Many of us who were in Baltimore during the final days of April 2015 were left with a nagging feeling: none of it made any damn sense.
We mourned the fact that Freddie Gray was killed while in police custody. We knew that the recent events that had unfolded in Ferguson had many people rightly concerned about police brutality — and we knew that protests would likely occur in Baltimore, and many felt this would be both healthy and just.
After some violent incidents downtown on Saturday, April 25, the following day was relatively quiet. Freddie Gray’s funeral was planned for Monday, April 27, and there were peaceful protests planned around it.
But the city was also on edge: divided between those who were expecting problems and those who were expecting the best. For my part, I was soundly in the latter camp. This was not the first time we had seen demonstrations in Baltimore’s recent history, and it would not be the last.
But then this happened:
At 11:25 AM on Monday April 27, while Freddie Gray’s funeral was underway, the Baltimore Police Department issued a press release claiming a “Credible Threat”: that members of various gangs including the Black Guerilla [sic] Family, Bloods, and Crips have entered into a partnership to “take-out” law enforcement officers.
This press release went crazy viral; BPD asked the media to help distribute it. BPD’s tweet alone has been re-teweeted 618 times; related tweets and posts from media outlets and individuals relaying the information were shared many more thousands of times.
Indeed, no prior mention of such a threat can now (or could then) be found on social media before 11:25AM on April 27th.
Discussing the violence that ensued later that day, a story by Scott Dance posted late in the day on the 27th in The Baltimore Sun claimed,
the incident stemmed from a flier that circulated widely among city school students via social media about a “purge” to take place at 3 p.m., starting at Mondawmin Mall and ending downtown. Such memes have been known to circulate regularly among city school students, based on the film “The Purge,” about what would happen if all laws were suspended.
Let’s pretend for a moment that that paragraph’s claims can remain unchallenged. This is the “flier” to which he was referring:
I was able to track down the original photograph used here. It was taken by John Woodrow Cox, of the Washington Post, on April 25 and posted at 6:50pm:
The first appearance of the doctored image on Twitter (found so far) appeared at 12:44pm, more than an hour after BPD’s “credible threat” announcement:
And at 2:31pm, the image was sent out again in a fresh tweet by the Baltimore Sun’s Carrie Wells:
This was 3 full hours after the Baltimore Police’s “credible threat” press release (at 11:25 am), and could easily have been manufactured in response to it.
Adam Johnson, writing for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting on April 29, 2015 and questioning the veracity of the purge rumors, said:
It’s unclear, though, whether the Baltimore Sun had any links to the original social media activity that its report centered on. Sun reporter Carrie Wells, who seems to be the first from the paper to tweet the photo after the Sun’s story went live, told me she heard about the “purge” image because “a friend on Facebook said it was circulating around Instagram.”
Since then, there has not been any additional clarification around the source of that image referenced by Wells. (Update: On October 1, 2017, one day after leaving her position at The Sun, she asserted the image came from one friend on Facebook, who had “seen it on Nextdoor.” She thought it might have been in the Canton Nextdoor page; searches there for that time period have revealed nothing.)
Two years later, we are left with serious questions.
- Why did the Baltimore Police Department issue its “credible threat” press release (and why did the FBI subsequently determine it was not in fact credible?)
- Who created the image (based on John Woodrow Cox’s original) that was cited by The Sun as a reason for the rioting by students?
The Baltimore Police based its press release on misinformation — from where? The Baltimore Sun based multiple articles on misinformation—from where?
So who created that misinformation, and why did they create it? Perhaps in 2017, we are closer to being able to guess at their motives, if not yet their specific identity.
Active Measures is the name given to the program of interventions designed to influence a target state towards achieving specific outcomes, historically used by the Soviet and then Russian governments.
According to the journalist Amanda Rivkin, population-centered Active Measures could be most simply described in the current context as follows:
- Flood the zone with racist and anti-semitic propaganda. We have seen a barrage of this from many different sources.
- Provoke and amplify incidents of violence. We have seen increased domestic violence, and its amplification, since 2012.
- Capture the state. This requires three components, a) control foreign policy (Tillerson), b) control the economy, c) control defense.
