The real battle over protest events in Baltimore are on social media, where control of the narrative is on the line

City Paper

Following Saturday’s murder of two police officers in New York by Ismaaiyl Brinsley (who announced his intentions via Instagram and included the hashtags “#RIPErivGardner [sic] and #RIPMikeBrown), the Sergeants Benevolent Association, a New York police union (@SBANYPD) tweeted, “The blood of 2 executed police officers is on the hands of Mayor de Blasio.” Former New York Gov. George Pataki (@GovernorPataki) tweeted, “Sickened by these barbaric acts, which sadly are a predictable outcome of divisive anti-cop rhetoric of #ericholder & #mayordeblasio. #NYPD.” Meanwhile, activists were quick to tweet that their pleas for nonviolence extended to police officers and that Brinsley’s actions did not represent the movement, while repeatedly asserting that the killing of the police officers, while tragic, did not diminish the need to address police violence. 

In the Twitter era, everyone is “building their brand” and essentially creating propaganda—not just companies, but individuals, nonprofits, social movements, and government organizations, including the police. They all adopt the methods of salespeople and pollsters, always optimizing their messages, online and off, to draw the most attention and control the narrative.

A case study in controlling the narrative in real time took place a week earlier on Dec. 13, as a tactical battle between the Baltimore Police Department and local protestors marking the national Day of Anger in response to recent police killings of unarmed African American men played out across the city. The protesters, led by People’s Power Assembly (PPA), ran block by block, trying to block city streets as police officers tried to beat them to key intersections. But a parallel battle was taking place online, via the department’s Twitter account, @BaltimorePolice. What follows is a blow-by-blow account of the street confrontation and its Twitter analogue. It illustrates a new field of contention between protesters and police.

At 2:02 p.m., just minutes after the protest began, the Baltimore Police’s Twitter account, @BaltimorePolice, began live-tweeting the protest: “There is a small group of protesters at Light and Pratt Streets on the sidewalk.” The tweets continued. At 2:22, its next tweet read, “The group at Light and Pratt Streets is stationary. Traffic is not being impacted.” When PPA (whose Twitter presence is minimal) shut down Martin Luther King Boulevard for about an hour, @BaltimorePolice warned motorists at 3:26 p.m., “All lanes on MLK are blocked at Washington blvd.”

The Baltimore Police’s tweets lasted as long as the protest, which ended up at North Avenue and Calvert Street a little after 7 p.m., and its account provided a mix of protester location, notification of road closings for city drivers, and the occasional declaration that “The BPD remains committed to ensuring the peaceful exercise of every person’s constitutional rights” (it tweeted this or some variation of it four times, at 3:00, 3:31, 3:56, and 6:18 p.m.).

This play-by-play tweeting of protests is common on police department Twitter accounts throughout the country and speaks in general to the goals of official police Twitter accounts: primarily as a conduit for public information, but also to act as a form of public relations. Over the summer, the Baltimore Police’s Twitter-as-PR was most apparent when it released a viral video of police dancing to Pharrell’s hit song ‘Happy’ when it achieved the goal of 50,000 Twitter followers. (City Paper responded with a video, “Trigger Happy,” which was, in many ways, an attempt to counter @BaltimorePolice’s narrative.)

In the past, the Baltimore Police Department has struggled against the press to control the narrative of crime and policing stories in Baltimore, as when they broke off communication with Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton after objecting to the way he covered certain stories. During the Dec. 13 protest, the Baltimore Police Twitter account worked, again, to have its version of events dominate the public narrative when it tweeted at Sun reporter Ian Duncan, who had been tweeting information he heard on the public police scanner (sample tweet from Duncan: “Scanner: Officers should have a plan and be ready to make arrests, get people onto buses.”). At 4:29, the Baltimore Police Twitter account tweeted: “We have asked @iduncan to cease broadcasting radio transmissions in real time, we have asked for two min delay to not endanger officers.” Duncan responded, “What happened to ‘off the record’?”

