What a Peaceful Black Lives Matter Protest Taught Me

Taken+at+the+We+Matter+March%2C+May+30+2020

Photographs courtesy of Paul Lee

Taken at the We Matter March, May 30 2020

The indomitable chaos in response to police brutality has been displayed on news outlets worldwide. Images of demolished buildings reduced to ash, armed rioters, police officers and national guardsmen, clouds of tear gas and cities aflame have incited a whirlwind of emotions for American citizens. Many are terrified that the “leftist mob” will march into their city and destroy everything they love or that cops will throw them in jail and tear-gas them for exercising their First Amendment right. While a small percentage of people on both sides of the conflict may certainly have malicious intent, I am here to state my argument that such turbulent media coverage continues to be selectively framed in favor of a dichotomized political agenda.

            Over the summer, I went to a large Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Peoria, Ill. on behalf of George Floyd. Concerns about COVID-19, armed counter-protesters and escalation to violence flooded my mind when I got to the riverfront. Does everyone really have the good intentions they claimed to have in the post? Will I get arrested? The organizer contacted the police department ahead of time and made arrangements to have certain roads blocked off during the event. Our plan was to march down to the capitol building and call for legislative change.

            When we arrived, a few leaders with megaphones stood up on a ledge to speak to us about change. One woman, grief-stricken and angry, choked back tears as she talked about how her son had been racially profiled and shot by the police…Just like Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Stephon Clark, Jacob Blake and too many more. Around that time, a counter-protester pushed through the crowd and attempted to instigate conflict. I expected things to escalate but the organizers with the megaphones urged the crowd not to engage. Some people held up peace signs while others ignored the counter-protester or attempted to argue. He gave up and left shortly afterwards. I was highly impressed with the group’s ability to plan meticulously and handle this tense situation so deftly. I was also pleasantly surprised that the police were cooperative and non-violent. While my experience certainly is not generalizable to every single protest experience in the United States, I considered that there has been little to no coverage about the numerous peaceful protests that were handled successfully by all sides. Has our idea of Black Lives Matter (BLM) been twisted by selective framing and coverage? Can we truthfully say that A.C.A.B.? Is it fair to label an entire nationwide collective as “dangerous” when each subsection of the group may hold, express,and act on their beliefs differently?

            While there are certainly people who express their anger at racial injustice by stealing from businesses, setting fires, shooting innocent people and inciting chaos, many are using their platforms to bolster the cause without rioting. The reason it may seem like every protester wants to watch the world burn is because that incendiary narrative generates an immense amount of views on news platforms and on social media, fitting very neatly into the polarized political sphere. Framing is very deliberately done through word choice, image selection and selective coverage. Racially-charged words such as “thugs” and sensationalistic terms such as “domestic terrorists” have been used as part of a fear-mongering tactic to keep susceptible ideologues terrified and outraged. They genuinely believe that America is being held hostage at the hands of the BLM movement and the police or national guard are saving the country through excessive means of crowd control. Politicians and media outlets on both sides know exactly how to manipulate people for voting power or exposure and the effects are devastating.

            I went to the George Floyd protest this summer with the intention of supporting my brothers and sisters in their efforts to create a better life for their children. With that being said, I also do not support those who fight fire with fire – regardless of their cause. Vitriol, divisiveness and violence are not the answer. We are armed with words, college-educated minds, the right to vote, free speech and a spirit that will not allow us to back down. The goal is to creep slowly, peacefully towards long-term change so that we can come back even stronger. That includes holding every hateful, violent person accountable for his or her actions – regardless of his or her belief system – and rallying behind those who will make a positive difference.