The Symposium: How Should News Outlets Cover Violent Protests in a Violent System

The Symposium is a column by Leland Culver ’24 intended to act as a forum for the Amherst community to engage in dialogue together about current issues. If you would like to contribute to the Symposium, whether with suggestions for a topic, your opinion on this week’s topic or by guest-writing an installment yourself, you can submit by clicking this link

About a week and a half ago, The New York Times published an opinion piece warning against what the author, political columnist Thomas B. Edsall, saw as the increased polarization and dehumanization of both sides of the political spectrum. Edsall warns that no matter which way the election goes in November, if it is close, there will be violence in the streets. The piece was well-written and presented a lot of evidence, but it set off my little centrism bias detection alarm, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since.

Much of Edsall’s evidence comes from the attention garnered by the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, and in particular, he (and several of the article’s commenters) drew a direct equivalence between the actions of left-wing and right-wing groups at these protests.

This is a false equivalency, and it allows for the dismissal of good-faith, peaceful activism, which is an integral part of a healthy democracy, as either purely a tool of partisan politics or as the action of violent extremists, and at bottom, even perpetuates the attitude that leads to the dismissal of rampant police violence and over-focus on a vanishingly small amount of protest violence.

A recent report by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project found that around 93 percent of Black Lives Matter protests between May and the end of August were peaceful. A recent protest this week in Portland, Oregon, the conditions and protests of which have been a centerpiece in debates about Black Lives Matter as a whole, was entirely peaceful, except perhaps for the nearby Proud Boys rally — a far-right group known for their violent gatherings.

In fact, to take it further, in the case of the Black Lives Matter protests, while they certainly include some extreme ideologues and demonstrations by groups advocating violence, most people protesting are not advocating violence, and a survey conducted in early June by Yahoo News and YouGov found that a majority of respondents support the protests. Meanwhile, the right-wing backlash seems to be made up mostly of armed militias and other extremist groups such as the Proud Boys.

So why is it that a survey also conducted in early June by Morning Consult found that 42 percent of respondents believed that most protestors intended to incite violence? And why do we still seem to be hung up on the 7 percent of protests that are violent?

One response you might have is that even one violent protest is something to condemn. I may not find that to be true without exception, but I can certainly understand the impulse. In a perfect world, no one should have to fear that violence might be committed against them or against their property. 

I would suggest, however, that you should condemn just as strongly, if not more strongly, the violence perpetrated by the police system and the violence done to protestors by police, which has been a fixture of many protests, whether or not they are peaceful. If you’re going to condemn violence, you’d better make sure to condemn the state violence, too.

One might wonder why such a statement is even necessary. Isn’t it obvious that to take an anti-violence stance on protests, one must also take an anti-violence stance on law enforcement? But America is one of many modern nations whose culture and law perpetuate the idea of the “State Monopoly on Violence,” which is the idea that it’s okay for the police to use violence on citizens, but not the other way around. This leads to the phenomenon wherein often the only way to garner popular support for your protest is to suffer in public, allowing the state to commit violence against you without ever retaliating. In reality, the reason 42 percent still see BLM activism as violent is due to the disproportionate amount of reporting on the violent protests versus the peaceful ones. This imbalance of coverage ultimately leads the centrist to see every protest as violent and every protestor as an inciter of violence.

And this is where Edsall’s worries come from. This is where the impulse to condemn the protests for their extremism comes from, because when violence is coming from somewhere that isn’t the state, it feels like law and order have broken down.

Out here, in Amherst, we on-campus students are physically distanced, as it were, from much of the protest, peaceful or otherwise, still going on across America. That can open us up to the fear of violence or extremists “from both sides,” whatever our political leanings. That isolation is what has led many protests to move into the suburbs, demanding the support of those who are usually able to keep a comfortable distance from any unrest. 

Seeing people marching through the streets of normally quiet and quaint neighborhoods feels abnormal. It feels extreme, but it only feels that way because we’ve been taught that even shouting is unforgivable in white neighborhoods while physical violence is commonplace in Black neighborhoods. We’ve been taught that violence is abnormal against white bodies but normal against Black bodies. We’ve been taught that it’s abnormal against the police but normal against the citizens, and those are lessons we need to unlearn.

We think that anti-violence is a neutral position, but it is often applied in a way that subtly allows for violence against the already marginalized while preserving the untouchability of those at the top. We want to be even-handed, but that often leads to drawing a false equivalence between a movement that is largely peaceful and one that is largely violent. We need to redefine our attitude towards violence so that we don’t follow that instinctive impulse to focus on and vigorously condemn a few violent protests while offering weak condolences to the peaceful victims of state violence. We need to accept that violence is a part of change just as much as we accept that it is a reality of presumed peace, or that peace will forever be presumed.