In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, thousands of people took to the streets to protest the fact that the officers responsible for his death have not yet been arrested. Police responded by firing into crowds of peaceful protesters with tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets. In turn, protesters responded again, this time escalating their demonstration, and engaging in property damage. Now, as is too often the case, the media is framing protestors as the problem: Their behavior in combating injustice is now unacceptable, and the narrative around our oppressive system is being rewritten right in front of us.
The TODAY show called the protests “violent.” Tucker Carlson called them “a form of tyranny” and “a threat to every American.” A Fox9 reporter referred to people looting a Target as “awful” and lamented the lack of police presence. This is not dissimilar to the media response of the Ferguson uprising after the murder of Mike Brown in 2014 or the Baltimore protests following Freddie Gray’s death in 2015.
“The dominant media is itself a tool of white supremacy: it repeats what the police deliver nearly verbatim and uncritically,” Vicky Osterweil wrote at The New Inquiry in 2014 during the Ferguson uprising. “The media use phrases like ‘officer-involved shooting’ and will switch to passive voice when a black man is shot by a white vigilante or a police officer (‘shots were fired’).” Advocates are now pointing out an important discrepancy when reporting on injustice, and it's that language matters. What these media narratives do is uphold the white supremacist system and do the work for police.
Instead of putting the protests in context, of showing how people are fighting back against a system in which they have no power by disrupting it in any way they can, mainstream media instead tends to focus on the sensationalised images of the protesters breaking the social codes by which society is ordered.
But the point of protest is disruption. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: "A riot is the language of the unheard.”
And these voices can not be silenced. "One thing is clear tonight. There is a tremendous amount of anger and pain over the death of #GeorgeFloyd," journalist Liz Sawyer tweeted. "Several folks I talked to said they didn’t care whether people agreed with their methods (i.e. looting, destruction of property). 'We have to get their attention somehow.'"
In another Twitter thread, attorney Preston Mitchum says that "one day we’re going to reconcile that 'looting' doesn’t randomly happen. It is triggered by screaming and not being heard. It is triggered by seeing us be killed with no justice. We’re going to have to reconcile that none of us said it was THE answer and rooted in trauma."
Similarly, media coverage focuses on concern trolling about looting and property damage. But putting the focus on stealing objects from a store (during a pandemic, no less!) rather than on the injustice behind the looting, the horrific loss of life and racial violence that Black folks live with every day, is sending the message that property matters more than people. It just demonstrates the way that white supremacy sees more value in a TV set than in the life of a Black man.
“White people deploy the idea of looting in a way that implies people of colour are greedy and lazy, but it is just the opposite: looting is a hard-won and dangerous act with potentially terrible consequences, and looters are only stealing from the rich owners’ profit margins,” Osterweil wrote. Not only that, it is these tactics that many people might view as extreme that bring the issue to the attention of the media at all. If not for the protests in Minneapolis, it is possible that George Floyd’s death and the lack of accountability for the officers responsible would have already dropped out of the news cycle.
"Editors: it is your job to help your audiences understand why a story about a protest isn’t about property damage. The story is one of pain caused, injustice left unsettled, and civil rights unprotected," Glimmer Editor Margarita Noriega tweeted.
Aaron L Morrison, National Race & Ethnicity writer for the Associated Press, said on Twitter that the distinction in language here is most imminent. “Civil unrest — that’s what it’s called. A clear, mass expression of disapproval for leaders and systems funded by our tax dollars,” Morrison wrote. “Riots are violent displays unconnected to any shared grievance and devoid of any clear demand(s) for change. Why is this so hard to distinguish?”
This framing, of course, is usually limited to protests by marginalised people who are fighting back against larger systems. The white men with guns who stormed state buildings with Confederate flags and Nazi symbols were cheered on by our president and framed as “patriots” who were “exercising their First Amendment rights.” Those armed protesters faced no violent retribution from the police officers; no tear gas was fired, no protesters were manhandled.
The media narrative about protest tactics has always been one centred around the discomfort of the majority, rather than the demands of the marginalised. During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, ACT UP made headlines for actions like dumping the ashes of AIDS victims on the White House lawn. Their tactics were necessary in order to draw attention to a government that was failing them. When ACT UP founder Larry Kramer died this week, the New York Times called his tactics “abusive” and said they could “overshadow his cause.”
You can be fighting for justice against a system and a government that does not value your life or the lives of your community members and you will be seen and portrayed as an instigator. But, protesters are not the problem, nor are their tactics. The problem is, and has always been, the white supremacist, capitalist, colonialist, genocidal systems within the United States — including, primarily, the government itself — that continue unabated, that are waiting to be overthrown.