Culture

A Misleading Attempt to Bolster the ‘Mostly Peaceful’ Riots Narrative

Police officers in riot gear fire pepper balls against rioters in Rochester, New York, September 5, 2020. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
Hundreds of violent riots resulting in billions of dollars in damage, lost life, and a fraying social fabric is not an issue to be set aside.

Has this summer’s unrest been “mostly peaceful,” as some have claimed? A new study from Roudabeh Kishi and Sam Jones at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) has been trumpeted as sufficient justification for the media’s attempt to push this line. Kishi and Jones’s partisan framing have doubtlessly contributed to this misunderstanding. “In more than 93 percent of all demonstrations connected to the movement, demonstrators have not engaged in violence or destructive activity,” they explain. “Violent demonstrations, meanwhile, have been limited to fewer than 220 locations,” they assure us. More remarkable is their assertion that the media is responsible for the public’s increasingly negative view of the Black Lives Matter movement. They lament the “disproportionate coverage of violent demonstrations” and dismiss the claim that “antifa is a terrorist organization” as a “mischaracterization.” They advise that we not let ourselves be manipulated by “the media focus on looting and vandalism . . .  there is little evidence to suggest that demonstrators have engaged in widespread violence.”

While Kishi and Jones may be surprised that the media is more inclined to cover violent riots than peaceful protests, the people living and working in the neighborhoods ravaged by those riots do not share their confusion. For widows such as Ann Dorn, whose husband, David, was killed in St. Louis by people attempting to loot a pawn shop he was protecting, it is readily apparent why the violence matters. Nineteen people had already died in riot-related violence two weeks into the protests in early June. For small-business owners already struggling to stay afloat under the pressure of a pandemic, it is similarly self-evident. In a six-day period from May 29 to June 3, rioters were responsible for over $400 million in damage across the country. As of June 9, 450 New York City businesses had been looted or otherwise vandalized. In Minneapolis and St. Paul — where riots first broke out after George Floyd’s death — 1,500 businesses have sustained damage. As Brad Polumbo has observed, the socioeconomic shadow cast by that damage will be a long one, as business owners will be loathe to invest in an area in which the government cannot guarantee that their property will be protected. Tragically, because the riots are concentrated in urban settings, they disproportionately take the lives and damage the property of minorities.

Yet Kishi and Jones remain sanguine about the role that Black Lives Matter has played in the destruction, and insist that where violence has occurred, it is largely attributable to the far right. As evidence, they cite the fact that a single member of the Hells Angels gang was caught smashing windows in Minneapolis in late May. That behavior is worthy of condemnation and imprisonment, but Kishi and Jones can’t help themselves from laying the blame of all of the ensuing violence on this single incident. According to their analysis, those smashed windows “helped spark an outbreak of looting following initially peaceful protests.” If a man smiles and shakes your hand before pulling a gun on you, the initial feigned friendliness may not have been genuine. If a man sees smashed windows and thinks, “That looks like fun,” he was probably never especially opposed to committing acts of violence.

The ACLED researchers further excuse lawlessness in American cities by conveniently ignoring the aforementioned harm caused to blameless families and businesses, asserting that “in many cases” the “violent demonstrations have specifically targeted statues seen to represent the country’s legacy of racist violence.” Notably, Kishi and Jones draw no distinction between efforts to tear down statues of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis versus those of Christopher Columbus. Moreover, while Rich Lowry has convincingly argued that conservatives should not feel any particular affinity toward Confederate monuments, all Americans should share an attachment to the rule of law.

Kishi and Jones’s assessment of data also changes depending on if they feel the numbers carry enough water for Black Lives Matter. They dismiss violence in 7 percent of demonstrations as miniscule, yet count a similar proportion of violent incidents inspired by anger at monuments as “very many.” Kishi and Jones also express outrage at the fact that there has been “government intervention” in about 9 percent of the demonstrations, “despite the fact that demonstrations associated with the BLM movement have been overwhelmingly peaceful.” Per their own analysis, that makes for a difference of only 2 percent between the protests that have turned violent and the ones in which authorities have stepped in.

None of this is to say that the many peaceful protesters who have participated in marches around the country have no legitimate grievances, or to call those participants violent criminals. The Republican majority in the Senate has acknowledged issues with our criminal-justice system and proposed legislation to address many of them — legislation blocked by their Democratic colleagues for political purposes. But it is to suggest that that hundreds of violent riots resulting in billions of dollars in damage, lost life, and a fraying social fabric is not an issue to be set aside. And it’s also to suggest that the efforts of academics and journalists attempting to set them aside are as transparent as they are egregious.

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