Arguably here in early 2017, we are up to about 3a. It is not yet clear how the Russian state may aim to control our economy, or inject itself into defense. Steve Bannon is doing all he can (which, admittedly, is not as much as he would like) to destabilize the country, which could advance 3b and 3c.
So what does this have to do with Freddie Gray? Everything. And you’ll see why shortly.
Americans are notorious short-term thinkers. We think in terms of months. Quarterly results. Years (remember the angst around 2016?). Presidential terms (are you better off than you were four years ago?).
Russians think generationally. And they are good at chess. While we were busy worrying about Survivor, American Idol, and partisan bickering, Russia has been thinking about how to slowly, patiently build a strategy to destabilize Western democracies: UK (Brexit), France (LePen, Front National), the US (Bannon et al), and Netherlands (Wilders), Germany (AfD).
And they have been infiltrating and backing movements (assume that almost any major left-leaning movement has been infiltrated), political parties, governments (as if this could not be more clear at this point), media channels, online personalities, etc. Who all is under Russian influence is too extensive a subject to tackle here. There is ample evidence.
But if you remember the case of Anna Chapman, let’s just say that the people who are under Russian influence are often a lot like her. And Mike Flynn. And Jeff Sessions, Carter Page, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump. Just to name a few.
An Alternate April
Freddie Gray was killed as part of a crackdown in police enforcement activity. This increased enforcement was requested in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood by the newly-elected States Attorney, Marilyn Mosby.
Mosby’s husband, Nick, also was the city council representative for that neighborhood’s district.
There is no question that Freddie Gray’s death was totally sui-generis to Baltimore. We have long-standing issues with drugs, with police, with unemployment that clearly led to this outcome. Even the political motivation for increased enforcement came from local forces.
However, once Gray’s injury and death became a news story, there was an opportunity for things to be spun out of control.
After the events of Ferguson in late 2014, police brutality was on everyone’s mind. It was even clear that a city like Baltimore was susceptible to similar pressures. In fact, I wrote an article suggesting exactly this in late 2014.
Gray was arrested on April 12, 2015. He died on April 19. Peaceful protests were held from April 18–24. On April 25, some violence erupted downtown; this was what John Woodrow Cox captured in his photos from that day.
April 26th was quiet. I remember sitting outside on that warm Sunday afternoon, feeling glad that things were calm.
But then on April 27th, during the funeral for Freddie Gray, Baltimore Police Department issued that fateful “credible threat” press release.
Consider: what if they hadn’t?
Would the subsequent events of that day have unfolded? The shutdown of buses at Mondawmin. The showdown between police and trapped youths. The addition of several hundred more officers to the situation. The fires, rioting, and looting. All of this, potentially, could have been avoided.
But for that press release. That press release that set off an explosion of false information. That press release that was used to justify bringing in hundreds more officers. And that the FBI declared was based on false information.
If that press release hadn’t been issued, it’s arguable that there would be no Wikipedia entry today for “2015 Baltimore Protests.” It is arguable that Stephanie Rawlings-Blake would have run for reëlection in 2016, and probably would have won.
It is likely that Baltimore’s murder rate in 2015 would have been closer to the 211 from 2014, instead of 344. It is likely that 2016 would have seen a number closer to 200 as well, instead of 318.
So if the press release was based on discredited information, why was it issued?
In November 2016 at an event in Boston, I had the opportunity to ask this of Eric Kowalczyk, former Baltimore Police communications director, and Anthony Batts, former Baltimore Police Commissioner.
They said that they had some evidence that gave them concern, and that they acted out of an abundance of caution. Batts said specifically that he stands by that call, while he also allowed that things may have turned out differently had the release not been made.
They cited the case of Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who in December 2014 shot and killed two New York City police officers, before killing himself. Brinsley had first posted specific threats on Instagram. He said, “I’m putting wings on pigs today. They take 1 of ours, let’s take 2 of theirs. #Shootthepolice #RIPErivGardner [sic] #RIPMikeBrown.”
Batts didn’t want to see a repeat of that situation. The decision to make an announcement could be perhaps thus justified, when seen through this lens.
Evidence of a “Credible Threat”?
