Prayers and Lies: The Mob and the Media Reframe the Attack
In the aftermath of the Monday, October 12th, attack on the statue in front of Mission San Rafael Arcangel both the mob and the media were excited.
The mob was excited because for them it was a good day out. They got to pour paint on private property, tear down a bronze statue and dance up and down in the street screaming "motherfucker." (They also got to intimidate an elderly parishioner and maybe --the details are hazy, and the video is hazy regarding whether the intimidation crossed the line from screaming curses to physical shoving-- physically assault that parishioner.) They got to do all of this while the police sat in a squad car at a safe distance "observing."
The media was excited because what bleeds leads. The video is nothing short of clickbait. Chanting mobs, shrieking purple haired activists, a statue falls like it is Bagdad in 2003. Fabulous visuals. Fear sells ad space. Excitement, action... the dramatic moment. The theatre of "public action." Who cares what the story is? You can kind of write your own story.
I'm not a journalist. Never took a single journalism class. Back in college I was a history major. Despite being a Millennial I was lucky enough to have some old guard and old school professors who didn't believe in "post modernism." So I learned to focus on facts. I learned that there is a difference between facts and opinions and if you are an honest writer you clarify what is a fact --what you can prove, what your supporting evidence is-- and what is interpretation and opinion. At a certain point we have to make up our minds what the meaning is... but we don't have the right to make up our own facts. I also know the dark and ugly truth that it is possible --if you have no ethics, if you are in a rush, if you have an axe to grind, if you are lazy-- to tell "a truth" by cherry picking data. You tell some of the truth, not all of the truth. You overweight some data, deep-six contradictory background information, you dress it up in a pretentious word salad of purposefully opaque and meaningless verbage. You find a hot quote. You write it down, you get it out... You hope no one ever calls you to account for it. If you are a lawyer and you do something like that while prosecuting a criminal case you stand a good chance of being disbarred. In certain academic departments that kind of sloppy and self serving behavior can ruin your reputation --unless you are lucky enough to already have tenure-- and in journalism? Well.... journalism is about chasing the next story --or sometimes beating the boring story of last year to death. Inherently journalism is about tomorrow though. Run with a bad story on Tuesday? Big deal, Thursday is another day. Or you could apologize at 11pm on a Saturday when no one is paying attention.
Right now the situation at St. Rafael's is an ongoing story. On Monday the statue was attacked by a mob of about forty people. (Actually the video suggests that the statue was directly attacked by about a dozen people who were supported by an additional twenty plus onlookers who were shall we say, less actively involved in the assault on the statue but definitely enjoying being part of the mob.) On Monday night, Tuesday night and Wednesday morning different versions of the story hit the local media. The story is "evolving" as we speak. Toppling statues has been a thing in America since about July. (In fact, I wrote about it back in July. You can read about it here.) Not confronting the mob has also been a thing... Apparently you can't even call the mob out for being moronic. (I think the mob that attacked the statue of General Grant because they somehow thought Grant was a "Confederate" was nothing short of moronic. Grant, by the way, was a Union General. If you attended school in America and didn't know that please e-mail the MarinGOP the name of every schoolteacher you ever encountered. We really need to have a serious conversation about the education system that failed you. After the election.)
The media is framing and re-framing the "story." I've heard people claim that the church asked the police to stand down. Others have claimed that the local priest (who apparently was inside the church while the mob gathered on the sidewalk) called the police multiple times requesting assistance. Eye witnesses report that the police were present... and it is obvious that the police stood down. (They were "present" in the same way someone may have been "present" while observing the mob from a window in one of the small apartment buildings in the neighborhood.) Current rumors suggest that the Diocese wants to press charges.
The Marin IJ --our local version of a newspaper, it is a newspaper but it is NOT the New York Post-- is currently calling the mob a group of "demonstrators" and promoting the idea that the day was a success because no one got hurt. They have even described the breaking of the statue as a "removal"... (if you are interested in their word salad the link is available here) the reality is the bronze statue of Junipero Serra was broken off at the feet. The bronze was broken by a chanting mob. This was not a "removal."
