I can’t stop thinking about Manuel Ellis.
I keep wondering if it weren’t for the global uprising for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, whether Ellis’ killing would have passed by mostly unnoticed — as so many have before him — with just the word of the police satisfying a not particularly curious public.
It’s high time for the public — and the media — to interrogate police statements more aggressively.
Tacoma police killed Ellis on March 3, but it wasn’t until early June that his case started to get attention. Initially, as is all too common, early stories reported just the Police Department’s narrative. Police said Ellis harassed a driver, struck their police car and “slam dunked” an officer to the ground. They attributed his actions to “excited delirium,” a term used by police to justify deadly force but described as “pseudoscience” by critics.
It wasn’t until mid-June that it was revealed that the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office investigating the case — supposedly to create investigatory independence — was at the scene of the killing as well. Video began to emerge that showed officers pummeling Ellis as he gasped, “I can’t breathe,” words now tragically familiar. The medical examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide from oxygen deprivation due to physical restraint.
Now under scrutiny by activists, the general public and the media, the governor directed the State Patrol to investigate the killing. The state attorney general is reviewing Ellis’ case, as well as 30 other police deadly force incidents.
If we have learned anything from the protest movement of the past two months, we should have at least learned what people of color and other marginalized people have said forever: You can’t uncritically trust “official” accounts when it comes to policing and protests.
Efforts to contest and control the Seattle protest narrative began in late May. As my colleague Danny Westneat wrote in early June, the Seattle police chief and mayor’s efforts to paint property destruction from the first days of the protests as the work of mostly white, outside agitators was not supported by facts.
Later, in mid-June, during the height of the media frenzy around the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), an assistant Seattle police chief told the media that protesters were extorting local businesses within the CHOP for money. The claim was repeated by the police chief the next day and then reported by media around the world, including this paper.
The problem was, there turned out to be no police reports alleging extortion.
The source of the claim was a conservative blog citing unnamed police officers. The police walked back the claim, but the damage was done. The extortion claim became a key component in breathless reporting about lawlessness in CHOP by conservative media, resulting in President Trump calling out the governor and the mayor in a tweet to “Take back your city NOW. If you don’t do it, I will.”
The extortion story was one of many police storylines widely reported but unsubstantiated during the weeks of CHOP occupying Capitol Hill. Others included the police chief saying that “calls for [police] service have more than tripled,” during CHOP, which may have been an accidental misstatement but was nonetheless picked up widely in conservative media. Reporting by The Seattle Times showed that calls near the East Precinct actually dropped 31% in the first two weeks of June.
Seattle police also said in a tweet that “improvised explosives” were thrown at officers, but their tweeted photo of the device showed a candle.
Misinformation is not new. But the speed, ferocity and impact of misinformation that permeates coverage of the protest movement in Seattle and beyond is remarkable. According to media intelligence firm Zignal Labs, of 873,000 pieces of George Floyd protest-related misinformation tracked, 575,800 were about antifa being responsible for riots and looting. This misinformation led to armed groups descending on cities and towns like Snohomish to “protect” them from antifa threats that never materialized.
Joan Donovan is research director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. She said the media need to do more to broaden their sources to include community members and not just rely on the official narratives.
“I think it’s really important,” Donovan said, “not just to print the press release, but to try to substantiate any of the claims of politicians and police and police unions in times of high social unrest, because the struggle over the narrative is a proxy war. It’s a proxy war between the protesters and the state.”
The media have long been complicit in the “police said” convention in crime reporting, but that practice is getting an overdue revisiting and reckoning, including in this newsroom. Police should not be exempt from the skepticism and rigor we apply to other sources of information. As I remember being taught as a budding journalist long, long ago, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
The shift can’t come soon enough, as families like Manny Ellis’ have tried to get people to hear their calls for justice for years, and too few people have listened.