As people across the country — and the world — protest not only the killing of George Floyd by police, but systemic racism and ongoing police brutality against Black people and people of color, what started as an outcry is becoming a historic new movement for civil rights.
But much of the media began covering the current wave of protests, now going into their third week, by training its lens on familiar ground — namely, a weekend of property damage that occurred after tens of thousands of people gathered peacefully.
On local and national TV especially, there were several days of headlines and on-the-ground coverage of nights that saw retail establishments vandalized, and, in some instances, burglarized and “looted,” as many publications and TV networks have referred to it (including WWD). Damage to property occurred first in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed and the protests began the week of May 25, and then in other cities including Los Angeles; New York; Seattle; Portland, Ore., and Atlanta.
Since then, reports of vandalism have faded even as the protests have grown larger, and media coverage of the protests has shifted away from hours of daily breaking and live reports. Now there is ongoing coverage of the almost entirely peaceful demonstrations marked by violent episodes of police brutality captured on video by protesters, but also more coverage of other pressing matters of the day, like the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and election polls.
The shift is not merely a coincidence.
Paula Chakravartty, a media and communications professor at New York University, whose research focuses on social movements and race theory, said this is a typical media pattern in covering protests. She pointed to media coverage of the 1992 uprising over the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, and to the 1981 protests in the U.K., where people demonstrated against living conditions and policing.
“The focus immediately turned to crime on the streets, and muggings and violence,” Chakravartty said of the media coverage of those events. “I don’t think what’s happening now is new. The media is used to telling that story.”
Chakravartty said she views the focus on vandalism as part of the media’s larger motivation to focus on “what gets people’s attention.”
“Those dominant frames make people click and watch, and that’s what becomes the story,” she said.
Some of the instances of vandalism may themselves say something about why people are out in the streets en masse, along with the fact that many of the stores targeted in Los Angeles and New York City particularly were luxury establishments.
“These high-fashion flagship stores, they symbolize a kind of vast inequality,” Chakravartty said. “It isn’t an accident they’re the ones being targeted. It speaks to the common sense as they are clear symbols of lived inequalities.”
Some of the chaos in the earlier nights of the protests is also thought to be caused by white supremacist groups.
St. Paul, Minn. Mayor Melvin Carter said most of the 40 arrests made on the night of May 24 were of people from out of state, explaining: “There’s a group of folks that are sad and mourning, there seems to be another group that are using Mr. Floyd’s death as a cover to create havoc.”
Minnesota Department of Safety Commissioner John Harrington said they are contact-tracing the arrested and that an investigation is under way about white nationalist groups found to have been posting online, encouraging their members to use the protests as a cover to create chaos. He said some of the 40 arrests were of people linked to such white supremacist groups and organized crime.
In Las Vegas, U.S. attorneys in the state last week charged three men on grounds of “conspiracy to cause destruction” during protests, mainly by throwing Molotov cocktails at property. The U.S. attorneys described the men as alleged members of the “Boogaloo” movement, which is a name now used by right-wing “extremists” who want “a coming civil war and/or collapse of society.”
“Violent instigators have hijacked peaceful protests and demonstrations across the country, including Nevada, exploiting the real and legitimate outrage over Mr. Floyd’s death for their own radical agendas,” U.S. Attorney Nicholas Trutanich said of the arrests.
And continued narratives about disorder can also lead to harmful public policy, experts said.
In New York City, last week’s 8 p.m. nightly curfew (the city’s first since World War II) drew outrage from protesters, civil rights attorneys and local lawmakers. City officials imposed the curfew ostensibly to quell public disorder after there was violence during a previous curfew of 11 p.m., but as videos began circulating online showing police wielding batons against protesters, blocking hundreds of them on the Manhattan Bridge, and detaining even essential workers, all under the mandate of a curfew, the motivation began to seem specious. After nearly a week, Mayor Bill de Blasio lifted the curfew on Sunday after a weekend of large marches saw little to no violence.
The public sentiment last week, shared by attorneys representing protesters, is that curfews that were nominally intended to deter violent protests or potential looting, had only led to more violence from police under the guise of thwarting “looters.”
“We get this completely bogus curfew, and it’s been used to shut down protest and to brutalize protesters, and workers and people providing support,” said Elena Cohen, president of the National Lawyers Guild, a bar association of attorneys advocating for civil rights. “Police [were] using this to clear out protests at 8 p.m. That basically means all protesting needs to finish at 8 p.m.”
The National Lawyers Guild, which works to connect activists with attorneys who can provide legal advice and representation to protesters, also trains legal observers to watch police at protests and report any violations of protestors’ right to assembly, protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In the past week, a number of legal observers, often seen wearing bright green hats indicating their role, were themselves detained at protests in New York, Cohen noted.
The New York City Law Department, which represents the city in civil lawsuits, has said it is looking into complaints against police during the protests.
“The city is investigating allegations of police misconduct and will respond accordingly,” a representative for the NYC Law Department said in a statement Tuesday. The representative did not comment on how many arrests were made.
The NYPD’s press department did not respond to requests for comment.
Emphasizing to the public the instances of store damage or stolen goods also glosses over the largely peaceful, if impassioned, atmosphere of the marches, some protesters said.
