The scene in Waco on Sunday was like something off a TV show. Broad daylight shoot-outs between rival gangs that leave nine dead and eighteen others hospitalized rarely happen in Texas strip malls, but the biker-themed event at the Twin Peaks restaurant turned out to be every bit as horrifying as an episode of Sons of Anarchy

There’s plenty of blame being cast, and plenty to go around—from the bikers whose fight turned deadly to the restaurant that refused calls from police to cancel the event, which reports say was being used by several rival gangs to recruit new members—and in the days to come, we’ll presumably learn more.

Those who are interested in the history—recent and otherwise—of outlaw biker gangs in Texas would do well to read Skip Hollandsworth’s 2007 profile of the Bandidos, one of the two gangs identified by law enforcement as being involved in the gunfight in Waco. But when it comes to discussing the events that occurred outside Twin Peaks, there’s another entity that isn’t getting off the hook: namely, the media and police culture, which, it’s being argued, treat incidents of violent crime committed by white people very differently than they do incidents of violence involving black people. 

On Twitter, much of this was explored using the hashtag #WacoThugs, where cultural commentators and critics including some of the sharpest working today, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, saw an opportunity to consider how the playbook for a violent incident involving white bikers diverges from the one that the media and police use when the violence involves people whose skin tones are darker.

The frustration of people who see unfair treatment in how police and media are reacting to Waco is palpable. It’s also probably not an apples-to-apples situation: a small Texas city whose metro area is roughly one tenth the size of St. Louis’s or Baltimore’s is probably likely to have different reactions from law enforcement, while gang fights are a generally unusual circumstance. But the very fact that we’re inclined to talk in terms of nuance, when discussing violent crime that involves white people, is part of the point that Coates and others on Twitter were making. 

The idea that it’s “special treatment” to “not be shot by police for looking violent” is something one could argue with—the police are supposed to use great restraint in those situations—but making that argument misses the point. In a country where, among black citizens, having potentially stolen cigars from a corner store can leave a person dead on the sidewalk, or where playing with a toy gun can result in the immediate shooting of a twelve-year-old boy, or where a person who was able to walk when taken into police custody can be dead of a severed spinal cord by the time the ride in the van is finished, the mere fact that a massive shoot-out in a strip mall could end with police and bikers on peaceful terms does look like special treatment.

The tweets on the #WacoThugs hashtag may flatten the details of the situation that occurred, but the larger point is that the details in many violent encounters that involve police get flattened and twisted to serve an agenda. Whether the details are flattened to justify a week-long curfew, mass arrests, and the presence of riot police or to make a point about how a calm police presence is notable when the perpetrators of violence are white, the result is that we’re not really talking about the specific situation at all—we’re using it to make a point about how the facts get distorted.

That’s something else that’s in sharp relief in Waco right now. When, for example, the shooting in Garland occurred earlier this month, CNN interviewed leaders at mosques for reactions; after the funeral for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, the media sought statements from Martin Luther King’s surviving family to assess what his reaction might be to the protests. When violence is committed by people who aren’t white, their actions are treated as representative of their entire communities. That’s something that anybody with a 101-level understanding of race and media in America understands, but it’s also something that the shoot-out at the Twin Peaks in Waco perfectly encapsulates. There is no question about what the incident in Waco says about white people, or whether white leaders need to be more vocal in urging white people away from violence. No one questions whether white culture is partly to blame, or whether white leaders of the past would be disappointed in the situation.

Those sentiments are fairly absurd to express, in fact. Nothing ever says anything about “white people,” and “white culture” is a ridiculous concept to attempt to articulate; how Ronald Reagan or John Lennon might feel about the shoot-out in Waco is an utter non-sequitur. 

All of which makes the media reaction to Waco a fascinating mirror to hold up to the media reactions in other situations. Positing hypotheticals is rarely particularly useful, but it’s nonetheless difficult to imagine that if a shoot-out involving dozens of young black men that ended with nearly thirty casualties had happened in a strip mall in Waco, it would be perceived as an isolated incident involving only the people who drew their guns—or that police would be chatting and friendly with people in the area in gang attire afterward. 

In other words, the details captured in the tweets about the #WacoThugs or about the need to #StopWhiteOnWhiteCrime may miss the nuance of the situation—indeed, they may not be all that pertinent to the situation in Waco at all—but that’s far from a flaw. It’s kind of the whole point.

(Photograph by Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald via AP)