Uncertainty breeds conspiracy theories, and we live in uncertain times. Thanks to the internet, there's more information available to the public than ever before, but it's often hard to sort out how accurate that information is, and we're left with nagging suspicions that the people telling us things—the government, corporations, the media itself—are lying or omitting key bits of context. That's how you get widespread, persistent rumors of the military imposing martial law in the Southwest or chemicals being secretly dumped on the populace from planes.
So it wasn't surprising that last week's unrest in Baltimore over the death of an unarmed black man, Freddie Gray, at the hands of local police unleashed a flood of suspicious accusations, some more legitimate than others, from people on both sides of the issue: Do our police routinely and fatally target black citizens? Is there a systematic plot to conceal their crimes and allow them to escape justice? Are criminals and professional agitators conspiring to foment a race war?
Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced Friday that charges are to be brought against the six police officers involved in Gray's arrest. But protesters in New York City who staged a rally against police brutality the same day seemed largely nonplussed by this turn of events. Stony-eyed members of the New York City Police Department kept a watchful eye on the procession, which made its way through the East Village. Besides the now-familiar cries of "No justice, no peace" and "Shut it down," I heard "Shoot the pigs!" and other such sentiments hurled at the observing officers. It seems only one person was detained by the police at Friday's rally, in contrast to Wednesday's protest, which netted a whopping 140 or so arrests.
"Fuck these barricades," complained Travis Morales of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network and Revolutionary Communist Party, as the protesters marched in Union Square with relatively little drama. "They're bullshit. I told [protest leaders] not to get a permit... This is what happens when people have a permit and march. They try to control it and corral it, and take the energy out of it as much as possible."
I asked if that meant everyone was still pissed, even though charges have been brought against the officers in Baltimore.
"I think we have to understand that charges were brought against the killers of Amadou Diallo, and they shot him 41 times," Morales responded, listing other deaths of unarmed men of color at the hands of police. "They shot at Sean Bell's van over 53 times. Oscar Grant, who was murdered down in Oakland—the cop got a slap on the wrist. Our demand is indict, convict, and send the killer cops to jail because the whole damn system is guilty as hell...The role of the police is not to serve and protect the people, it's to protect the relationship of exploitation and oppression that rule over the people."
All the protesters I spoke with expressed frustration with the justice system and a belief that cops who kill black men are systematically overlooked by the law. Everyone involved in this latest "national conversation" about race and policing seems to share that sort of anger, though in many cases it's directed not at the cops but the protesters themselves. As you can imagine, this rage has blossomed into conspiracy theories, some plausible, some not. A brief round-up:
There's an anarchist/activist social media plot to provoke violence.
According to a Fox News exclusive, an anonymous "data mining" firm with government ties has uncovered a social media network of anarchistic "professional protesters" responsible for stoking violence in both Ferguson and Baltimore.
The firm, which asked to remain anonymous because of its government work, found between 20 and 50 social media accounts in Baltimore that were also tied to the peak period of violence in Ferguson. While further analysis is being conducted on the data, it suggests the presence of "professional protesters" or anarchists taking advantage of Freddie Gray's death to incite more violence.
The protests were staged or condoned by the government to distract from an imminent military invasion.
The idea was to strengthen the feds' grip on local law enforcement, InfoWars insisted:
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who gave rioters "space to destroy" property and reportedly told police to stand down, was a key player in the Justice Dept.'s plan to expand federal control over local law enforcement
The Crips, Bloods, Black Panthers, and Black Guerrilla Family have united to kill cops.
Fish swim, birds fly, and the New York Post prints stories like this:
Police officials announced Monday they had received a "credible threat" that rival members of the murderous Bloods, Crips and Black Guerrilla Family street gangs "have entered into a partnership to take out law enforcement officers. Photos and videos on social media showed thugs decked out in their typical blue and red gang colors wreaking havoc in the streets while demanding "Justice for Freddie."
The Islamic State is in the mix.
No one knows whether the Middle Eastern jihadists have actually recruited any Baltimorians, but why let that get in the way of a story sourced from far-right site WorldNetDaily?
As civil unrest and violence over the death of a young black man continued in Baltimore this week, ISIS reportedly has its eyes set on dissatisfied Muslims among the American black population, including in Baltimore. Abu Saqer, leader of Jihadiya Salafiya, an Islamist militant group in the Gaza Strip that has made pro-ISIS statements, told WorldNetDailythat ISIS was taking advantage of a "growing movement within the black community toward Islam and the racist policies of the U.S. government." Saqer also said he did not know if ISIS had successfully recruited black American Muslims or if any jihadist cells had been established.
This is all about the Nation of Islam—or Muslims in general.
Want proof of nefarious connections? Look at these photos of protesters in Baltimore and Islamic State militants—both are making the international "We're #1 sign"!
"The cops are intentionally targeting people. They feel like it's an attack on them personally." –A protester in New York
In cities like Baltimore and New York, protestors and cops simmer in a stew of mistrust and mutual dislike, and this wild speculation isn't helping anything.
"If there are good cops, then they need to speak out against the bad ones; just like they want people in the community to speak out against those committing crimes, they need to speak out against those committing crimes against the people," one middle-aged man told me as he marched. "They're required to serve and protect. It's like the Italians call it, the Omerta. They need to break down that wall of silence. Until that happens, the people of the community and the police are never going to have a relationship."
Later, I ask a friend of mine in the NYPD what he thinks about this. "Everyone is allowed an opinion," he writes in a text message. "You just have to be able to defend it reasonably. I just read the indictment. They are going to have a hard time proving it. It looks like a knee-jerk reaction to calm the crowd."
Aiden, a transgender male protestor covered in tattoos and piercings, has his own theory.
"We are not trying to hurt anybody, regardless of what mainstream media says," he explained earnestly. "The protests in New York City have been nothing but peaceful... The cops are intentionally targeting people. They feel like it's an attack on them personally."
But, I tell Aiden, I've heard people yelling "Pigs" in their faces. I can kind of understand why they would get annoyed.
"Anyone who's a part of that system is a pig. They don't protect and serve anyone but themselves. I think anyone who isn't angry about this isn't paying attention."
Follow Sulome Anderson on Twitter.