The north bay NBC affiliate has a piece that is so flimsy in its coverage I get the feeling it was a story they didn't want to touch... It is hard to tell who was "demonstrating" and the piece is careful to attribute violence to outside agitators. (Not our local agitators.) You can try and piece through the mess in this link here. (I get the feeling they weren't going for "word salad" more of a "word garnish.")
The San Jose Mercury News has a much more in depth piece. (I highly recommend reading it here... it even has a few facts.) At the moment we have very little clarity. Obviously someone is either grossly confused or lying. The City of San Rafael currently seems to be under the impression that the city --city management and the local police department-- had some sort of private pre-existing agreement with the Catholic Church that it would be totally fine for "demonstrators" to deface, damage and possibly destroy church property. By contrast, Archbishop Cordileone's official public statement seems to unequivocally denounce the defacement of church property by anyone for any reason. (Obviously at best there was some confusion in San Rafael on Monday afternoon. I sense a bit of historical revisionism in the Wednesday morning Marin narrative.)
It may be because I have become increasingly cynical about Marin in general, but I suspect the Wednesday morning revisionism is a result of the Tuesday evening backlash.
On Monday the mob --roughly 40 strong-- attacked the statue.
Roughly 24 hours later a peaceful crowd of roughly 120 parishioners, neighbors and local residents gathered to support the church publicly and pray on the very same pavement that had been occupied by the "motherfucker" chanting mob the night before.
The law shouldn't be a popularity contest. The law is the law. Respecting private property is a Constitutional issue. Respecting the property of a religious institution is a public concern. If the Church isn't safe none of us are safe. If the police think it is o.k. to stand down when a statue in front of a church is attacked will they stand down when someone tries to torch the altar next week? Will the mayor think it is a win if downtown businesses are looted but no one is hurt?
But in Marin popularity does matter. And narrative matters more than fact sometimes. Tuesday night changed the "narrative" of Monday. More people prayed for peace --and prayed publicly, and I can tell you for a fact they weren't all Catholic, in fact, some weren't even Christian-- than chanted for destruction. So we see some backpedalling.
We see a new narrative. Tuesday morning people wanted to argue about the life of Junipero Serra --Junipero Serra was a Spanish priest who has been dead for over 230 years, his life was complicated, his legacy is certainly complicated, but I genuinely don't think this is about Junipero Serra, this is about the mob.... if there had truly been a "peaceful demonstration" standing in front of the statue protesting the legacy of Junipero Serra I would be happy to talk about what happened in the 1770s, but the minute the paint came out the "protestors" ceased to have a legitimate voice. The mob chanted "motherfucker" and pulled a statue down. Their arguments don't matter. Their feelings don't matter. And their narrative should be ignored.
But, as residents of Marin --as Americans-- we can not afford to tell ourselves lies. We are lying to ourselves when we say it was "outside agitators" -in fact 3 of the 5 people cited by the police were apparently Marin County residents. Two others crossed a bridge. The mob is local. The mob's enablers are local. And if you don't want to see a church torched or a downtown looted it might be good to actually face up to reality. Marin County is not a bubble where we can remain safe from the blight and low grade lawlessness of San Francisco.
I don't know what is happening Thursday or Friday... I have some suspicions about what may happen next week. But I do know what happened so far this week. A mob went on the attack. People told lies. The media is busy framing and reframing a "story." And decent citizens are praying for peace. Next week the citizens may decide to organize for actual justice.
[This is the second in a series of posts about Freedom of Religion in America in 2020. The first post, Faith Under Attack, was published on October 13th, 2020 and can be read here: Faith Under Attack: Day of Rage Comes to a Place of Peace. If you are interested in First Amendment Issues I strongly recommend reading this post about Freedom of Speech.]