‘Space to Destroy’: The Short History of a Dangerous Botched Quote

How the Internet came to believe that the Baltimore riots were approved by the city.

A man throws a wood board at police on April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

On Saturday, after a peaceful protest in response to the killing of 25-year-old black Baltimore man Freddie Gray, a violent element barreled into the crowds outside of a baseball game. As smartphones recorded and tweeted, protesters hurled trash cans, broke windows, and started brawls. Late in the evening, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake gathered reporters to explain how a public tribute turned into a small war zone.

"I made it very clear that I work with the police and instructed them to do everything that they could to make sure that the protesters were able to exercise their right to free speech," she said. "It’s a very delicate balancing act. Because while we tried to make sure that they were protected from the cars and other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well. And we worked very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to de-escalate."

To put it mildly, she... could have phrased that better. The headline at Baltimore's CBS affiliate was "Baltimore Mayor: ‘Gave Those Who Wished to Destroy Space to Do That.’" On conservative media, the "space to destroy" quote went nuclear. Readers of Glenn Beck's The Blaze were told that the mayor's remarks had "stunned" people. Readers of The Daily Caller learned that the mayor made a "stunning admission" and that she "wanted" to give the violent rioters space. 

On Sunday night, the Daily Caller's report was updated with a statement from the mayor's office, clarifying that the mayor had at best dropped a few words while making a point. Of course she didn't admit that the city gave some stand-down order to let rioters rule the streets. "Unfortunately," said City Hall, "as a result of providing the peaceful demonstrators with the space to share their message, that also meant that those seeking to incite violence also had the space to operate." The mayor of a major American city was not, in fact, admitting that she effectively conspired with rioters and let them hurt people. Had she initially said "unfortunately, while we tried," she might never have gone viral.

But she hadn't said that. On the Monday episode of his radio show, Rush Limbaugh said the mayor was "probably a racist" and accused her of giving the city's peaceful inhabitants the "Chris Stevens treatment," leaving them to burn.

"Baltimore, like our ambassador in Libya, was left unprotected and undefended, and those who wished to destroy were given space to do it because on balance–and that's what this is all about, she said–on balance that's the safest way to go," said Limbaugh.

The befuddlement about Rawlings-Blake's quote wasn't limited to the right. The news-for-millennials combine Fusion published an entire column about the "odd tactic" of letting protesters turn violent and wreck property, positing that "it might have been worth the calculation from city officials to sacrifice a little public property for the sake of allowing protesters to vent their anger."

The column is now appended with a note that awkwardly demolishes the thesis–the same quote from the mayor's office that went out Sunday. And it hardly matters.

It wasn't, according to her. But who is listening?

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