Police treatment of Waco suspects ignites backlash, comparisons to Baltimore

WATCH ABOVE: Waco Police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton offers a complete timeline of massive biker gang shooting

Police arrested 170 suspected members of motorcycle gangs in the aftermath of a deadly brawl and shootout at a Waco, Texas restaurant on Sunday. Even though nine people were killed, 18 people were injured and innocent civilians were witness to the chaos, the mass arrest looked relatively peaceful compared to incidences involving unarmed black men being arrested in the U.S.

Five biker gangs — one of which (the Bandidos) is listed as an outlawed motorcycle gang by the U.S. Department of Justice — were involved in the clash, but footage from Sunday’s mass arrest showed dozens of arrested gang members, many dressed in their biker gang jackets, calmly sitting on the ground unrestrained. Some were just biding their time, using their mobile phones.

A McLennan County deputy stands guard near a group of bikers in the parking lot of a Twin Peaks restaurant Sunday, May 17, 2015, in Waco, Texas
A McLennan County deputy stands guard near a group of bikers in the parking lot of a Twin Peaks restaurant Sunday, May 17, 2015, in Waco, Texas. Rod Aydelotte, Waco Tribune-Herald/AP Photo

READ MORE: Texas authorities warned of escalating violence between rival motorcycle gangs

But, many of the bikers visible in coverage of the brawl and subsequent arrests were white and that has set off a debate about both the handling and media coverage of a major crime involving white suspects compared to how police and media treat black men.

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Calm during the storm

The death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray last month, after police arrested him without cause and failed to act on the 25-year-old’s multiple requests for medical assistance, spurred protests and riots over police use of force against black men. The six officers are now facing criminal charges, the most serious of which  a charge of second-degree depraved heart murder.

The police killing of 19-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last August galvanized the black community in the St. Louis suburb and across the United States. There was violence in the wake of a grand jury decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Brown, but riot police were at the ready before the ruling even came down.

Missouri National Guard line up behind police officers monitoring protesters in front of the Ferguson Police Department Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Missouri’s governor ordered hundreds more state militia into Ferguson on Tuesday, after a night of protests and rioting over a grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a case that has inflamed racial tensions in the U.S. David Goldman/AP Photo

But Waco on Sunday afternoon didn’t look like Ferguson or Baltimore.

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“The images of comparatively calm police and civilian engagement in Waco is strikingly different than those captured during the Ferguson protests and the Baltimore uprising, where protesters were met with tear gas, rubber bullets and police and National Guard officers in riot gear and armored vehicles,” wrote Mic‘s Darnelle L. Moore. He noted the lack of riot gear — or even visible protective gear — donned by police outside the restaurant, even though the Waco Police Department had been monitoring biker gang activity at the restaurant for months.

Police involved shooting

Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton told reporters on Tuesday 18 Waco Police officers were on the scene and involved in the shootout in some way, but he criticized reports that four of the dead were killed by police gunfire. Swanton said it was not yet known who shot whom.

WATCH: Waco Police cannot yet determine if law enforcement officers killed 4 in biker gang shootout

Police were clearly involved in the cases of Brown and Gray — as well as Eric Garland, Tamir Rice and Walter Scott.

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When protests broke out in response to their deaths, states of emergency were declared in Ferguson and Baltimore, the national guard was mobilized and the police had military-grade equipment at the ready.

Why isn’t race an issue?

Black communities were put under a microscope during the unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore, but that wasn’t the case with Waco.

Vox‘s Jenée Desmond-Harris raised the issue of such scrutiny, saying “media coverage and commentary surrounding violence involving black people has to do with black cultural pathology.

“Politicians and pundits are notorious for grasping for problems in African-American communities — especially fatherlessness — to explain the kind of violence that, when it happens in a white community, is treated as an isolated crime versus an indictment of an entire racial group’s way of life.”

READ MORE: Shootout in Waco, Texas puts spotlight on motorcycle club culture

CNN political commentator Sally Kohn questioned why the race of the bikers wasn’t mentioned at all and why their family and living situations weren’t relevant to the crime.

“As we saw in the case of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, even when black men are the victims of violence, the burden of proof is placed upon them and their families to show that they didn’t deserve it,” she wrote.

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Cohn also made another comparison that was critical of how Waco was different from other attacks involving non-white suspects.

“When one Muslim person even threatens violence in the United States, it’s treated as terrorism of crisis-like proportions.”

There was also a debate over the use of the word “thug” to describe those taking part in looting and rioting in Baltimore, as some feel the term was being used a racial epithet.

READ MORE: Why some Baltimore leaders say ‘thug’ is the wrong word to use

NPR collected several posts from Twitter users using the hashtag #WacoThugs to point out how groups accused of organized crime that were involved in a major crime — one Watson called the “worst crime scene” he had seen in his 34 years in law enforcement — certainly fit the definition of thug.

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