In upstate New York, for instance, protests there have been generally peaceful, especially when police presence was minimal. In the Hudson River town of Beacon, recent protests included an event on May 30 attended by between 100 and 200 people, said attendee Julia Caldwell, 28, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, a political organization helping to lead the growing chorus of calls to defund the police.
“There actually might have been no cops at the Beacon [march],” Caldwell said. “They drove by a couple times, but I think on their regular beat.”
Caldwell’s boyfriend Bryan Faubus, 37, who also attended the Beacon protest and is an attorney in New York, agreed about the tone of the protests.
“It was a righteous expression of discontent, sort of classically what you imagine when you think of a peaceful protest,” he said. “You know, people with signs, people chanting slogans, walking, feeling camaraderie with each other.”
The presence of police gear and equipment in itself can spark concerns about public safety at protests, where there’s a distinct sense of being supervised by armed agents of the state, Caldwell said, speaking generally.
“You don’t really usually see the weapons — the full array of military-grade equipment that our police departments have,” she said. “Until you have situations like this, where people are out there protesting the police.”
Cohen of the National Lawyers Guild said overemphasizing ideas of looting at protests can ultimately paint a misleading portrait of the overall nature of peaceful demonstrations, and also reflect a lack of understanding of the role of civil disobedience in democracy.
“If you look at ways that we’ve actually gotten social change in this country — real change — it’s been from people being out in the streets, acting in ways that seem chaotic to people from the outside, but it’s what leads to real change in this country,” she said.
“I think that people in power know that these movements have a real chance of holding police accountable in a way police haven’t been held accountable for violence against Black people in this country,” she added. “And that’s where this narrative of chaotic looters who need to be stopped is happening.”
Meanwhile, the approach of reporting on protests and property damage simultaneously, without making clear distinctions about the predominant sources of violence on the ground, can result in correlation between protests and looting. Even with protesters and activist leaders denouncing the vandalism that took place earlier on in the protest, it seems to have done little to dispel a notion that the protests are actually causing vandalism or to show that the vandalism itself is a minor occurrence relative to the enormity of the protests taking place.
Mandy Jenkins, who is leading a news experiment with Google and McClatchy, and who has years of experience as a media professional, wrote on Twitter of her own family’s perception of the protests, based on exclusively watching TV news. She said they live in rural Ohio and “honestly believe that large swaths of America’s cities are being destroyed by lawless bands of looters who are the same people who are protesting.”
Jenkins also suggested the possibility that the news media is “relying on compelling video to draw in viewers,” which in this case, at least initially, was property damage and vandalism. Videos of marching protesters carrying signs like “Charge them all,” “Silence is violence,” “Stop killing us” and “Black Lives Matter” may make for less compelling TV. It’s also that a camera is only so large, and can only show so many people and offer only so much perspective.
But it’s not just TV coverage and photos. Yogita Goyal, a professor of English and African American studies at UCLA, whose research focuses on race and empire, said what she saw in the news in the early days of the public unrest, which is broadly about racism and ongoing police violence, was ironically from the perspective of police. From property damage to reported violence on the streets.
“Almost everything the media is presenting about the current unrest is from the point of view of the police officers,” Goyal said.
“Journalists themselves are being targeted by police, on camera, even as we’re watching during these massive demonstrations,” she went on. “None of [what’s being protested] is up for debate.”
Countless videos from protesters show police using excessive force against unarmed protesters far more than they do vandalism. While some protesters were seen yelling or throwing water bottles at police armed in riot gear, more often protesters were seen being targeted simply for not walking away fast enough when ordered to do so, and being pushed down to the ground, often from behind, and sometimes beaten with batons.
In cities that enacted curfews, allowing police to arrest anyone out past the allotted time, police swooped in to clear the streets. In cities like New York, L.A. and Portland, videos show police boxing in groups of protesters out past curfew times, a tactic known as “kettling,” in order to trap and arrest them. Between May 29 and 31, L.A. arrested nearly 3,000 people due to the protests, although the city said recently it will not charge any peaceful protesters that were rounded up and arrested for curfew violations. New York arrested about 300 people per night between May 30 and June 4.
One of the most alarming instances of police force was in Washington, D.C., last week, when peaceful protesters in front of the White House were forcibly cleared with tear gas, rubber bullets and batons.
Attorney General William Barr said later that week he ordered the “perimeter expanded” so that President Trump could walk across the street, where he stood holding a bible in front of a church. D.C. has seen scores of unidentified police on the streets around the White House, which now resembles a fortress, with high black gating erected around an extended perimeter in response to protesters gathering in the city.
The now-evident police brutality at the protests, the very thing being protested, also casts a more critical light on the media’s initially extensive coverage of property damage and burglary by small numbers of people, said Goyal.
“It’s a distraction, the constant reiterating of images of looting,” Goyal said. “Even the use of the word ‘looting’ gives away too much ground. I’m actually very tired of hearing that word.”
Goyal said “looting” (which, again, has been used repeatedly by WWD and other publications) is being used widely and “uncritically” in public discourse, and in the media at large.
“The use of words is a political act. The repetition of them on a loop is a political act,” she said. “The focus on ‘looting’ is absolutely designed to distract from the real issue, which is racism and police violence, [and] the militarization of police,” she said. “We need to not accept the empirical position that property is somehow more important than human life.”