Podcast • Opinion
“Broken Doors,” Episode 1
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ron Johnson’s misleading citation of data to back his ‘concern’ about BLM protesters

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has been misconstruing data to support false allegations of violence related to Black Lives Matter and antifa in the summer of 2020. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

“Out of 7,750 protests last summer associated with BLM and Antifa, 570 turned into violent riots that killed 25 people and caused $1- $2 billion of property damage. That’s why I would have been more concerned.”

— Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), in a statement, March 13

Johnson has come under fire for telling a conservative news radio show that he “never felt threatened” by the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, but he would have been concerned if the mob had been made up of Black Lives Matter or antifa protesters. Referring to Trump supporters, he said: “I knew those are people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law.”

We will leave the political commentary to others. We are interested in the facts that Johnson used to document his concern after the uproar started.

While he did not identify the source of his information in his statement, in a March 15 Wall Street Journal op-ed defending his remarks, Johnson confirmed that first set of numbers came from a study by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a nonprofit data collection, analysis and crisis mapping project. The property damage figures are from a different source.

Sam Jones, a spokesman for ACLED, said Johnson is not accurately portraying the group’s data. Given the wide attention paid to Johnson’s remarks, let’s break down what is misleading.

The Facts

Johnson’s biggest problem is that he assumes that any violent action or deaths can be attributed to Black Lives Matter or antifa. It’s important to remember that antifa is a moniker, not a single group with a clear organizational structure or leader. It is a decentralized network of activists who don’t coordinate. Their common ground is opposing anything they think is racist or fascist. In recent years, antifa activists appeared whenever there was a large gathering of white nationalists.

And white nationalists, as counterintuitive as it might seem, have been known to attend Black Lives Matter rallies. That is what could then draw attention from antifa forces.

“The specific ‘570’ number he referred to was the total number of all violent or destructive demonstrations recorded in the U.S. between May and August 2020, not just events that may have been linked to the Black Lives Matter movement,” Jones said. “Ultimately, ACLED recorded more than 10,300 demonstrations associated with the BLM movement in the U.S. during all of last year. It was an overwhelmingly peaceful movement: The vast majority of events — 94 percent — involved no violent or destructive activity.”

(Note that Johnson was using an outdated figure of 7,750 protests.)

Johnson jumped to the conclusion that the violent riots were the fault of BLM or antifa protesters. But that’s not the case either. ACLED’s data does not say that at all. In fact, the violence may have been more the result of police behavior than the actions of demonstrators. Thus it is misleading to frame all of these events as “BLM riots,” Jones said.

“Due to methodological and source information constraints, ACLED does not systematically code the perpetrator or instigator in events that do turn violent or destructive, so it would be inaccurate to say that the remainder were ‘BLM riots,’ ” Jones said. “ACLED data indicate that BLM-linked demonstrations faced much higher levels of police intervention and force than other types of demonstrations, for example, and in many of these cases police took a heavy-handed approach to break up the protests, prompting clashes with demonstrators and escalating the events into violence. Additionally, in some cases, violent or destructive behavior may have broken out as a result of aggressive intervention by counterdemonstrators or nonstate actors like militia groups, and BLM-linked demonstrations were also targeted in dozens of car-ramming attacks throughout the year.”

ACLED also recorded in 2020 that more than 2,350 right-wing demonstrations took place across more than 1,070 locations in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. But the police response was different.

“Over 9% of all BLM-linked demonstrations — or nearly one in 10 events — were met with intervention by police or other authorities, compared to just 4% of right-wing demonstrations,” a February ACLED report said. “When responding to BLM-linked demonstrations, authorities used force more than 51% of the time, compared to just 33% for right-wing demonstrations.”

A similar issue exists with Johnson’s citation of 25 deaths from the riots. That number comes from a Guardian analysis of ACLED’s database as of October, which found that at least 11 Americans were killed while participating in political demonstrations and another 14 have died in other incidents linked to political unrest.

“The [25] figure includes the Kyle Rittenhouse shootings, for example, as well as a shooting classified as an act of ‘violent far-right’ domestic terrorism by the Center for Strategic and International Studies,” Jones noted. “So it is incorrect to say that ‘BLM and antifa … riots … killed 25 people.’ ”

Another one of the deaths was actually at a “patriot rally,” not a BLM event. “Lee Keltner, a navy veteran who made custom western hats, was shot after a ‘patriot rally’ in Denver on 10 October,” the Guardian reported. “Video and photographs of the incident appear to show Keltner slapping a security guard for a local news crew, who responds by pulling out a gun and shooting him.”

Some demonstrators died when cars drove through or rammed into crowds of BLM protesters. “Summer Taylor, a Black Lives Matter protester who worked in a veterinary clinic, was killed in such an incident in Seattle,” the Guardian said. “So was Robert Forbes, a black protester from Bakersfield whose sister recalled him demonstrating decades earlier over the brutal police beating of Rodney King. In St Louis, Barry Perkins, a father of two, was killed after being dragged and run over by a FedEx truck during a protest in May.”

The list of 25 deaths also includes two California law enforcement officers killed by an alleged anti-government “boogaloo” extremist.

In other words, Johnson carelessly suggests the BLM and antifa demonstrations are the cause of 25 deaths, but the list cites numerous examples of deaths linked to far-right actions.

As for the property-damage figure, Johnson appears to be referring to a September estimate by Property Claim Services, which said the arson, vandalism and looting related to the demonstrations will result in at least $1 billion to $2 billion of paid insurance claims.

We repeatedly queried Ben Voelkel, a Johnson spokesman, for a reaction to ACLED’s concerns about Johnson’s citation of its data. But we did not get a response.

In a March 16 interview with Bob Burnell on WOSH news talk radio, Johnson repeated his misleading use of the figures but acknowledged that the vast majority of protests were peaceful. “The majority of the people that participated in those were also protesting peacefully, exercising their First Amendment rights,” he added.

The Pinocchio Test

It’s never a good thing for a lawmaker when the research organization that he or she cites says that their data is being twisted into a misleading talking point.

Johnson attributes 570 “riots” and 25 deaths to Black Lives Matter and antifa. But in reality not all of these events were associated with BLM or antifa, and even so, there is no information on the perpetrator or instigator of the violence. Johnson’s use of the death statistic is especially misleading because a significant portion of the deaths are related to right-wing violence.

If the senator had studied the data more closely, perhaps he would have been more concerned about the crowd that gathered at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Johnson earns Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter

The Fact Checker is a verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network code of principles