@BaltimorePolice What happened to "off the record"?

— Ian Duncan (@iduncan) December 13, 2014

Police scanner broadcasts are public information, and because the police were themselves tweeting the location of protesters, it seems disingenuous to demand Duncan stop tweeting because it might endanger police. But it is another example of the ways in which Twitter was one of the primary fields of contention at the protests, which would otherwise be confined to their physical space. The police language—and especially the tweeting of the location of the demonstrations—tended to treat the protesters as a swarm. For example, the PPA protest on that day is consistently referred to by the Baltimore Police Twitter account as “the group” and then a “crowd,” while a protest the next day at Reisterstown Road for “Black Lives Matter Sunday” was referred to as a “peaceful group of demonstrators,” and, later on, “a group of . . . peaceful demonstrators.”

The nuances of language are lost on Twitter and it is conceivable that two different users sent out these tweets (the Baltimore Police would not respond City Paper’s questions about who runs @BaltimorePolice and how) and that nothing is meant by calling the PPA protest “a crowd” and another protest “peaceful demonstrators,” though this in and of itself speaks to the complexities of an institution like the police using Twitter for both information and public relations.

Still, the language—including the more aggressive approach with which they handled @iduncan—mirrored the difference in police activity on the ground that Saturday evening. A few protesters said police officers mocked signs with victims’ names on it, made comments about how much overtime they were making that night, refused to provide their badge numbers, and more. City Paper witnessed two officers laugh dramatically when a protester on North and Calvert mentioned “an article in the Sun paper” where an officer called “an 89-year-old woman . . . a fat bitch.”

One woman at the protest, Beth Emmerling, who is an associate of the activist group Baltimore Bloc, claims an officer hit her in the face with his shoulder when she tried to leave the group on Calvert Street to find a bathroom. She says another officer told her “that’s too fuckin’ bad.” The Baltimore Bloc’s account, @BmoreBloc (who are currently blocked by @BaltimorePolice), tweeted out an image of Emmerling’s face which showed some redness on her right cheek. Others also claim to have witnessed rough treatment and when City Paper spoke to Emmerling after the protest she still seemed startled.

The Baltimore Police Twitter responded to these accusations as details or rumors spread through the protest and online. At 6:18 p.m, it tweeted, “The BPD has not made any arrests today because of the demonstrations. We remain committee [sic] to ensuring the peaceful exercise of const rights.” And at 6:26 p.m.: “Reports are unfounded. The demonstrations have been recorded by a number of third party sources. There has been no reported assault.”

Reports are unfounded. The demonstrations have been recorded by a number of third party sources. There has been no reported assault.

— Baltimore Police (@BaltimorePolice) December 13, 2014

Around 6:30 p.m., the protest remained in the intersection of Calvert and North, and Foxtrot, the police chopper, began flying lower, making announcements that this was now “an illegal assembly.” The chopper kept getting lower, announcing a second, third, fourth, and final warning. Some of these warnings were tweeted as well: at 6:31, 6:33, 6:36, and 6:39 p.m. Around 7 p.m., the protesters finally dispersed and went north on Calvert. Moments before, officers forced people filming the demonstration, including City Paper, off a nearby hill, and then even off the sidewalk near the protest.

From the ground, it seemed like the only thing that had changed in order to allow the police to force protesters to disperse was that there were now fewer protesters and less media. In conjunction with their proactive Twitter account, the police were in control.

At a protest on Dec. 4, the night of the non-indictment of New York Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was filmed choking Eric Garner, Batts told the City Paper that they are “not used to crowd control and what goes on with crowd control,” and that they are “learning as [they] go.” The Baltimore Police appear to be learning as they go with Twitter as well and on Dec. 13, they effectively owned the night’s narrative thanks to social media. According to @BaltimorePolice at least, the protest ended peacefully with the constitutional rights of the protesters preserved.

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