When Roland Rich arrived last Saturday at the 56th annual Old Timers Day in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where he grew up, he bought an Old Timers Day T-shirt. He buys one every year at the festival, a souvenir to commemorate the reunion of a few thousand Brownsville residents, many of whom he’s watched grow up.
His son in tow, Rich meandered through the crowd late into Saturday night, reconnecting with old friends. “Some people you only see once a year and this is that one time,” he said. He had just met up with a friend, who was there with his daughter, when he heard the crack of gunfire.
When it stopped, one person lay dead, and 11 others wounded.
Seventeen hours later, families at a popular garlic festival in Gilroy, California, would face a similar scene, seeking refuge from bullets fired by a lone gunman with a semiautomatic rifle. Initial reports — 11 shot — mirrored those in Brooklyn.
As The New York Times has calculated, this kind of mass violence visits communities across America with frightening regularity. Most often, the numbers show, it occurs in neighborhoods like Brownsville — mostly poor, mostly black — and struggles to attract attention outside of them.
An analysis from The Trace found the same dynamic playing out this week: Despite the similarities between last weekend’s mass-casualty shootings, only one drew major media coverage.
A rash of mass shootings in California in less than a week left at least 10 people dead.
Between six of the leading national newspapers in the United States, only two devoted space on their websites’ front pages to the Brownsville shooting for more than a few hours on Sunday and Monday, according to archived versions of the sites captured by Wayback Machine. All six devoted space on their homepage to the Gilroy shooting for an average of 14-plus hours during the same period.
Similarly, a review of archived cable news transcripts captured by The Internet Archive from CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC showed the networks devoted 20 times as much airtime to discussing Gilroy as they did to discussing Brownsville.
Rebecca Kavanagh, a public defender in New York City and media director at The Appeal, noticed the cable disparity in real time. On Twitter, she wrote: “Unlike the Gilroy mass shooting all over cable news right now, it happened in a Black neighborhood. So, unless you live in NYC, you probably missed it.”
Kavanagh attributed the disparity to the same institutional indifference shown to her mostly black defendants. “The way it’s covered in Gilroy is like it’s a tragedy,” she told The Trace. “Then it’s covered in Brownsville like it’s endemic, like it’s a pathology.”
Brownsville residents have had to confront more violence than other New Yorkers. In 2015, Brownsville’s murder rate was four times higher than New York City as a whole. Dominique Jowers, who moved from the location of the shooting minutes before it started, said she didn’t bring her son to Old Timers Day because she has a hard time trusting events to be safe. “It’s always something going wrong,” she said. City leaders over the past 25 years have been unable to deliver the same gains in Brownsville that drove crime to historic lows in other pockets of the city.
But Old Timers Day had always been an oasis. Since its inception in 1963, the event had gone without deadly violence. Even during the neighborhood’s more dangerous years, festival attendees felt safe, Rich said.
Despite Saturday’s shooting interrupting a half-century of peace at the event, only five Democratic presidential candidates, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bill De Blasio, Kamala Harris, and Michael Bennett, tweeted acknowledgements of the Brownsville shooting. All but Tulsi Gabbard and Jay Inslee tweeted about Gilroy, or about gun violence generally in its aftermath. President Donald Trump tweeted about Gilroy, but not Brownsville.
Mayor Bill De Blasio, returning to the city from the campaign trail, addressed the Brownsville shooting in a press conference. He declined to call the incident a mass shooting in his remarks, saying, “I am only going to say that that phrase is usually reserved for a different type of situation than what I know this to be so far.” The NYPD has confirmed no motive for the shooting, though news reports suggest a dispute between possible gang members.
The Gun Violence Archive, the nation’s largest database of shooting injuries and deaths, does not consider motive when classifying a shooting. Nor does it only count fatalities. According to GVA, any incident with more than four injured, not including the shooter, counts as a mass shooting.
After pressure from state Assemblywoman Latrice Walker and other local politicians in Brownsville, De Blasio reversed his stance on Wednesday. “The tragic events of Saturday night led to one dead and 11 others injured,” he said in a statement. “Right after, we had real worry in the community about letting this violence define the neighborhood. That remains true, but I’ve also come to realize it’s critical we call this what it was: a mass shooting.”
To Rich, who lived through the crack era in Brownsville and has been shot himself, the distinction matters little. It’s the imbalance in media coverage that is the bigger problem, he said. “When [the R&B group] Blue Magic came off the stage at the rec center on Saturday before the shooting, some lady came on stage and was saying that the media and other people look down on Brownsville,” he recalled. “But we got good people out here.”