So we know what evidence was relevant to the Brinsley case. He posted a clear and direct threat to law enforcement. His identity could be determined. Any analyst that saw his post was well within the bounds of sound judgment to put out a bulletin to law enforcement agencies suggesting that they watch out for him.
But what evidence was there for the Baltimore Police Department’s press release, the one claiming that the Black Guerrilla Family, the Crips, and the Bloods had entered a new joint-venture to “take out” law enforcement?
There really is no known evidence. BPD and The Sun have claimed only, “trust us.” I wasn’t able to find out more from Batts or Kowalczyk. However, we do know that the FBI has subsequently reviewed the information, and did not find it credible.
City leaders reached a similar conclusion. To this day, there has not been one piece of evidence produced by BPD that would back up the decision to release that statement.
So this leaves two options: either BPD fabricated that threat in order to justify bringing in more resources and provoke a confrontation, or they misinterpreted a piece of evidence from social media (or another source), applying a false equivalence between the sort of actual threat posted by Brinsley and one that was either meaningless, or designed to mislead. There has been widespread speculation about both of these possibilities.
Assuming that the department would not intentionally fabricate information, the idea that BPD, operating in a state of heightened anxiety, misinterpreted or was misled by information they found online seems more likely.
Baltimore Police conducts its own social media surveillance and analysis operations, in addition to working with the “Maryland Fusion Center,” an operation setup in the wake of 9/11 which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. The local “fusion center” is located in Woodlawn, right outside of Baltimore City.
The same day that BPD issued its “credible threat” statement, an employee at the Fusion Center named Brian (last name redacted) wrote an email questioning their claims:
The gist of this alert asserts that the BGF [Black Guerilla Family], the Bloods, and the Crips, have partnered to ‘take out’ law enforcement. The alert says this is a credible threat, but, I do not know if that ‘credible threat’ means that they actually have specific information or that the 3 groups involved have credibility in taking that kind of action against law enforcement, I would assert that it’s the latter.
Brian goes on further to wonder:
[It is] curious that the alert came out from BPD media relations section instead of BPD Intelligence Unit, which is where we typically receive this kind of info…. The tensions have heightened here in Baltimore over the last 72 hours so this alert cannot be considered without that context.
And later in the same email chain another DHS employee said:
FBI Baltimore has interviewed the source of this information and has determined this threat to be non-credible.
So if DHS’s Fusion Center and FBI were quick to dismiss this information and subsequent threat claim as spurious, then one must ask: where did the information come from?
Thanks to other information obtained by FOIA requests, we know that Baltimore Police’s internal social media analysis was run by an analyst named Joe Orenstein. Among his skills he lists on LinkedIn is experience with Geofeedia, a software tool used by many law enforcement agencies (including the Fusion Center).
Geofeedia aggregates social media feeds from multiple services and enables searches and alerts related to specific geography and keywords. (The service recently was in the news because it lost access to some of its sources, including Facebook and Twitter.)
But in April 2015, one can assume that Geofeedia (and thus BPD) had access to rudimentary tools to scan for Baltimore-related social media traffic from across several sources, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and potentially others.
Assuming BPD did not fabricate the “credible threat” release out of whole-cloth, it is reasonable to assume that Orenstein most likely found a single piece of worrying evidence and passed it to Batts and Kowalczyk. Kowalczyk then released their statement at 11:25am on April 27.
That one piece of evidence could have been this photograph which was posted to Facebook and then circulated by a few people on social media on April 25, depicting Crips, Bloods and Nation of Islam members united — not to “take out cops,” but to stand together peacefully:
After BPD made its announcement, multiple accounts denied that there was ever any intention to target officers expressed in connection with this photo. This was reported in Daily Beast, Huffington Post and in other outlets, including WBAL television.
Orenstein, when reached for inquiry around this topic in 2017, referred me to the “media relations and public information officer” for BPD.
Two years later, we are no closer to understanding BPD’s decision to release their “credible threat” statement.
In Baltimore it has become a bit of a pastime to debate the events of that week. “I saw the purge flier myself, on paper” some will say, despite being unable to produce proof. There is a tendency to conflate and reorder pieces of evidence in order to compose a more coherent story. But again… none of it makes any sense.
