Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Why were the strategies used by police leading up to a biker-gang battle in Waco and the recent unrest in Baltimore so different?
There’s been a swarm of criticism circulating about how media outlets have treated the biker gang shootout in Waco, Texas, over the weekend. The #WacoThugs stream on Twitter provides a comprehensive read of how bloggers and pundits have labeled the mostly white Bandidos and Cossacks biker-gang members compared with how they discussed those involved in the recent Ferguson and Baltimore conflagrations.
But while the media response might have been less than stellar, the law enforcement response was the real problem. Police were already on the scene in full force at the Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco before the biker gang fight broke —which resulted in nine people dead, 18 wounded, and over 170 arrested. According to local news station WFAA8, law enforcement officials had already been alerted that a war might break out between the gangs as early as May 1. That’s when the state’s Joint Information Center sent out a bulletin titled, “Tension between Bandidos OMG and Cossacks MC remains high in Texas."
The U.S. Justice Department had also been tracking the OMGs—outlaw motorcycle gangs—and the criminal enterprises that they support. And yet the police took a reactive approach to the biker meeting, responding only after mayhem ensued. Compare that to how the police treated kids in Baltimore after catching wind of a potential violent situation. The Baltimore Sun reported:
It started Monday morning with word on social media of a "purge"—a reference to a movie in which crime is made legal. It was to begin at 3 p.m. at Mondawmin Mall, then venture down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Inner Harbor.
With tensions in the city running high on the day of Freddie Gray's funeral, police began alerting local businesses and mobilizing officers.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore was one of the first institutions to acknowledge law enforcement concerns. With exams about to begin, school officials abruptly canceled classes "on recommendation of the BPD."
T. Rowe Price sent employees home; Lexington Market closed early. One by one, other businesses shut down.
When 3 p.m. came, 75 to 100 students heading to Mondawmin Mall were greeted by dozens of police officers in riot gear.
As reported in Mother Jones:
When school let out that afternoon, police were in the area equipped with full riot gear. According to eyewitnesses in the Mondawmin neighborhood, the police were stopping buses and forcing riders, including many students who were trying to get home, to disembark. Cops shut down the local subway stop. They also blockaded roads near the Mondawmin Mall and Frederick Douglass High School, which is across the street from the mall, and essentially corralled young people in the area. That is, they did not allow the after-school crowd to disperse.
In Baltimore, police took an aggressive approach, treating a group of young students as a potentially violent mob, to be contained with a show of force. In Waco, police were in the presence of full-fledged, armed outlaw gangs, but were so deferential to the biker gangs that they even met with members ahead of time to try to negotiate peace. As WFAA8 reported:
According to the bulletin, law officers had been actively trying to reduce tensions between the two groups and had met with them about it. They had been cautioned about the "unwanted attention a potential war would bring to both groups," the bulletin said.
The optics here would lead us to believe that the Baltimore students were given heavy-handed police treatment while the Waco gangs were handled with kid gloves because the former situation involved mostly African Americans, while the biker gangs were mostly white. That kind of disparate treatment only fuels the kind of charges of racism levied by those criticizing the media treatment of the two accounts.
One thing on that, though: The media has been criticized for not referring to the Waco gang shootout as a “riot,” as they referred to events in Baltimore and Ferguson. But perhaps they didn’t call what happened in Waco a riot because that’s not what it was. Martin Luther King defined riots as the “language of the unheard.” And riots, as we know them today, are typically characterized as a spontaneous, unorganized, response from civilians to a trigger—usually in response to a systemic problem. Recent examples of triggers have been police harassment and brutality, which the U.S. Justice Department found evidence of in Ferguson, and is investigating in Baltimore now.
But Waco doesn’t fall under these conditions. The deadly battle between the Bandidos and Cossacks was predictable. The two biker outfits double as organized crime syndicates, and their voices are hardly unheard. The kind of power and influence they wield throughout cities and states through brutal means is complemented by their work as “biker lobbyists” who regularly negotiate with governments about “biker rights.” In fact, the reason the two OMGs were in the same place the day of the melee was for a meeting to discuss their “biker rights” agenda, as reported in The New York Times.
Law enforcement agencies should create policies and procedures for policing mass demonstrations that employ a continuum of managed tactical resources that are designed to minimize the appearance of a military operation and avoid using provocative tactics and equipment that undermine civilian trust.
It seems that gangs in Waco have already been getting that benefit.