Aside from the coronavirus pandemic, this year has also seen unprecedented mass uprisings against the U.S.’s white supremacist police state after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis. However, throughout the ongoing protests this year, corporate media seemed to take every opportunity to vilify the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement by spinning the protesters—rather than the racist and authoritarian U.S. regime they are protesting against—as the primary instigators of violence and theft, in addition to preemptively blaming them for Trump’s re-election.
When the protests began after Floyd’s death, corporate media reports were quick to blame BLM for initiating violence, portraying them as senseless rioters in an otherwise peaceful and tranquil society.
- NBC News (6/1/20): “Some George Floyd Protests Turn Violent in Several West Coast Cities”
- Wall Street Journal (6/2/20): “Protests Sparked by George Floyd Death Descend Into Violence Despite Curfews”
- ABC News (7/26/20): “Police Declare Riots as Protests Turn Violent in Cities Nationwide; 1 Demonstrator Dead in Austin”
- Wall Street Journal (7/26/20): “Violence Erupts Around Protests Across US”
- Associated Press (8/22/20): “Portland Protest Turns Violent, Federal Police Clear Plaza”
- Chicago Tribune (8/15/20): “Protests Turn Violent in Downtown Chicago”
- 9&10 News (9/24/20): “Protests Over Breonna Taylor Case Turned Violent Overnight”
- CNN (10/28/20): “Philadelphia Puts Curfew in Place After Violence Erupts During Protests over the Fatal Police Shooting of Walter Wallace Jr.”
As it happens, a study by the US Crisis Monitor (9/3/20), a joint effort by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) and the Bridging Divides Initiative (BDI) at Princeton University, found that 93% of all racial justice protests since Floyd’s death have been peaceful and non-destructive. These findings contradict the misleading impressions corporate media coverage have given about the BLM uprisings spawning a massive wave of violence and property damage.
But focusing too much on whether violence occurred at the protests or not would be missing the point by conceding too much to the copaganda narrative. The “violence” did not begin when protesters began destroying property; this is a reversal of cause and effect. In actuality, the U.S. “turns violent” every time Black people are brutally beaten down and murdered by the state for trivial or nonexistent infractions in the U.S.’s selective enforcement system (often euphemized as a “law enforcement system”). As Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi of the Citations Needed podcast (8/9/17) pointed out, when white supremacy is the default setting of corporate media, Black people dying at the hands of the racist police state is not really “violence,” or a disturbance of the peace, but simply the natural state of affairs.
This “turning violent” framing also neglects how brutal actions by police officers escalate violence, as many observers of these rebellions pointed out that “looting” and “destruction” often take place after the police begin violent repression. This serves to encourage and justify a police crackdown against all protesters under the pretext of only going after “violent” protesters, even though nonviolence is no guarantee that they won’t also be targeted for state repression (FAIR.org, 6/8/20). Indeed, making the violence of protesters disrupting the status quo the predominant focus of media scrutiny and scorn makes it hard for [their] audiences to realize the much greater violence that is being inflicted by the police to maintain it.
Despite media obfuscations and euphemisms (FAIR.org, 6/5/20, 6/7/20) that give a false sense of parity between unarmed protesters and armored militarized police, using terms like “skirmishes” and “clashes” (FAIR.org, 6/9/20), only one side routinely uses chemical weapons banned on the battlefield on protesters, uses mass arrests of protesters to intimidate dissent and is responsible for the vast majority of assaults on journalists (around 80%, as of June 4) to suppress unfavorable information. And only one side has plowed vehicles through large crowds, shot at people on their porch, trapped thousands of people on bridges, and kills hundreds of people every year.
Since the beginning of the uprisings, corporate media have also focused intensely on the break-ins at businesses that have occurred at some of these protests, which might give the misleading impression that stealing by BLM protesters is the most troubling form of theft in the country:
- Fox News (6/1/20): “Rioting, Looting Linked to George Floyd Protests Leaves Trail of Destruction Across American Cities”
- New York Post (6/3/20): “Soho ‘Looting Street Party’ Video Goes Viral as de Blasio Downplays NYC Chaos”
- USA Today (6/15/20): ‘Peaceful Protests Got Hijacked’: Some Criminals Used George Floyd Protests as Cover for Looting, Police Say”
- Washington Post (8/10/20): “Looters Smash Business Windows Along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile After Police-Involved Shooting”
- Chicago Tribune (10/6/20): “Chicago’s Summer of Looting and Unrest, and How the City is Still Reeling”
- Fox News (10/28/20): “Philadelphia Police Say 1,000 Looters Targeting Businesses on Second Night of Protests”
- Philadelphia Inquirer (10/28/20): “Looting, Skirmishes Follow Peaceful Protests Over Police Abuse Against Black People and Killing of Walter Wallace Jr”
While it’s important not to hand wave away the real violence that has occurred to the livelihoods of small business owners and their employees that were already struggling during the pandemic, it’s also important not to portray all protesters who target businesses as merely opportunistic thieves, or exaggerate the scale of economic damage caused by them. There are varying reasons why people commit vandalism during these uprisings, and by focusing on the act of “looting” itself, without exploring the reasons behind the act (such as expressions of anti-capitalist intent, or retribution against stores that don’t serve poor or minority communities), media oversimplify the story as a caricature of unruly mobs that need to be quashed (Vox, 6/2/20; Atlantic, 6/2/20).
