The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ‘They’re just showing the violence’: Protesters sound off on coverage of George Floyd backlash

Protesters and police outside the White House on Sunday. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)
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Reporting last week from the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis, MSNBC’s Ali Velshi tried to thread a descriptive needle. “I want to be clear in how I characterize this: This is mostly a protest. It is not, generally speaking, unruly, but fires have been started and there is a crowd that is relishing that,” said Velshi. “There is a deep sense of grievance and complaint here.”

Not all viewers appreciated the host’s explanation:

During Sunday night’s protests around the White House, however, participants made their own appeal for more Velshian nuance in the coverage of this movement. “I feel as though a lot of what you see is the violence, a lot of what you see is the quote-unquote ‘looting’ by our people and everything negative that could be or that could come from what has happened,” said Amanda, a protester who, like many, declined to share her last name with the Erik Wemple Blog.

As he walked past a small building on the grounds of Lafayette Square, one protester argued that acts of lawlessness preoccupy media outlets on the scene: “They’re worried about the bull---- like this that’s going on,” said the protester, pointing to the building, which was being defaced. “There are going to be people like that, but you’ve got to realize what the point is and why we’re out here and why people are so angry.”

Full coverage of the George Floyd protests

Those comments came as protesters squared off against police on the grounds of Lafayette Square, a duel that consisted of barricade-breaking efforts by the protesters, followed by volleys of pepper bullets and tear gas from the police line. Protesters countered by lobbing water bottles at the police. On several occasions, the blasts from police sent small throngs of protesters running from the Lafayette Square grounds onto adjoining streets — little spurts of chaos and fear.

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To borrow Velshi’s formulation, the scene around the park turned from tense to unruly, especially as the proceedings crept toward the city’s 11 p.m. curfew. A wave of looting and fire-setting then spread out along downtown streets. There was no particular logic to the window-shattering: A CVS here, a Starbucks there, along with a number of small businesses found their joints ransacked. The Post summed up the progression: “Largely peaceful protests Sunday over the killing of Floyd devolved into rioting and looting after dark, leaving smashed windows, overturned vehicles and the smoldering remains of fires across the city.”

Headlines focused on that late-night activity. WTOP: “Multiple fires, vandalism in DC on 3rd night of protests.” USA Today: “Prison riot teams deployed to DC; police cars burn in NYC; thousands arrested across US.” The Post: “Night of destruction across D.C. after protesters clash with police outside White House.”

Mayhem is news, of course. The protesters interviewed on Sunday night by the Erik Wemple Blog didn’t argue otherwise, merely lamenting that the garbage-can fires and the broken windows have crowded out their voices as the country processes the death of a man who spent his final moments pleading for a Minneapolis police officer to remove his knee from his neck. “I would like them to show more of the community cleaning up, the community trying to get things together and hear the voices in the crowd that are saying, ‘Don’t throw the bottles. That’s not what’s going to help,’ ” said 43-year-old Hadiya Green Guerrero.

Alexa, another protester, landed on the same point: “They’re not showing people trying to put out fires, people trying to stop people that are trying to riot. . . . They’re just showing the violence.” In its roundup of the night’s events, The Post captured this scene from Lafayette Square:

“Stop it! Stop!” yelled an African American woman who ran over to two skinny young black men as they hurled water bottles at the phalanx of officers.
“Civil disobedience! It’s civil disobedience, and it means you sit your a-- down there and you don’t move until they drag you away,” she yelled, her voice hoarse. Defiant, the young men reloaded and kept throwing.

Timing conspires against the peaceful protesters. Just as the unrest overtakes major U.S. cities, the cable-news audience is peaking. Producers are not turning away from the action, some of which has affected their own colleagues. CNN, the original 24/7 news network, captured its own correspondent, Omar Jimenez, being arrested by Minneapolis police; MSNBC correspondent Garrett Haake was struck by a projectile on live television on Sunday night, saying “Damn it!”; Fox News correspondent Leland Vittert was chased out of Friday’s protests in Washington:

“I’m just confused as to why there’s no more coverage of the pandemic at all. It’s basically just this,” said a protester, brandishing a sign bearing the names of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

Engaging the protesters in discussions on the media was a halting effort. Many of those in attendance cared not to be interviewed and didn’t appear to have strong opinions on media coverage. In that respect, they differed from the conservative folks whom the Erik Wemple Blog has approached at protests, debates and conventions over the years — their media critiques are ready to tumble onto tape with only the feeblest of nudges.

One protester just outside Lafayette Square, though, hesitated little when asked about how the media portrays those who are seeking justice for victims of racist policing. “When white people go out with big-ass guns and everything, screaming in cops’ faces — they don’t tear-gas them but yet they’re tear-gassing us,” said the protester, a young woman who declined to give her name. “What about the people that rioted because they lost a sports game; they weren’t called thugs, they were called young people.”

Read more:

Max Boot: Five reasons ‘law and order’ rhetoric might not work as well in 2020 as in 1968

The Post’s View: This rage isn’t just for George Floyd. It’s for every victim of the police like him.

Karen Tumulty: Trump can’t contain his excitement about protesters being ‘really badly hurt’

Michael B. Curry: As a black man, I understand the anger in our streets. But we must still choose love.