Let’s return once again to the infamous “purge flier,” the horribly doctored and laundered graphic based on John Woodrow Cox’s photograph from April 25th.
Where did it come from? Performing a reverse google image search, we can see it can be found today on this site on Tumblr.
If you analyze the other posts at this site, they are claiming to talk about the emerging situation in Baltimore, but they are remarkably vague. If you live here, you get the sense that the posts were written by someone who doesn’t.
THIS FIRE ALSO ENGULFED INNOCENT PEOPLE’S HOMES AND IS NOW ON FEDERAL STREET. OUR FIREFIGHTERS ARE STILL TRYING TO PUT IT OUT.
Because that’s what baltimore citizens want right? they want fire and destruction to their own city. I love how everyone who doesn’t live here is basically justifying these riots with “white sport riots” like as if those white people didnt get arrested. these guys arent trying to make baltimore safer for us living here. theyre setting our city on fire. YES THIS IS GREAT. THANKS TUMBLR FOR ENCOURAGING THIS. THIS DOESNST EVEN HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH FREDDIE GRAY CASE ANYMORE. THESE PEOPLE ARE TAKING ADVANTAGE OF THE SITUATION. AND JUST FUCKING SHIT UP FOR ALL OF US. WANT TO KNOW HOW BALTIMORE CITIZENS FEEL?
Seriously? You expect me to think this was written by someone who lives in Baltimore? No. This isn’t how people here talk. I don’t care if you’re white or black or immigrant, this wording, this framing just isn’t authentic.
Now, let’s get to the image itself. What. The. Hell.
- What’s up with the white lines/guidemarks? These would appear to be something like guide marker lines from Photoshop, but not laid out in any sort of coherent way.
- What’s with the watermark in the lower right? It is the wordmark for the app “Flipagram.” But it’s cut off. It’s as if this is a photograph of a photo posted to Flipagram, edited, and then cut off. Why would you do that? Perhaps to obfuscate the source. Also note that different copies of this image are cropped slightly differently.
- The language doesn’t ring true. “All High Schools?” “We going to Purge?” As if a dystopian sci-fi film would be common knowledge amongst “all high school” students in Baltimore? Give me a break. This is much more likely a film that young Eastern European men would be familiar with. [There have been other spurious “purge rumors” around the country, starting in August 2014.] The only thing more laughable than this “flier” is the idea that the media and the public has taken it seriously for this long.
- It has no real source. With its bastardized provenance (Wells claimed it came from Facebook or Instagram but says Flipagram on it and can be found on Tumblr), it is the ultimate “found object” with no actual attribution even close to possible. No single point source, no one to issue a warrant to.
This purge flier is bogus and there is furthermore no evidence that it was “widely circulated” on social media. And there is no evidence it existed prior to BPD’s “credible threat” statement.
Let’s get real about what “wide circulation” would have to mean on social media in Baltimore. In April 2015, there were maybe 70,000–100,000 Twitter accounts. I am sure there are a few hundred thousand Facebook accounts.
Let’s say “wide circulation” means 5%. So that would mean that this flier (or one like it) would have to have spread to at least around 3,000–5,000 instances on Twitter alone. How many copies can one find (outside of reporting like this one)? Just a handful. Less than 5, maybe. Mostly on Tumblr.
Some have said, “well people probably went back and deleted this stuff because they didn’t want to get caught.” Sure, it’s possible some have done that. But it doesn’t add up. By contrast, there are thousands of references to BPD’s “credible threat” memo. Once data is out in the wild, it tends to accrete and persist, until it finally decays. Almost never is it actively removed.
A more likely explanation? A piece or two of isolated evidence, as in the Brinsley case, made their way to BPD and to the Baltimore Sun.
BPD misinterpreted evidence through the reactive lens of the Brinsley case, and decided to act “out of an abundance of caution.”
And the Baltimore Sun misinterpreted hearsay around one piece of evidence (produced 3 hours after BPD’s statement) and mistakenly claimed it had “wide circulation,” thus confusing the public into conflating the “purge flier” with whatever evidence BPD claimed to have.
I think BPD and the Sun got played. And I think they got played by Russia.
