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What’s Wrong with CNN Characterizing Baltimore Uprising as ‘Unrest’ Fueled by ‘Professional Protesters’

Screen shot of CNN segment on “professional protesters”

CNN aired a segment broadly characterizing people demonstrating in Baltimore against police violence as “professional protesters,” a term often used by police and right wing media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart. It essentially is another way of labeling and marginalizing demonstrators as outside agitators, people there to take advantage of a situation by creating “unrest.”

Don Lemon, a CNN host who has developed quite a reputation for his nauseating punditry on how people should protest and/or respond to police, framed the segment.

“An organic grassroots movement inspired by everyday neighbors fed up with police abuse. Sounds good, but not necessarily true,” Lemon declared. “Some of the hundreds and sometimes thousands of people taking to the streets of Baltimore and Ferguson to protest are not necessarily from Baltimore or Ferguson. As CNN’s Sara Sidner reports, they are professional protesters.”

The “professional protester” profiled was David Whitt, a Ferguson resident who started a Copwatch chapter and bought residents cameras to film police after Mike Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

CNN showed Whitt standing in a neighborhood in Baltimore talking about the importance of protesting police violence. Nothing he says would suggest that he is claiming to represent the people of that community. Sidner suggested, “It may seem like Whitt protecting his own neighborhood, but he’s not.” Yet, it only seemed like Whitt was “protecting his own neighborhood” because that was how Sidner and others at CNN wanted Whitt to appear.

During the segment, Whitt explained that he was in Baltimore because someone from a Copwatch chapter in the community was arrested. Sidner adds that he has “traveled to communities frustrated by police shootings, North Charleston, South Carolina, Oakland, and now Baltimore.”

SIDNER: Would you consider yourself a professional — what? A protester, a professional cop watcher, what would you consider yourself?
WHITT: I think, I think, I think you could say both. I — I do consider myself as a professional cop watcher. I’ve been cop watching my whole life just like other, other black people in our community. We just haven’t had cameras to do it with.

But, as a matter of fact, Whitt is not really a “professional.” He is not paid to protest or cop watch. Whitt makes it clear, “When I was coming out here, somebody got my ticket for me. I don’t got no — I ain’t part of an organization. I’m a regular person.”

CNN cannot let that get in the way of the segment so they place it at the end of the segment after they have held up Whitt as an example of a “professional protester,” who travels to communities to protest police.

“Whitt is a part of a growing number of protesters flocking to areas of civil unrest, with goals that go beyond marching,” Sidner said. “Many live stream and tweets events on the ground, documenting them and often growing their followers. Their power evident again on Monday in Baltimore, when someone’s gun went off and police were there. But social media can be wrong. Like today, when many claim police opened fire on a protester, that turned out not to be the case, according to police.”

However, nobody claimed on Monday that a “protester” was shot by police. A Fox News correspondent named Mike Tobin and others in the area, who thought they had witnessed a police shooting, posted that a black man had been shot by an officer while fleeing. The Baltimore Police Department immediately sought to correct professional reporters who thought they had seen a shooting.

This was not a textbook example of social media being wrong that demonstrates the perils and pratfalls of letting “professional protesters” dominate the internet. In fact, people in the area were basically doing what CNN tends to do every other day. (The only reason CNN did not make the same mistake as Fox News is because they were airing remarks from President Barack Obama, although juxtaposed next to him was video of Baltimore police responding to what producers at the moment clearly believed was a shooting.)

Following this part of the segment, Sidner added, in typical cable news fashion, “Some local officials and some residents say the outsiders are agitators. Defense Attorney Nick Panteleakis works and lives in Baltimore and was caught up in the protests the night his city burned.”

Just because CNN did not bother to share any more details about Panteleakis does not mean his identity should remain a mystery. Panteleakis represented former Baltimore police detective Joseph Crystal, a whistleblower who the department retaliated against because he was a prosecution witness against some officers accused of misconduct.

Panteleakis shared his disgust for a gentleman who shouted that he wanted to shut the city down. He believes this gentleman had such an agenda to shut the city down because he does not live in Baltimore. (Apparently, Panteleakis does not go to many protests because usually someone expresses a desire to shut something down. It does not necessarily mean that they will before the protest is over.)

More significantly, the comment from Panteleakis made it possible to point fingers at Whitt and other “professional protesters” as those that played a role in the violent riots.

Sidner may never explicitly make this point, but anyone watching can tell that the message is that these so-called outside agitators have no respect for the community, since it is not their own, and they will set property on fire to get their message across to the world.

Why was Whitt selected for the segment? Why is Whitt the only “professional protester,” who is identified and appears on camera?