From these sensationalist stories, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that the biggest thieves in the country have consistently been employers stealing from their employees’ wages. The Economic Policy Institute (9/18/14, 5/10/17) found that wage theft is a much bigger problem than all other forms of criminal property theft like burglaries, larceny and motor vehicle theft combined, with minimum wage violations alone potentially exceeding all other forms of theft put together.
Yet outlets like Newsweek (10/28/20) continue to reverse reality by emphasizing the ransacking of businesses like Walmart after activists protested the recent killing of Walter Wallace Jr. by Philadelphia police (FAIR.org, 10/30/20). Walmart is one of the most notorious perpetrators of wage theft, for whom paying wage theft penalties is merely a cost of doing business (In These Times, 6/8/18). In 2016, Walmart was forced to pay $224 million as a settlement to its Pennsylvania employees, a resolution it had fought for 10 years after it was caught stealing $140 million from employees from 1998 to 2006.
It’s also important to put the economic damage done by protesters in context by comparing it with the economic damage caused by large corporations and the U.S. government.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the US has committed acts of modern piracy, stealing hundreds of thousands of masks bound for Europe and oil from Iran to Venezuela and selling them for tens of millions of dollars. In the largest government spending program in U.S. history, FAIR (5/1/20) covered how corporate media were spinning massive corporate looting as a “rescue plan” for the “country,” and robber barons like Steve Mnuchin as “saviors” of the economy, while large corporations were pillaging millions of dollars from bailout money intended for small businesses (New York Times, 4/22/20, 4/26/20). However, there is little sustained outrage for the looting done by the U.S. government and large corporations, as corporate media appear to reserve their attention for the relatively small-scale pilferage done by protesters.
Yet another way corporate media try to make the story about problematic protesters, rather than the problems they are trying to solve, is by preemptively blaming them for Donald Trump’s re-election. It’s unclear what will happen in the election today, between the size of Joe Biden’s polling leads and Trump’s strenuous efforts to steal the election (FAIR.org, 9/15/20), but op-eds like The Hill’s “End the Violent ‘Protests’ Now — You’re Only Ensuring Trump’s Reelection” (9/2/20) and USA Today’s “When Black Lives Matter Protests Turn Violent, Donald Trump Gets Just What He Wants” (7/29/20) sound like threats to cease disrupting the violent “stability” of the U.S. based on misleading caricatures of how “violent” BLM protests actually are.
When CNN’s Van Jones (Fox News, 9/2/20) echoes similar talking points by urging “Democrats” to cease nighttime BLM protests, out of an ostensible concern about giving more ammunition to Trump’s re-election campaign, he is putting the onus on protesters to win over voters, rather than challenging white supremacy and people who prioritize property and tranquility over Black lives:
“The longer we talk about violence and unrest and how he’s handling it or not handling it, it all advantages Trump,” Jones began. “In other words, this campaign is going well for Donald Trump because we’re not talking about the economic devastation that people are experiencing or the virus really. And I think it’s time for us to recognize—we are in a very perilous situation if you want to see a change in November…
“We need a national moratorium on these nighttime marches. That would separate the responsible, productive demonstrations that have united the whole world from some of these other demonstrations that are just not as useful. There are things that Joe Biden and other progressives can do that can begin to push down on the violence in our movement and then turn it back toward the people who are actually suffering.”
Jones glosses over the fact that nobody is forcing corporate media to divert attention from police brutality, economic devastation or the coronavirus by vilifying protesters, and exaggerates the scale of their violence while minimizing the violence of the US’s authoritarian state.
The many reports worrying over the effect of “violence” on swing-state voters (e.g., New York Times, 8/26/20, Politico, 8/27/20, Axios, 8/29/20) also reverse reality. FAIR (8/11/20) has covered how corporate media have minimized the violence of right-wing extremists, a far more deadly threat. Preemptively blaming Trump’s reelection on BLM protesters downplays how Trump’s election theft efforts include deliberately stoking violence by white supremacists on his behalf.
Several people have already debunked the notion that a backlash against BLM protests is driving people to vote for Trump, and current polling averages by RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight show that Biden has maintained a consistent lead over Trump despite the ongoing protests. It is impossible to predict the outcome of today’s election with certainty, but blaming BLM protesters for everything under the sun is one way to maintain the violent status quo of white supremacy.