In the weeks following the police killing of George Floyd, millions of Americans marched in the streets. Many had never attended a protest before, and some lived in historically conservative towns. At the peak of the protests — around June 6, according to publicly collected data from the Crowd Counting Consortium — people across all 50 states and dozens of cities around the world had participated in demonstrations that called for racial justice and an end to police violence.
But with the protests came a nonstop news cycle that seemed to fixate on burning cars and buildings, and clashes between police officers and protesters. As long as there were riots and looting, television news helicopters descended upon their respective cities, with organizers lamenting online that the media wasn’t interested in stories beyond those of broken windows, pepper spray, and vandalized storefronts.
And now, almost two months after the first protests erupted, national news cameras have fled, which makes it hard for the general public to recognize that protests are still going strong in cities and towns across America.
In Louisville, hundreds of protesters continue in their mission to bring to justice the police officers involved in Breonna Taylor’s death. Protesters have engaged in a number of large-scale public actions, from converging on the steps of the state’s capitol building to disrupting a mayoral press conference and hosting “blackout” marches.
On Tuesday, which marked day 48 of protests in the city, activists traveled to the home of Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, where they sat on his lawn and demanded he bring criminal charges against the officers. More than 100 people were reportedly detained at the demonstration for trespassing, according to organizer Tamika D. Mallory, co-founder of the social justice organization Until Freedom. Even Wanda Cooper-Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, traveled to Louisville to advocate on Taylor’s behalf. (She also spoke to local reporter Senait Gebregiorgis while she was there.)
The momentum is similar in other cities across the country, such as Minneapolis and New York, where multiple demonstrations happen every day. However, mainstream news stories about the protests seem to only emerge now in the event of isolated violence (including multiple instances of suspected or avowed white nationalists running their vehicles into protesters) or protester clashes (like the recent spat between “Blue Lives Matter” protesters and counterprotesters in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn).
Local activists say the waning media attention is expected, but the work must continue. “We are in the biggest social movement this country has ever seen,” said activist Oluchi Omeoga, co-founder of the Black liberation nonprofit Black Visions Collective based in Minnesota. “When we say this is what will be written in the history books, it’s not an exaggeration. The folks calling for change in this moment are the folks who are going to be on the right side of history.”
The early news cycle’s focus on violence and destruction
Early news reports of the protests focused heavily on images of fires, overturned vehicles, and elevated scenes that distorted what was really taking place on the ground, with some pointing out that coverage seemed to exploit Black pain and violence.
On June 1, the front page of the New York Times read, “Twin crises and surging anger convulse U.S.” above a photo of protesters with their hands in the air and another showing police dressed in riot gear in a cloud of smoke. The same day, the Washington Post published an image of Minneapolis protesters crying and hugging one another after a truck ran through the crowd, with its own front-page headline reading, “U.S. at a precipice as demonstrations intensify.” (The bottom two images depict demonstrators at protests in Kansas City, Missouri, and Washington, DC.) And a San Francisco Chronicle headline on May 31 read “Riots, shooting rock Oakland” above an image of a protester standing with a fist raised in front of a dumpster fire.
The early coverage seemed “breathless,” Kanisha Bond, assistant professor of political science at Binghamton University, told Vox. “But that is not an unfamiliar tone when it comes to media coverage, specifically of urban uprisings involving both violent and nonviolent protest activity, and particularly when people who have been historically excluded from the traditional centers of American power are engaged in any sort of unrest.”
This was seen in the media coverage of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting of Michael Brown. A Race Forward analysis found that news reports at the time largely lacked context explaining the “patterns of racially skewed police violence” that sparked the protests, with some not even mentioning the word “race” at all, Vox reported in 2015. Race Forward research director Dominique Apollon, who authored the study, told Vox that part of his advice to journalists was to “not take police accounts at face value.”
As Morgan State University politics and journalism professor Jason Johnson wrote for Vox in May, news coverage of uprisings often fails to show the full scale of protest activity — just because a few trash cans are on fire in one location doesn’t mean the entire city is on fire. Moreover, news reports of the Floyd protests didn’t always cover the cause of much of the violence: the police themselves. In many instances caught on camera, police used inordinate force against protesters who were silently marching or otherwise engaged in a peaceful group demonstration.
“Much of the damage attributed to protesters is often the result of police action or inaction in the face of lawful public behavior,” Johnson wrote. “Sometimes buried at the end of post-protest reports by local authorities is the fact that police munitions often start fires at protests, but this is seldom reported by the press, and there have been surprisingly few protesters arrested for arson relative to the fires that erupted during the unrest.”
Johnson also noted that news reports didn’t do much to highlight the presence of “run-of-the-mill opportunistic criminals” who seized on the moment to raid local businesses. For example, the media didn’t distinguish these actors from the protesters who, in a targeted effort, burned down the Third Police Precinct in Minneapolis, which was “a specific act of revolt.” The focus on damaged property over lost lives illustrated the media’s “misplaced priorities,” Johnson wrote.
Now, nearly two months after the first protests, a quick scan of the front pages of newspapers and digital media outlets would likely have one believe that the protests have altogether stopped. While they have surely shrunk in number and size, the social media accounts of activists and organizers continue to show compelling images of daily demonstrations.
