A pandemic has taken the lives of more than 100,000 Americans and put more than 30 million out of work, and to top it off, there has been an almost 30-day, caught-on-tape spree of police and vigilante violence against black people. For some, it may feel like the nation is on the brink of near-biblical levels of chaos.
The responses across the nation, whether you call them riots (and you shouldn’t) or whether you call them protests, uprisings, unrest, or rebellions, are being covered by local and national news and social media. As a journalism professor who has studied and experienced media coverage of protests for years, I have watched repeatedly how poorly these events are conveyed by the media and understood by the public. Here’s what people watching the news must understand in order to get what’s truly going on, and keep your faith in America nominally intact in the process.
First, it’s important to understand the mandate of the news, and that is to get eyeballs on the screen, whether that is your television screen or the one in your hands. Networks focus on spectacle: fires, people crying, and broken windows, instead of the larger story. In most cases (such as with the Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, protests a few years ago), property damage and fires are limited to a small area, and even during those times many people are just milling about, but shaking camera angles and tight shots want you to believe that every reporter is an extra in Saving Private Ryan and every protest looks like Kanye’s “No Church in the Wild” video.
In reality, these protests are usually not completely consumed with chaos. Nighttime coverage will seldom show a full city map demonstrating that, two blocks over from a street that looks like a “city engulfed in flames,” there’s a CVS still open for business. The press flocking to dramatic images as a protest metaphor is not a new phenomenon.
Further, much of the property damage attributed to protesters is often the result of police action or inaction in the face of lawful public behavior, something I’ve witnessed from Ferguson to the far-right protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. Tear gas canisters can still burn your hand hours after they’ve been launched by police, flares are thrown by riot response teams with reckless abandon, let alone live munitions and flash grenades.
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. Which is more likely to set row houses ablaze, three teenagers in face masks with “No Justice, No Peace” signs or two smoldering tear gas shells sitting on a pile of dry leaves and newspaper for two hours?
This is not to suggest that some protesters don’t cause violence or property damage, but observers, let alone journalists, should be making distinctions between the various actors that are actually on the scene during civil unrest. You have the aforementioned police who are armed. Then you have chaos agents and anarchists who infiltrate peaceful protests with their own agenda. This isn’t conspiracy theory; in Minneapolis alone, videos have emerged of strangely dressed people just engaging in wanton property destruction. No one knows who they are, but it seems unlikely that they are protesters.
Then you have your run-of-the-mill opportunistic criminals. When the police are so occupied harassing and corralling peaceful protesters and the streets are filled with smoke, it’s pretty easy to break into a Verizon store, a beauty shop, or a grocery store and take what you want. These people are often conflated with actual revolutionaries, who are protesters that target actual structures and symbols of abuse and oppression. For protesters who are angry about violent, unaccountable police in Minneapolis, overtaking and burning down the Third Police Precinct is a specific act of revolt. This is a fundamentally different action than using the chaos from two blocks over to raid a liquor store.
And, of course, none of these actors should be confused with the hundreds of men and women peacefully protesting who are usually subjected to violent reprisals by police. Which is why “they’re burning their own community” narratives are so misleading and dangerous. It’s irresponsible to not distinguish which “they” is being talked about.
Which brings us to perhaps the most important thing to understand about how to watch protests: the context of what kind of protest garners police response. Over the past three months, the 24-hour cable networks have extensively covered mostly white armed men and women threatening police and politicians at state capitols across the nation over coronavirus lockdown policies.
How often have you seen police in riot gear? In fact, police seldom use force or even present in force (protest shields, black helmets, etc.) when conservative or right-wing groups protest. When is the last time you saw a group of anti-abortion activists get tear-gassed? Yet left-leaning groups, and especially groups of minorities, their protests are often met with shows of force. Right-wing groups spit in the faces of police in regular gear in Michigan, while SWAT teams show up like Storm Troopers to chanting teens in Minneapolis.
This lack of context is even more corrosive when national press coverage chooses one staging area of protest over another. People are marching in Phoenix, Arizona; Columbus, Ohio; and New York City in solidarity with George Floyd, and in Brunswick, Georgia, for Ahmaud Arbery, and in Louisville, Kentucky, for Breonna Taylor. Seven people were shot during the Louisville protests, but 24-hour news coverage is blanketed with images of burning buildings in Minneapolis as if that’s the default of protests instead of the outlier.
So what should be your main takeaway as an American concerned about the future of the country? Protests are not simply stories of “good guys” and “bad guys” no matter where you fall on the political spectrum. There are actors all operating simultaneously, and all too often local and even national reporting only covers the story of the local politicians and police who have a vested interest in presenting themselves as overwhelmed and beleaguered as opposed to negligent and incendiary.
Former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, who pinned George Floyd by placing his knee on the man’s neck for almost nine minutes, has been arrested and charged with murder and manslaughter by local authorities. By all accounts, whether it’s Minneapolis (or Louisville or Brunswick), if the police and vigilantes who committed these acts of violence were consistently arrested and charged, it’s highly likely that these protests would be less volatile.
More importantly, the focus and amplification of property damage over the lost lives that sparked unrest to begin with is a reflection of the press’s ghoulishly misplaced priorities. As a news consumer, you don’t have to feed the beast. You can choose to follow men and women on the ground covering events as concerned citizens. You can sift through the dross of hot-taking moralizing pundits and pay attention to the data on the ground about what causes protests. (This was all but predicted five years ago.) You can refuse to submit to goodthink and stop using words like riot, protest, and resistance interchangeably.
In other words, you can be a sincere, informed American citizen, and recognize that your fellow Americans are hurting and expressing their pain. It does not have to be filtered and sanitized through the state or the press to be legitimized.
Jason Johnson is a professor of politics and journalism at Morgan State University in Baltimore; a political contributor at MSNBC, the Grio, and Sirius XM; and the author of the book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell. You can follow him at @DrjasonJohnson.
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