After every national tragedy, conspiracy theorists rush to fit the facts into their pet theories. The Baltimore riots are no exception. Among the many questions and claims being put forward on conspiracy sites are claims that the riots may be linked to Jade Helm 15 in preparing America for martial law. This in spite of the fact that Maryland is across the country from Jade Helm exercise area.
These theories hold that the riots in Baltimore are meant to instill fear and panic of a race war throughout the country. A posting sent in by a reader (tip of the tinfoil hat to Jason Doolin of Florida) seems representative of the conspiracy claims. “In case you missed it,” the post begins, “media focused on the few areas in Bmore [sic] where rioting took place and made it look like ww3 [sic] throughout the city. Meanwhile their ratings went through the roof and they paraded interviewees in front of the audience begging for the govt. to enact martial law in order to save them. This is known as PSYOPS aka conditioning.” The posting concludes, “Now the headline is martial law saved the city.”
Examining the claims, we find that the conspiracy is wrong on almost all counts. In many cases, it is true that media coverage of a small area can give the perception that devastation is much larger than it actually is. In the case of the Baltimore riots, however, a map published by the Baltimore Sun showing the violence of the first day of rioting shows that incidents occurred over a widespread area. According to the Sun, the violence began near Mondawmin Mall, located in the northwest section of the city, and spread towards downtown. The violence was worst on the west side of town, but there were a number of scattered incidents in eastern Baltimore as well.
None of the conspiracy sites seem to have an example of anyone “begging” for the government to enact martial law. Examples of black leaders inciting the riot, another claim in some articles, are easier to find. A frequently cited example is Malik Shabazz, president of Black Lawyers for Justice, who was quoted in the New York Times on Saturday, April 25 as telling protesters to “Shut it down if you want to! Shut it down!” Shabazz said he was encouraging civil disobedience, not violence.
Others were more direct. On Monday, April 27, Marc Lamont Hill, a professor at Morehouse College, said on CNN, “There shouldn’t be calm tonight.” He added, “I think there can be resistance to oppression
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In one infamous piece on Salon, Benji Hart wrote, “It is crucial that we see non-violence as a tactic, not a philosophy” and argued against the “slandering of protesters in Baltimore this weekend for not remaining peaceful.” Hart’s words were published on Tuesday, however, as the riot was already in full swing.
Some conspiracy sites claim that martial law was declared in Baltimore and that the National Guard was used to restore order. Indeed, a New York Times article with the headline “Martial law enforced in Baltimore” comes up in Google searches. Upon closer inspection, the dateline is April 23, several days before the start of the riots. Even closer inspection reveals that the year is 1861. The article is part of the Times online archives and refers to President Lincoln’s imposition of martial law to prevent Maryland’s secession at the onset of the Civil War.
In 2015, martial law was never declared. On Monday, April 27, Maryland governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency on the request of Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake according to CBS Baltimore.
Gen. Linda Singh, commander of Maryland’s National Guard told Real Clear Politics Monday night that “this is not martial law.” Singh went on to say that the National Guard troops were being deployed “in support of the police department, and are taking our direction from the police department….”
A Baltimore Sun report from Tuesday, April 28, indicated that 1,700 Guardsmen were deployed around the city. Some were in supporting roles while others provided backup for police responding to calls. At this point, there is no evidence that the Guard was involved in combat with looters and rioters, but their presence, as noted by Gizmodo, was clearly intended to intimidate the rioters and quell the violence.
It is worth noting here that the National Guard is not under the control of President Obama and the federal government. As noted on Military.com, in peacetime the National Guard answers to the civilian leadership of its state, not the president. The president can mobilize the National Guard and call them up for duty in wartime or an emergency. This makes the National Guard an unlikely component of a federal plan for illegal martial law.
There is also no evidence of headlines saying that the military response saved the city. Instead, the big story seems to be the inept response of Baltimore’s mayor, which is generating conspiracy claims of its own. A widely circulated quote by Mayor Rawlings-Blake purports to show that she purposely allowed the violence. On Saturday, April 25, the first day of the riots, she said, “We also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well.”
On the surface, the quote seems damning, but when viewed in full context, her words take on a different meaning. Politifact provides her full remarks:
“We’ve had these kinds of conversations before, and I made it very clear that I work with the police and instructed them to do everything that they could to make sure that the protesters were able to exercise their right to free speech. It’s a very delicate balancing act. Because while we try to make sure that they were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well. And we worked very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to de-escalate and that’s what you saw this evening.”
Mayor Rawlings-Blake was actually describing the unfortunate result of her attempt to protect the First Amendment right of peaceful protesters, not an intent to allow violent demonstrators to engage in destruction of property.
Another conspiracy blog points to a Fox News article that states that “between 20 and 50 social media accounts in Baltimore [were also] linked to the violence in Ferguson, Mo.” The article goes on to say that there was “a spike in message traffic in Washington D.C., Philadelphia and New York City, with ‘protesters’ trying to get rides to Baltimore for Tuesday night.”
Rather than a government attempt at martial law, this social media traffic is more readily explained as “professional” protesters and outside agitators on the left. A number of protesters arrested in Ferguson last year were from distant liberal meccas like New York and Chicago according to USA Today. The social media traffic would seem to indicate that many militant leftists from neighboring cities were stoking the fires of Baltimore as well.
The argument that the riots were conditioning Americans to accept martial also seems questionable. The inability of the government to protect its citizens and their property for several days likely did little to inspire the confidence of most Americans in federal authority.
In reality, the aftermath of riots often inspires citizens to arm themselves. Last year’s riots in Ferguson led to dramatic increases in gun sales at nearby stores according to the Washington Post. Similarly, the Los Angeles riots of 1992 led to record-breaking gun sales noted the Los Angeles Times. If the government were truly planning to implement martial law, it would probably want to lull its citizens into a false sense of security, not send them scurrying to the gun store.
The conspiracy theorists did get one thing right. The riot coverage was a boon to television news networks. Variety reported that the top networks were CNN and Fox News, as is usually the case with breaking news.