Josh Bergeron: City fed protest rumors in Laurent decision

Published 12:01 am Sunday, June 11, 2017

As it attempted in recent weeks to deal with the death of Ferguson Laurent, the city of Salisbury amplified an already churning rumor mill.

First, Salisbury city officials noted the potential for protests or “disruptive action” to occur after a decision about police conduct in the Ferguson Laurent case. Suddenly, when District Attorney Brandy Cook cleared officer Karl Boehm, there were no threats of violence, said Police Chief Jerry Stokes.

Confused? You weren’t alone.

After receiving various threats, the city of Salisbury invited 24 people to small, group meetings and held another with pastors to prepare for the Laurent decision. Mayor Karen Alexander later sent a letter to pastors in which she said the city had received information about “disruptive actions.”

“These words are truly alarming to us all,” Alexander wrote in the letter.

The Salisbury Post submitted a public records request to request the threats Alexander referenced. In turn, the city provided emails to the Salisbury Post. We decided not to publish specific details of the threats. We refrained from publishing specific details of the threats out of concern that such a news story would only provoke fear among local residents. Later, we received an inquiry from the city of Salisbury days before the Laurent decision with questions about why we hadn’t published the details and when might we do so.

On Wednesday afternoon, Stokes calmly stated that he did not expect riots or violent protests because police officers had no credible information that such incidents would occur in response to Cook’s decision.

Salisbury city officials all but said they expected violent protests, and then attempted to say the idea that riots would occur was a rumor.  The result was cognitive dissonance — locals had been told conflicting information — and a relatively silent downtown on Wednesday compared to normal.

Salisbury city officials fed an already churning rumor mill by holding meetings and distributing a letter in advance of the decision. Then, the city attempted to tell local residents “never mind, those rumors aren’t true.”

Naturally, difficult and controversial decisions — clearing a police officer in the Laurent killing, for example — are accompanied by rumors and incorrect information.

The spread of rumors mirrors a game of telephone. Information becomes distorted as it travels through a community. By the time it reaches the original source, the information is unrecognizable.

In an era where fake news is occasionally accepted as fact, it’s critical that local leaders realize the potential for the rapid spread of rumors. Elected and appointed leaders should avoid creating a spark that leads to the false spread of information.

In January, Councilman Kenny Hardin emailed Mayor Karen Alexander, Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell and City Manager Lane Bailey about two ladies who were considering protesting and getting arrested to draw attention to their cause. As Cook’s decision drew closer, those rumors were amplified.

On the day of the decision, for example, we received a call that protesters were being bussed to the Wal-mart parking lot. One online rumor involved a protest planned on I-85.

When asked about the two different positions — that there was a potential for violent protests and, later, that none existed — Salisbury Communications Director Linda McElroy said the city found the initial, reported threats to be unsubstantiated. McElroy added that the city did not receive any direct threats. Rather, the potential for violence was relayed to city staff by a people who “heard” about potential for protests or violence.

That’s a reasonable explanation, but it’s unclear whether locals were aware of the change in the perceived threat level.

A change in city behavior would not have prevented rumors of violence. The city alone is not at fault for the spread of such information. We watched as riots occurred following the death of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte. Similar events occurred after officer-involved shootings in other areas of the country. Rumors of protests and riots would have sprung up eventually, but the city of Salisbury should strive to be consistent in its messaging and avoid feeding a rumor machine that hums along without additional fodder.