Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
How rumors have shaped indelible events of civil unrest in America.
It is the too-familiar American equation of racial violence: Racism, codified in city plans and policy. A black body battered by white law enforcement. A surge of civil unrest, then police retaliation. More blood on the streets.
Rumors often magnify these awful variables. They have shaped actions, narratives, and memories of countless racially charged events. Almost every high-profile instance of unrest even just this past year had some piece of unverified information exacerbating outrage. This is nothing new: According to one 1960s government report, rumors helped incite 65 percent of so-called race riots during the Civil Rights era.
Since those unsteady days, governments, police, and community leaders have responded to rumors in a variety of ways, attempting to quash potentially inciting false ideas. To what extent were these efforts effective?
Eggshells filled with gasoline
On the night of August 11, 1965, in a dense South L.A. neighborhood, a white highway patrolman arrested a 21-year-old black man, Marquette Fry, for drunk driving. A crowd of neighbors gathered at the scene, and more officers were called for backup. At some point, Fry became resistant to police, who responded with force. Onlookers retaliated, throwing bottles and rocks, and the police beat Fry and others. At some point, Fry’s pregnant girlfriend got caught up in the crowd, and police beat her before hauling both her and Fry to jail.
These are the facts that sparked the six-day Watts Uprising, which marks its 50th anniversary this week. Except for the last part: That was a rumor, probably based on a young woman in the crowd who was arrested wearing a maternity-like smock. She wasn’t connected to Fry. But in Watts, the idea that a white cop would brutally beat a pregnant black woman was plausible enough. The rumor circulated quickly, amplifying anger already present.
Thirty-four people died as Watts raged and National Guardsmen occupied the neighborhood. Meanwhile, other rumors bubbled up in South L.A. and in white enclaves beyond. African Americans heard of “a force of 2,000 white men” trooping into Watts. Suburban whites whispered that black rioters were arming themselves with machine guns. Another rumor among whites, says Terry Ann Knopf, the media critic and author of Rumors, Race, and Riots, was that “black rioters were sucking out eggshells and filling them with gasoline to make Molotov cocktails.”
Rumors were shocking, rumors were outrageous—though some more than others. Most importantly, rumors were plausible when they touched on deeply held beliefs or centuries-old stereotypes. “Rumors are not really a cause of racial violence,” says Knopf. “They’re a symptom of all the underlying causes we know about.”
Those causes include not just police violence, but other entrenched legacies of racism: Poverty enforced by policy, generations of incarceration, unequal education. In times of racially charged uncertainty, rumors breed.
The politics of credibility
Rumors caught hold so powerfully during the protests and uprisings of the Civil Rights era that many cities (at least 97, by Knopf’s count) set up official, dial-in “rumor control centers” in order to pacify citizens and quash false information.
Run by police or sheriff’s departments, mayor’s offices, human relations commissions, and even high-school student councils, the control centers were often meagerly staffed. Citizens could call in to relay rumors they’d heard to the operator, who’d work with police and other officials to assess their truth and report back. Operators would contextualize the facts: “They might tell you something like, ‘There is a disturbance in a small area, police are there, and it will be brought under control shortly,’” says Gary Allan Fine, the sociologist and co-author of Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America.
Predictably, the centers served mainly white callers out in the suburbs, far away and frightened by actions usually taking place in the city core. Black residents tended to rely on neighbors, family, and friends for information—not the white authorities that were often being protested.
“If you don’t trust the government, and you’re suspicious of what is said, you’re not going to be the person who calls a rumor control center,” says Fine. “And if you’re in the situation itself and you have a sense of what’s going on, you’re not likely to be calling in, either.”
As the control centers tended to serve only one side of the race-rumor mill, they weren’t all that effective. Most petered out in the early ‘70s, with seemingly one exception. Before succumbing to budget cuts, Baltimore’s Rumor Control Center was active until at least 2004, though “active” might be a strong word: “We get about a dozen calls a day,” Tom Saunders, a longtime rumor control center employee, said in 1998. “But half of those are from people asking about the service itself.”