In the past two weeks, there have been demonstrations in Sartell, Minnesota, and Keystone, South Dakota. Protests also carry on in Philadelphia, Houston, and Washington, DC. Meanwhile, in New York, the Instagram account JusticeforGeorgeNYC lists a collection of daily rallies, marches, protests, and vigils for Black people who have lost their lives to police brutality. On Wednesday, July 15, there are nearly a dozen events planned across Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan — from 8 in the morning to just before sunset.
News coverage can both help and hinder ongoing demonstrations
According to activists, the lack of coverage both hurts and helps protest movements as they continue through the summer.
On one hand, the absence of widespread protest coverage creates a false sense that the demonstrations have largely come to an end. “Some people do get their political cues from what makes its way into the general public discourse, which is largely shaped by what’s in the news, so media blackouts or withdrawals can give them the impression that either the ‘newsworthy part’ of the protests has expired or that there are simply no more events to be covered,” Bond told Vox.
The importance of protests as a tool for shifting public opinion is already evident in national polls. Monmouth University found at the end of May that 76 percent of Americans believe that racism is a big problem now, up from 51 percent in 2015. Other polls show that more people support the defunding of police than ever before. A June poll from the research firm PerryUndem found that 72 percent of respondents supported reallocating funds away from police and to other services like health care.
As political scientist Megan Ming Francis told Vox last month, systemic change begins with a shift in public opinion that’s brought about through protest. “The history of protest in this country is that when there’s more people, politicians pay attention,” she said. “If you want legal change, if you want political change, then it means you need to, at the same time or before, shift public opinion. That is crucial.”
On the other hand, some activists believe the constant presence of news cameras could hamper progress. If activists are constantly under the gaze and watch of the state, this could invite more violence on protesters and open up the opportunity for derailment.
“When the mainstream media steps away, we see even more clearly the vital function that independent media — including social media livestreamers — plays in providing a comprehensive and well-rounded accounting of protest and social mobilizations,” Bond told Vox. “The ubiquity of social media might attenuate any negative effects from a lack of media coverage — but how much is likely heavily determined by what sorts of information you allow across your online boundaries and within your social network.”
The most recent protest headlines at mainstream outlets — including the New York Times’s “Drivers Are Hitting Protesters as Memes of Car Attacks Spread” and USA Today’s “‘I would be very careful in the middle of the street’: Drivers have hit protesters 66 times since May 27” — focus on violence or arrests. Then there is CBS’s “87 people charged with felonies after Breonna Taylor protest at attorney general’s house” following Tuesday’s events, framed around protesters trespassing on an elected official’s property. When news outlets cherry-pick moments of violence to cover or criminalize protesters, they are choosing drama and sensationalism over the larger narrative — that the biggest anti-racism movement in a generation is still happening in the US.
“It comes down to what is considered newsworthy, which is often action, large numbers, and apparent mayhem,” Bond told Vox. “Burning buildings, smashing glass, and bleeding people are often visually riveting and can add a sense of vicarious danger and unpredictability, while direct actions like sit-ins, public education sessions, street parties, and/or meal distributions don’t offer people that sense of ‘ooh, what’s going to happen next’ the way that other actions might.”
The fight for justice lives on
Activists recognize how much has changed in public opinion since the first Floyd protests — and that’s why they haven’t stopped organizing. According to Omeoga, protests have taken place every day in Minneapolis since Floyd’s fatal arrest. Omeoga told Vox that part of what’s been missing in the coverage that has existed is expanding what we mean when we say “protest” or “public demonstration” to fully capture how people are mobilizing.
“The occupation of ‘George Floyd Ave,’ the place where he was murdered, is an act of resilience or a protest. We have been occupying that space every day since George Floyd was lynched. Folks are protesting for change in the simplest terms,” Omeoga said. “Folks are protesting for Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Riah Milton, and Dominique Fells. Folks are protesting against police brutality and state-sanctioned violence and for interpersonal violence against Black trans women. Folks are out protesting for Black lives.”
According to Omeoga, the media largely focused coverage on the peak of the protests because “that’s what they think people are interested in,” she said. “We have been conditioned under this capitalist society to only find value in things for very short, transactional periods of time. The media affirms that in the ways they show what is worthy of news and what isn’t.” For Omeoga, left-friendly platforms like Democracy Now and Unicorn Riot are alternative media outlets that can help people stay up to date.
Ashton P. Woods, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Houston, recognizes that while coverage may now only extend to protests that feature celebrities or to protests where politicians are present, he can’t get comfortable and rely on politicians to do the work. “We have a responsibility to protect what we have secured for ourselves and dismantle white supremacy,” Woods told Vox.
That work, he said, doesn’t mean having to show up in the streets. With the number of coronavirus cases surging across the country and its disproportionate impact on Black, Latinx, and Native American communities, Woods acknowledges that people have to mind their health and the health of friends and family and community members. The work can take place in online seminars and gatherings that educate people who are new to the movement. For Woods, in Houston, it also includes showing up to courts and to city hall to pressure Texas lawmakers to sign legislation that tackles systemic racism. And moving forward, he said, protests must continue to create safe spaces for all Black lives, including women and trans, queer, and nonbinary people.
“There’s been an erasure of what we are really protesting for, like the Black LGBTQ community or the Black immigrants — all Black lives matter,” Woods told Vox. “We’ve been doing this anti-racism work since before Trump got into office. We’ve been planning, coordinating, and doing the type of work that doesn’t get on the news for a long time.”
The lack of attention and accountability by lawmakers means protesters have to keep elevating their message, whether in the streets or online, he said.
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