The Night Without a Riot

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 14 2013 1:58 PM

The Night Without a Riot

Early this morning, around 2 a.m., I got home from a friend's birthday party and walked to the plaza at the heart of my neighborhood. In April 1968, Columbia Heights was one of the historically black neighborhoods ravaged and burned after the MLK assassination. In 1991 rumors of a police murder during Cinco de Mayo celebration sparked a riot a few blocks away. The neighborhood gentrified after that, and the city built a public space near the Metro, at the intersections of 14th and Park streets—a fountain, some grass, stone benches and bright lights.

Around 2 a.m., the plaza was occupied by a few dozen people, mostly black, holding candles or signs to mourn the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. Two young white men held signs reading "Stop Criminalizing Black Men" and "Only White Lives Count." One poster, reading "Travyon, We Will Never Forget You," rested in front of the stone bench being used for speakers to grab a bullhorn and talk to the crowd. Four police cars, lights flashing, idled at the end of the street, and their presence was very much felt.

"This did not happen to Trayvon Martin if he was a white child," said one speaker, glancing at the police lights. "If you don't believe that, you just need to look around at what this country really looks like. Right now there's like 50 cops sitting here watching us. We need to not act like that's not a real threat in D.C. Right now, walking down the street and getting harassed—that's black and brown people."

The mixed-race crowd nodded along. There was no real agenda or theme, just a silent mutual agreement to listen to people rage. A bearded white man asked the crowd to consider the Zimmerman verdict in some larger context of oppression of the 1 percent and the "working class, black and brown people, LGBT people."

"The reason this even went to trial is that the people organized and demanded it," he said. "We see the power of the people—when we organize, we win."

The black members of the crowd weren't entirely sold. An older black woman grabbed the megaphone to amend his remarks. "This is not about no damn LGBT," she said. "It ain't about any of that bullshit. This is about a black kid who got shot down because he was black!"

This went on for a while, staying slightly raw and tense, but staying peaceful. This morning's crime report recorded four shootings last night, one of them fatal, and sadly, that's about the norm in D.C. Across the rest of the country, there were destructive but nonfatal protests in Oakland, Calif. (also the most violent outpost of the old Occupy movement), but as of now the typical urban reaction to the verdict seemed to reflect what I saw in D.C.—a peaceful protest under the watchful eyes of unbeloved police officers.

Depending on how you get your news, this might have come as a surprise. "The public mind has been so poisoned," wrote Pat Buchanan last year, "that an acquittal of George Zimmerman could ignite a reaction similar to that, 20 years ago, when the Simi Valley jury acquitted the LAPD cops in the Rodney King beating case." In fringe media, like the Alex Jones network of sites, it was taken for granted that a Zimmerman acquittal would inspire a race war. The only dispute was about the scale. Certainly, nobody was saying "this could lead to one night of smashing things in Oakland."

"With today’s social media I fully expect organized race rioting to begin in every major city to dwarf the Rodney King and the Martin Luther King riots of past decades," wrote retired cop/pundit Paul Huebl after the Rachel Jeantel testimony sparked a wave of distressed tweets from black users. "If you live in a large city be prepared to evacuate or put up a fight to win. You will need firearms, fire suppression equipment along with lots of food and water.  Police resources will be slow and outgunned everywhere. America is about to see some combat related population control like we’ve not seen since the Civil War. Martial Law can’t be far behind complete with major efforts at gun grabbing."

That analysis was shared on Jones' Prison Planet, and it really did represent the far edge of "here comes the riot" punditry. Far more typical was the take Rush Limbaugh offered to his listeners on Open Line Friday. "I don't want any riots, don't misunderstand," said Limbaugh. "From the media perspective, we haven't had a good riot in this country in I don't know how long. A riot is an opportunity for the media to show how unjust and unfair, basically how sucky the country is, and there hasn't been that chance." Limbaugh walked through a couple of scenarios, including one in which "nobody cares" about the verdict and no riots break out, but was confident that he would not be blamed for riots if they did break out. "I'll be the last guy, because that would be to credit me, because people are gonna want them. You think I'm gonna get the credit? Sharpton's gonna get that credit, or the Reverend Jackson."

Well, there weren't any riots, so nobody gets the credit. Riot-panic was rooted in a misreading of observable black opinion of the trial, in reports from Sanford and in trawls through social media. I was in Sanford last year, before Zimmerman was charged, and got to see how close the historically segregated black part of town was from downtown. More than one person there fretted about riots if Zimmerman wasn't put on trial. Once he was put on trial, the tenor of the outrage changed for good. Sanford itself was peaceful last night.

I tried to say this in a pithy way last night, and learned that Twitter is maybe not the ideal place to argue the details of race and justice in America. But Twitter has been adopted as a way for people to pop off crudely about the news and their emotions. Twitter was actually the basis for a lot of the riot panic. A quick search of the network, from last year through yesterday, would reveal people with names like "Kyle 80Proof Golden" and "Chamba Juice" predicting riots if Zimmerman was acquitted. These searches, added to the threats of the ridiculous New Black Panther Party (which constantly claims to be on the verge of marshalling a large, violent mob, but never does so), created a certitude in some media that flash mob riots could break out as soon as Zimmerman got off.

The problem with this analysis was that these people weren't really serious. This tweet appeared in an April 2012 Twitchy.com roundup on the "lynch mob" ready to riot.

This was what Star tweeted when the verdict came down.

Exhibit B:

And Exhibit B, from last night.

I quoted that last tweet, which does hold out hope that someone will hurt George Zimmerman, because there's still a bunch of violent sentiment about this on social media. But it's just sentiment. The angry tweets about wanting to riot didn't actually lead to riots. They were angry tweets.

Twitter feeds played an outsized role in the public debate about Zimmerman and Martin. The first widely distributed photo of Martin captured him in 2011, wearing a red T-shirt and smiling, looking like a young and harmless teen. The later discovery of Martin's social media life, largely his tweets, were seen by some conservatives as proof that Martin was really a "thug," and that the press was concealing (or not digging for) that truth in order to railroad Zimmerman.

Last month, before Martin's friend Rachel Jeantel gave the embarrassing testimonies that undermined the prosecution, The Smoking Gun revealed that she'd scrubbed her Twitter feed to remove references to drinking and partying. On his radio show, Glenn Beck described what was scrubbed and gave dramatic readings of the nixed tweets. "When you drinking and smoking, you need good music in U R ears," read Beck. "I need a drink to sleep this off and F this S boy." He cringed at the revelation that the obese Jeantel had taken down adults-only photos of herself. "You ain't seen nothin' since you've seen photos of her [being] sexually suggestive!"

So the social media lives of a bunch of youngish black people were read like the I Ching. Was that the right way to read them? In the case of the riot-panic, clearly it wasn't. People who made stupid jokes about wanting to riot did not, in fact, intend to riot. I'm sure the people who scanned the Internet for warning signs and possible riot plans thought they were doing a public service, a sort of neighborhood watch. The irony might dawn on them later.

(Photo by David Weigel.)

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.