In Summer of Political Vitriol, 93% of Protests Were Peaceful

Supporters of both President Donald Trump and Black Lives Matters clash in a park outside a courthouse Tuesday in Kenosha, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

WASHINGTON (CN) — America’s summer was punctuated by sweeping protests against police brutality and racism and those activities, regardless of the city or state they unfolded in, were almost entirely nonviolent, according to new analysis reviewing 7,750 U.S. demonstrations. 

The nonprofit Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project reviewed protests erupting in late May following the police killing of George Floyd through August 22. Assessing demonstrations in 50 states, the agency found that 93% of protests were peaceful or without violence. 

Violence is defined in the report as a clash between demonstrators and police or counterprotesters, or as incidents where property damage was caused. In the 2,400 locations surveyed nationwide, 220 protests (just under 10%) were categorized as “violent.” 

In cities like Portland, Oregon, for example, where unrest has been sustained for weeks, violence that occurs tends to be confined to a few specific blocks and not unfolding throughout the entire city.

ACLED found the suggestion of sprawling paralyzing chaos in American cities not reflective of reality on the ground. Instead that messaging is part and parcel of “disinformation campaigns” launched by opponents to the Black Lives Matter organization, its political platform or its supporters — a phenomenon documented by groups like the Anti-Defamation League, according to ACLED’s report.

The nonprofit’s analysis, in conjunction with Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative, draws on an array of news reports both domestic and international on U.S. protests this summer. It is also shaped by real-time accounts on social media and other publicly available information.

Depending on a person’s political orientation or exposure to biased media framing — especially media that focuses lopsidedly on looting and vandalism — support for protests can be deeply influenced and lead to deliberate mischaracterizations of activists associated with Black Lives Matter or other civil rights movements and groups. 

Portraying the group as a cadre of violent extremists or a “symbol of hate,” as President Donald Trump suggested explicitly in July, contributes to a sharp decline in support for the movement, largely among white people.

In a phone interview Friday, U.S. Representative Jamie Raskin condemned such characterizations.

“The projection of violence onto nonviolent movements is an exercise in propaganda,” said Raskin, a Maryland Democrat. “While the president and Attorney General Barr continue to cover up the startling rise in right wing violence in America, they continue to project violence onto nonviolent civil rights protesters. This is a dangerous moment because the president and his claque are essentially covering up for lawless violence by the police and extreme right-wing elements. That is the recipe for fascism.”

Trump this week refused to denounce the actions of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old now facing two counts of first-degree murder for the shootings of protesters Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Demonstrations erupted there on Aug. 23 after police shot a Black man, Jacob Blake, seven times in the back paralyzing him. Two days later, armed individuals, including Rittenhouse, descended on Kenosha with military-style weapons to “defend” area businesses. Rittenhouse was seen on footage before the alleged shooting chatting with police officers and accepting water they offered to him.

Kyle Rittenhouse, at left in backwards cap, walks along Sheridan Road in Kenosha, Wis., at around 11 p.m. last Tuesday, with another armed civilian. Less than an hour later, the 17-year-old from Illinois shot three other people, killing two of them.

In a move visible to the president’s tens of millions of followers online, Trump “liked” a recent Twitter post that calls Rittenhouse a “good example” of why voters choose to align with him. The president also suggested unequivocally during a White House press briefing this week that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense. 

Given the continuation of police killings as well as a deeply divided political atmosphere, ACLED’s report warns that the increase in hate crimes since 2019 is likely to increase the chance of more violence in the charged weeks ahead of the November election.

“In this hyper-polarized environment, state forces are taking a more heavy-handed approach to dissent, non-state actors are becoming more active and assertive, and counter-demonstrators are looking to resolve their political disputes in the street,” the report states.  

Raskin juxtaposed this data to the three pieces of legislation aimed at rooting out violent extremism — the No HATE Act, the Disarm Hate Act and the Domestic Terrorism Data Act — that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shows no sign of endorsing.

As chair of the ​House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Raskin has held multiple hearings on the domestic threat posed by white supremacists and extreme right-wing organizations who seek to undermine or assault protesters exercising their First Amendment rights.

“The problem is of course that Mitch McConnell controls the Senate and Donald Trump controls Mitch McConnell. They are not going to participate in any serious legislation to address violent white supremacy,” Raskin said. “They have so far refused to take anything up. They won’t even address the Covid-19 pandemic which is killing hundreds of thousands of people in this country, so, we’re not going to get them to move against the movements that contain ‘very fine people,’ according to the president.” 

Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of Media Matters, said in a phone interview Friday he found the report encouraging in many ways.

“What I appreciate about this report is the topline: 93% of protests were described as peaceful,” Carusone said. “If you were to put this into grades for school, that’s an ‘A’ or ‘A+’ category. No one complains about an A grade. It’s not even a ‘B’ or ‘C’ grade. It was an ‘A.’”

The analysis gives context and helps to illuminate the public’s perspective on protest coverage that is often one-dimensional.

Flames licking up the side of a burnt-out car or protesters physically clashing with each other or police makes for a powerful visual. But by propping up these images disproportionately to the real peaceful ones happening on the ground, the news media, even if it is unintended, can and does amplify false narratives of protests and civil rights movements.

Neighbors of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson watch as protesters hold a rally in front of her home on Lake Avenue on June 28. (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

“That’s why you get the couple in St. Louis running out with their guns in response. It’s a reflexive action,” Carusone said referencing personal-injury attorneys Mark and Patricia McCloskey who now face felony charges after waving their weapons at passing protesters in June.

With legislative action in limbo for now, Raskin said he hopes more civil action will draw attention to the issues and increase pressure to do what is right.

“I’m very encouraged by what professional athletes are doing and I would hope that NFL players, NBA players and MLB players would start to go out more to protests and stand with protesters and bring the eyes of the world on what is going on there,” he said. “They would be able to keep people cool at the protest and help isolate right wing provocateurs who are committing violent acts.”

Carusone agreed such a tactic could be helpful.

The “cultural currency” many athletes already have with their celebrity could be increasingly useful in the national conversation, he said.

“Even if we pass legislation, things don’t change until the shadow of the law changes, which is the norm,” Carusone said. “People who have an enormous amount of cultural influence bring with them the potential power to sort of bypass the legislative process because they can influence and shape norms. On its face, what that provides for is an opportunity to galvanize and mobilize individuals that are not traditionally engaging through the lens of political action.” 

Raskin pointed to former Vice President Joe Biden meanwhile in saying that those entrenched in politics can and should continue to operate with “moral clarity,” Raskin said. 

On Aug. 30, following the shooting death of Aaron Danielson, a supporter of the far-right group Patriot Prayer, Biden issued a statement on Twitter.

“The deadly violence we saw overnight in Portland is unacceptable,” Biden tweeted. “Shooting in the streets of a great American city is unacceptable. I condemn violence of every kind by anyone, whether on the left or the right. And I challenge Donald Trump to do the same.”

President Trump, six hours after Biden’s statement, questioned why Biden had failed to condemn the violence.

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