Capehart, a Washington Post reporter and MSNBC commentator, says”What the DOJ found made me ill.” The headline of Capehart’s review of the DOJ Report is ” ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ was built on a lie”  (Full Story here)

The DOJ finding that Brown’s shooting was justified should not obscure real problems in Ferguson. The other DOJ report released last week on the Ferguson Police Department is damning. It portrayed a police department trampling the rights of citizens; acting as a revenue collection agency via traffic tickets; and staffed by some folks who happily exchanged racist jokes on city e-mails.

There are serious problems and much work to do to repair the relationship between Black Americans and the police departments in this country. The media has a crucial role to play in these discussions. Sensationalism and shoddy reporting are no more acceptable now than they were in 1919 and many Americans will be watching with interest to see if our national media outlets have the gumption to shine a spotlight on their own mistakes.



See my December 3, 2014 Blog which noted the hazard of the media’s embrace of Dorian Johnson’s narrative of the event.