RT (Russia Today’s) Ruptly breaking news service was among the first on the scene in Baltimore on April 27, with live video of what was happening between youth and police. They were among the few reliable video streams coming out of the city that afternoon.
I even Tweeted RT’s coverage at the time:
RT even ran a 30 minute special on the demonstrations on April 22, before any violence broke out at all. It was pregnant with the expectation of conflict. RT’s slogan? Question more.
And RT has made a point of covering breaking news surrounding any violence in the US for the last several years. Russia also launched its Sputnik news service in early 2015, in a bid to expand its coverage further.
Sputnik also provided extensive coverage of the situation in Baltimore, including capturing video.
Looting, Violent Clashes in Baltimore Following Freddie Gray Funeral
The altercation occurred at Mondawmin Mall in northwest Baltimore and spread to other parts of the city. Armed SWAT…
Interestingly, the Tumblr page I linked to above includes a link to this Sputnik story as part of a graphic. Let that sink in. This page, purportedly made by someone in Baltimore made a graphic that includes a short link to a news story posted by a Russian state-sponsored news source. And then they post it to Tumblr, where it can, you know, be anonymously shared around.
There are people known to be affiliated with Russia that have infiltrated various movements on the left. I am not able (right now) to share all that I know about this, but it is definitely true that Russian sponsored agents have been working to cultivate audiences and connections across the American political spectrum.
It is not fanciful to consider the possibility that people affiliated with Russia created materials online (like those presented here) with the intention of skewing police response and media coverage.
And if that was their intention, it’s even less fanciful to assert that it worked!
What’s Russia’s Endgame?
Why on earth, you might ask, would Russia get involved in this Freddie Gray situation? And surely Baltimore is capable of achieving this level of dysfunction without outside influence, right?
Let’s assume that foreign influences did manufacture electronic evidence that swayed BPD and the Baltimore Sun. Had that not happened, then arguably the events of April 27 would have gone down differently.
We would not still be arguing about the “credible threat” and the “purge flier,” for one thing. (This might leave time for us to be doing something productive instead, like advancing civil society and building on incremental achievements.)
Instead, we are mired in a terrible mess, with skyrocketing crime rates, and massive distrust between citizens and police.
So, this. This is Russia’s endgame. That terrible feeling in the pit of your stomach? That’s Russia’s endgame. It didn’t have to be like this.
Active Measures is all about dividing, conquering, and destabilizing. It’s about destroying your ability to process information and assert truth.
By now you are either hanging on every word, or have decided this is a lunatic conspiracy theory. That’s understandable.
I assert that everything that I presented here is true, but I also assert that we need more information. And more information is available.
Baltimore needs truth and reconciliation.
- For BPD and FBI to release any and all information that led to the “credible threat” press release.
- For Baltimore Sun to release any and all information that led to their claim that the “purge flier” had achieved “wide circulation.”
- FBI to conduct an investigation of all extant online materials (such as the “president corn” Tumblr site), to determine the IP addresses used in posting the images, and their nation of origin.
It is well-known that Russia employs armies of online trolls with the sole purpose of generating misinformation and propaganda. It is not far fetched at all to think that such information was naïvely picked up by people in Baltimore — at a time of stress and chaos—and misinterpreted in ways that fundamentally altered reality as we know it. In ways that didn’t make any sense.
This is not a “conspiracy theory.” It’s a broader read of known facts, and an opportunity to prove or disprove important hypotheses. An opportunity to answer questions we deserve to understand.
Because if Russia did aim to capitalize on Freddie Gray’s death, that’s something we should know, and record in history books. It’s consistent with other activity we have seen this year. And it’s nothing short of PSYOPS being conducted by a foreign power on American soil.
And let’s be clear: Russia didn’t kill Freddie Gray. But it is entirely possible that Russian online propaganda provoked the local media and BPD into believing things that weren’t true, and thus altered the course of history by destabilizing a major American city.
If we can disprove such a reading of history, that also is worth doing. At the core is something very important: Baltimore’s own idea about itself and its citizens.
Because while we know we have longstanding intractable problems, it’s equally important to know if they were made much worse by outside influences. We really don’t need that kind of help.
And with just a bit more digging, we might just be able to finally make sense of exactly what went down the week of April 27, 2015.