Marilyn Mosby’s middle finger: The gesture wasn’t as bad as the failure to acknowledge it | COMMENTARY

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A state’s attorney flipping someone the bird in Baltimore should not be front-page news. What landed it there was Marilyn Mosby’s apparent attempt to cover it up, claiming to raise a thumb instead of the one-finger salute.

She should have just owned it, a la William Donald Schaefer, who, as an elected leader years ago, frequently gave the middle finger to journalists who made him mad, and he made no apologies, nor excuses, about it. After all, the scenario preceding Ms. Mosby’s move was clearly meant to set her up: An activist on a bike rode straight at her, hollering and recording video he obviously intended to post online. And she took the clickbait — flashing first a thumb (it’s true) and then the third digit dis as the man retreated.

As the video made the viral rounds, Ms. Mosby posted on Twitter that the gesture was “clearly a thumb,” and she later offered an official statement saying similar to the media. It all felt like a blast from the past — 2019, to be specific, when Ms. Mosby testified on the witness stand that she had not made another crude gesture that others said they saw her make: a throat-slitting move suggesting revenge toward another woman. There was no video in that incident, however, and the matter remains unsettled.

In this incident, there was an eventual acknowledgment from Ms. Mosby — made after The Sun showed her a screenshot image of her hand — and it may be worse than the initial denial. In a statement, Ms. Mosby explained the gesture as a response that “any normal woman would [give] to a threatening strange man.”

That was a remarkably insensitive explanation from an official whose office deals with victims of violence — domestic and otherwise — day in and day out. Threatened people generally don’t poke the bear coming at them with obscene hand signs. Pissed off people do. And what’s more, it’s understandable, if unprofessional. Why not just say so and move on?

Marilyn Mosby is the top prosecutor in a city that has one of the highest homicide rates in the country, and she undoubtedly faces real, regular threats from terrifying sources. She said as much in a recent complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission against WBFF, a Fox-affiliated TV station in Baltimore, for broadcasting her home address, among other questionable actions. “Since taking office over 6 years ago, the State’s Attorney has received innumerable personal death threats and hate mail, including letters describing how her husband would be killed on the steps of her home,” the May 5 complaint states.

A man on a bicycle in a well-lit and occupied space shouting “Free Keith Davis Jr.!” — a refrain Ms. Mosby has heard often from a loud and organized group of people upset with her office’s repeated pursuit of Mr. Davis on murder charges — is hardly in the same category of threat. And to suggest that, even if he were, responding childishly to him is the way to go for any “normal” person, cheapens the real risks her role carries, along with those that many other men and women face in this city. It also makes a mockery of her campaign to encourage victims of and witnesses to violent crime to come forward and trust her office, which features billboards with her image and the words: “Victims & witnesses of crime, you’re not alone.”

We don’t doubt she felt unnerved and attacked by the confrontation; anyone would if a stranger came at them aggressively in such a way (where was her security detail, by the way?). And we’ll even cut her some slack in making it a gender-based intimidation issue, which she did when she said “no woman — elected or otherwise — should be expected to put up with that type of behavior from a man.” It’s a sad fact that women in high-profile positions of power, especially women of color, are frequent targets for harassment (just look at all the threats directed toward female health officers in particular, this past year for putting COVID restrictions in place). Ms. Mosby has likely faced an appalling amount of such behavior, given that her job also makes her an enemy of some very bad people just by its nature. And we are truly sorry she has to bear any of it.

But the position she occupies is all about holding others responsible for their actions. She simply must take responsibility for her own.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.