For a while, Los Angeles benefited from a different kind of rumor control center—one that was run by and for the black community. After the violence of Watts, Celes King III and Luther Fuller, activists with the local chapter of the NAACP, saw there was a vacuum of trustworthy information available for African Americans.
“The credibility of the white press, of the media in general—the six o'clock news, et cetera—was seriously in doubt,” King said in a 1985 interview with the UCLA Oral History Program. “The black community was unwilling to accept that as a creditable source.”
Together, King and Fuller founded the Los Angeles Rumor Control Center in 1968, independent of city government. For a shoestring service run on donations and volunteers—who went to crime scenes, protests, and disputes themselves for accurate information—it was remarkably effective, according to King. It shuttered in 1973, but for good reason: “More black people were beginning to be hired by media,” King said. “Community-relations groups, and sections and departments, were being formed inside [government].”
Looking around today, it’s easy to be just as cynical about the credibility of the still too-white mainstream media. In times of civil unrest, it’s certainly easy to cynical about the credibility of local law enforcement and city government, even when they’re not as homogeneously white as they were in the 1960s. Are cities and communities any better at controlling rumors today?
Too good to be false
Last April, shortly after the funeral of Freddie Gray, rumors of a “purge”—a surge of anarchy against police—at Baltimore’s Mondawmin Mall began to circulate on Twitter among high school students. The Baltimore Police Department mobilized. The Baltimore Sun reported:
When 3 p.m. came, 75 to 100 students heading to Mondawmin Mall were greeted by dozens of police officers in riot gear. The mall is a transportation hub for students from several nearby schools.
The students began pelting officers with water bottles and rocks. Bricks met shields. Glass shattered up and down Gwynns Falls Parkway. Officers sprayed Mace. Confrontations bled into side streets, where officers threw bricks back. A heavily armored Bearcat tactical vehicle rolled through the neighborhood.
One officer, bloodied in the melee, was carried through Westbury Avenue by his comrades. Police used tear gas to move crowds down the street.
The “purge” turned out to be a rumor, spread hastily through social media channels. What really seemed to escalate the violence was BPD’s fevered response to it. Perhaps it seemed plausible to law enforcement that black teenagers were conspiring to commit crime en masse.
Too bad they didn’t take a page from Celes King’s handbook and find a credible source to tamp down the rumor at the same place it started. According to Fine and other scholars, rumors both propagate and die faster on Twitter than they do in real life.
“When a rumor spreads on social media, a lot of people hear it,” Fine says, “but there are also a lot people checking it out. Once they determine it’s false, their debunking spreads almost as fast as the original communication.”
That may be true in certain instances—like whether someone has been located in a natural disaster. But in other situations, a rumor can be too powerful to stamp out even in the face of well-publicized fact.
In May, Washington Post writer Jonathan Capehart published an op-ed with a controversial headline: “Hands Up Don't Shoot Was Built On A Lie.” Contrary to accounts that Michael Brown’s hands were up when he was killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson—accounts that inspired a rallying cry for protestors in the aftermath—the official reports by the Department of Justice concluded that Brown’s arms were probably not in surrender position when he was shot.
”The unarmed 18-year-old also became a potent symbol of the lack of trust between African Americans and law enforcement,” Capehart wrote. “But the other DOJ report, the one on the actual shooting of Michael Brown, shows him to be an inappropriate symbol.”
Capehart and his piece were excoriated on social media for what many perceived to be a dismantling of the Ferguson protestors’ cause. “Even if it didn’t occur in fact, it occurred metaphorically,” says Fine. “’Hands Up Don’t Shoot’ is a narrative that is too good to be false.” It has become something more than a rumor. It was and remains a reflection of a deeper, longer-running gulf between police and black communities.
So long as the root causes of racial unrest remain, rumors will continue to hang heavy like overripe fruit, too tempting to dismiss.