You Saw the Looting, You Saw the Rioting, You didn't See the Other 93%

Broken windows make everything more interesting.

Photo by Chris Henry on Unsplash

Since the videos of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd were released, then the reports of the murder of Breonna Taylor came out, thousands and thousands of activists across the country have taken to the streets demanding some sort, literally any sort of justice for those that are killed by the police. This has gone on for months and is still continuing even though you might not see it in the news anymore. But you have seen the videos of the broken storefront glass, the burning cars, and the closed streets. You may have thought to yourself, “Oh my goodness, look at the chaos! We need to lock our doors!” Who can blame you? Most of what you see on the news and social media makes it seem like every city in America is a war zone.

But those images of rioters breaking car windows playing over and over again don’t tell the whole story. What you might not have seen was the events actually taking place just blocks away. Thousands of people marching peacefully — no chaos, no fighting, just walking. Those videos of rioters that everyone likes to promote are only a minuscule, minuscule, section of the Black Lives Matter protests.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) recently released their latest data on its US Crisis Monitor. In that data, they found that 93% of the protests were nonviolent, which by their metric states, “When reports do not indicate any use of violence, vandalism, looting, etc. by demonstrators, they are coded as Protestors.” But a June poll by FiveThirtyEight found that 42% respondents thought the protestors are “trying to incite violence or destroy property.”

This means that the other 7% of demonstrations, those that had some acts of violence or vandalism, have grabbed a majority of the headlines. Why is that?

Some of you may be familiar with the broken windows theory in criminology, but we’re going to steal the broken windows term and apply it to how the media likes to cover protests. There is something called the “protest paradigm,” a longstanding idea that the media simply goes along with how the government views protesting, as a nuisance and disrupter of everyday activity. They overlook the fact that there are actual goals behind the movement other than causing a “disturbance” to law-abiding citizens. Then add to the mix that peaceful protests are rarely eye-catching enough to fit a primetime slot, they have to make the protests interesting. How do they do it? Take footage of a broken window, a burning car, someone shouting loudly, and there you have it, the images that draw everyone in. One hundred thousand can be marching peacefully, but two people break off and decide to smash a car window. Where do you think the cameras are going? Hence the broken windows theory of protesting.

These images delegitimize the goals of the movement while blurring the lines on who was actually the aggressor in the first place.

I’ll use one more theory to explain why those 42% of respondents said that protestors were “trying to incite violence.” Psychologist Edward Jones developed something called the correspondent inference theory to explain the “process by which an observer infers the motive of the actor.” He found that an observer interprets the objective of the actor based on the consequence of the action. So what does that mean?

Doing even the most minimal amount of research, you would find that the immediate objectives of the Black Lives Matter movement is to demand justice in the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor among countless others. The movement is calling for the institutions to be held accountable for their actions. The ask — simply do not kill black people because you carry a gun.

There are objective to the movement and protests are just one way to achieve those goals.

But how does someone who only gets their news from one source, watch a single outlet cover the protests for two hours know that? They are going to see the images of the broken storefront windows and maybe some fires, which leads them to believe that the objective is to burn down the city, not advocate for policy changes. The media is much more likely to put rioting in their primetime slot than acknowledge the policy changes that come about from these types of movements, which is why people see rioting as the objective rather than social justice. They are wrongly interpreting the motives of the actor (Black Lives Matter) because the action (protesting) sometimes leads to vandalism.

There is also another reason beyond the normal media channels attributing to this misinterpretation, and that is what disinformation researchers call astroturfers. Astroturfing is defined as an “organized activity that is intended to create a false impression of a widespread, spontaneously arising, grassroots movement in support of or in opposition to something (such as a political policy), but that is in reality initiated and controlled by a concealed group or organization.” Social media bots and trolls specifically tasked with sowing political discord in the United States will spread those rioting images to the point where you think the whole city no longer exists, but in reality, some or most of those users probably aren’t from the US. Yet, there are enough of them plaguing social media that they can amplify these false narratives.

An example of this was in 2016 in Baltimore, a year after a young man named Freddie Gray died while in policy custody, and a Facebook account named Blacktivist called for protests in Baltimore to mark the occasion. But something didn’t seem right. In a city with a tight-knit grassroots movement like Baltimore, it wasn’t hard for local activists to catch that Blacktivist wasn’t from Baltimore at all. The account was traced back to a Russian troll farm called the Internet Research Agency. This type of thing is almost certainly happening again to paint the Black Lives Matter movement in an inauthentic way in hopes of stoking the racial tension flames in the United States.

A few last numbers to see how Americans view the protests. A June Pew Research Poll showed that some Americans are starting to catch on to the media’s narrative when it comes to protest coverage. 44% of adults said that the acts of violence and destruction around the protests were getting too much coverage, and 51% said that the nonviolent protests weren’t getting enough, but this largely differs among black and white respondents. That’s a problem.

I don’t mean to paint every news outlet with a broad brush saying that they all adhere to the protest paradigm, but until that paradigm is shattered, the broken windows are what you will continue to see.

Writer on current affairs & politics. I have a Masters degree in government from Johns Hopkins.

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