It could be because Whitt appeared on CNN three times before this segment. He was interviewed by Sidner twice last year. Conveniently, Sidner could easily meet up with him again and record an interview. Rather than do research to find examples of “professional protesters,” CNN went with someone they already knew.

Another possibility is that CNN had a frame for a segment they wanted to do — “Professional protesters travel to cities with civil unrest to protest.” CNN could not risk talking to people who would blow that frame to smithereens with statements that suggested they were not “professional protesters,” as police like to claim.

One may have noticed that livestreamers were lumped in as “professional protesters.” This is quite unfair when most of them are acting as journalists by providing up-to-minute reports and coverage of events happening in cities where major uprisings happen.

Overall, this segment is a hackneyed production that scarcely makes a coherent case that what has happened in Baltimore is the result of “professional protesters.” The only thing it does well is blow a dog whistle for Americans already fearful of anyone who protests in their community.

*

When CNN airs segments like the one on “professional protesters” in Baltimore, it plays into that narrative promoted by those in power. Protesters are labeled as “outside agitators” by authorities because police and government officials do not want to acknowledge the legitimacy of the rage and despair of a community. Authorities rationalize uprisings, including violent protest, as the product of “outside agitators.”

It hearkens back to the days of J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO, when paranoia and racism led authorities to believe Communist foreigners were behind any major protest by any group in the United States.

Such a segment panders to white Americans, who may not think these protesters represent their community.

Last night was not the first time CNN has used this term often used by police and right wing media to delegitimize protests.

On May 3, during “State of the Union,” CNN correspondent Nick Valencia described people at an anti-police rally in Baltimore as a “lot of outside presence, anarchists, anonymous types, opportunists, professional protesters.”

When Senator John McCain had an outburst and called members of CODEPINK “lowlife scum” in January, CNN political analyst John Avlon reacted, “I dig the inner Eastwood coming out there on the part of Johnny Mack,” and, “I mean, look, CODEPINK, the professional protester crowd does have a way of irritating people and being their own worst enemy.”

On December 6, 2014, CNN Money correspondent Cristina Alesci described die-in protests at stores in New York for Eric Garner, who was killed by a New York police officer who put him in a chokehold.

“Very organized. There seem to be very professional groups behind them, advocates for civil rights, you know, one of my colleagues call them professional protesters. So, and they are communicating via Twitter and there is a text message list that updates you on the various locations,” Alesci said.

Ted Rowlands, a CNN national correspondent, reported on protests at a NATO summit in Chicago on May 20, 2012. He suggested, “You have the antiwar folks. You have people that [have] specific beefs with NATO that have come to Chicago. And you have what police have called professional protesters. And the anarchists who are here because they want to cause trouble. That’s their sole goal.”

Police had been caught on video running over a person with a van, and CNN reported that police believed they were setup by “professional protesters.”

During the groundswell of protest that became known as the Occupy movement, the term “professional protesters” was used again. On November 17, 2011, while demonstrators were on the Brooklyn Bridge, Avlon said, “Well, if you read ‘Occupy the Machine’ or any of the basic anarchist guides, you do get a sense of the professional protester element in this.” Avlon mentioned the agenda went beyond “income and equality” to include “500 years of genocide.” CNN host Erin Burnett replied that this meant taking land from “American Indians.” To which Avlon added, “That’s not a useful argument to make if you want to—play a constructive role in our politics.”

On December 20, 2007, New Orleans residents were protesting the destruction of public housing developments after Hurricane Katrina. People demonstrating were labeled “professional protesters.”

There was, however, one protest where CNN made it clear that the people were not “professional protesters” and that was on May 12, 2006, when the anti-immigrant Minutemen Project had a rally at Capitol Hill.

“Not a real big rally, but as we were discussing here earlier, it’s the nature of the people who are showing up,” CNN correspondent Tom Foreman stated. “Whenever you have rallies that produce a lot of people who openly say they’ve never been involved in politics, don’t really want to be involved in politics, but have been triggered by this issue and they’re taking days off from work to be down here, it’s not the professional protester crowd. It’s normal voting Americans who are concerned, and those people often can get the attention of Congress. That’s what they’re hoping for today.”

The rally in Washington, DC, marked the end of a “cross-country caravan” for the group. These people fit the exact definition of “outside agitators.” They had traveled from afar to agitate against what they perceived as a pro-amnesty agenda for “illegal” immigrants.

Travel to Baltimore to protest against police brutality in a community — be sweepingly generalized by CNN as a “professional protester.”

Travel to Washington, DC, to protest against immigrants — have your grievances clearly articulated on television by a CNN correspondent and find yourself celebrated as being as American as apple pie.

Clip of CNN segment on “professional protesters.”

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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