“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” Al Pacino’s character Michael Corleone complains in “The Godfather: Part III.”
We feel for ya, buddy. We thought we were done writing about this past Monday’s Gun Lobby Day rally in Richmond — but no, now we’ve been pulled back in. The culprit this time is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York.
We are normally not inclined to say much about national politicians because there are plenty of other people already doing so. We like to keep our focus local. But when national politicians start talking about things in Virginia — and getting their facts wrong — we feel compelled to enter the fray.
So here goes.
On Monday, Ocasio-Cortez took part in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at the landmark Riverside Church in Harlem. She participated in an on-stage discussion with moderator Ta-Nehisi Coates, who, ideally, many of you recognize as an important writer. Here’s the key excerpt that’s been widely circulated on Twitter:
Ocasio-Cortez: There’s this gun-rights protest that’s happening down in Richmond —
Coates: On MLK Day.
Ocasio-Cortez: On MLK Day. But here’s the image that has [stuck] with me the most about that, is that when we go out and march for the dignity and the recognition of the lives of people like Freddie Gray and Eric Garner, the whole place is surrounded by police in riot gear, without a gun in sight. And here are all of these people flying Confederate flags with semi-automatic weapons, and there’s almost no police officers at that protest. So who or what are our institutions protecting from whom?
There are two items of interest packed into that. Many news outlets have focused on her reference to Confederate flags. Were the gun-rights advocates in Richmond flying Confederate flags? Yes, some were. At least one conservative commentator, Ryan Saavedra of the Daily Wire, called Ocasio-Cortez “a total #$% liar” — except he used an actual word that starts with the sixth letter of the alphabet. We’re trying to be more discreet. In any case, he’s wrong. She wasn’t lying. But she was being misleading. To say “all of these people flying Confederate flags” makes it sound like this was some kind of Confederate rally and that wasn’t the case at all. We had to look through close to 100 images to find one that showed a Confederate flag. Now, we understand that for those who see the Confederate flag as a Southern swastika, it doesn’t matter whether there is one or 1,000. Our argument here isn’t on behalf of the Confederate flag — which ought to be confined to museums — but in favor of context. Wittingly or unwittingly, Ocasio-Cortez’s description conjures up an image of the event that doesn’t match the reality.
We’ll say again what we said both before and after the rally: All those who showed up armed did not help their cause, they hurt it. The same goes for those who were waving a Confederate flag. They only perpetuated a stereotype. But Ocasio-Cortez’s description does the same thing, just from a different direction. That’s hardly the worst offense, though. We’re more focused on the other part of what she said — that there were “almost no police officers at that protest.” That is simply untrue. There were lots of police there — Richmond police, state police, Capitol Police, and likely police from other agencies, as well. Those who went onto the grounds of the state Capitol had to pass through a security checkpoint — guns and other items were banned. There were lots of uniformed police officers working that. There were police monitoring the crowds outside the state Capitol, some on foot, some on bicycles. There were police on top of buildings overlooking the Capitol. There were at least four police helicopters overhead. We know of at least one case where, when a busload of Gun Lobby Day participants arrived, a police officer went on board to explain the rules of the day. The odds are that happened with more than one bus.
Ocasio-Cortez is technically accurate when she says there were some Confederate flags at the rally. Maybe she didn’t intend to suggest there were as many as her off-the-cuff remarks implied, but most of us would hate to be judged so precisely on our word choices. However, she’s just flat-out wrong when she says there were “almost no police officers.” In fact, some participants thought the whole law enforcement show of force was an overreaction. We don’t buy that. We think that —given the potential that hate groups would latch onto this rally and hijack the event for their own vile purposes — Gov. Ralph Northam was right to declare a state of emergency beforehand. The FBI arrest of three suspected white supremacists who allegedly talked about shooting up the place only underscores the wisdom of his action. Those who think Northam overreacted act as if Charlottesville never happened. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but it’s quite likely that the extraordinary security precautions he set in motion deterred those extremists who would have loved to have turned Richmond into another Charlottesville. That’s why Ocasio-Cortez’s comments about “almost no police officers” rings so wrong to our Virginia ears.
So why does this matter? She doesn’t cast a vote in the General Assembly, and that’s where these gun bills will be decided (most likely in a way that she’d approve of). She is, though, a person of great influence on the political left, so when she mischaracterizes an important event — one that generated international attention — that is worrisome. If she’s so factually wrong on something we know about, what else might she be wrong about? This calls her credibility into question, even if you agree with her ideology.
Furthermore, it’s hard enough for people of different perspectives to talk rationally about politics as it is — it becomes a lot harder when they’re being fed incorrect information. More people will hear Ocasio-Cortez’s inaccurate description of the rally than will read all of the fact-checking pieces put together. Ditto the Daily Wire’s inaccurate insistence that she was lying about Confederate flags.
Jonathan Swift once wrote: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” Or, as a writer for the Portland (Maine) Gazette put it more colorfully in 1850: “Falsehood will fly from Maine to Georgia, while truth is pulling her boots on.” And that, alas, was before Twitter.