Even if you’ve been living under the rock that is quarantine, you’ve probably heard about the George Floyd protests erupting across the world for the last week. The purpose of these posts is to break down the stuff I’ve seen white people posting in response to this movement. In Part I, I covered topics like white privilege, “All Lives Matter” and “I’m Colorblind.” We’re building on that platform for this next part, so go back and skim if you haven’t read it. In Part II, we’re focusing on the language used to describe civil disobedience by the media and social media, tactics used by protesters both historically and throughout this movement, and concerns about small businessesbeing looted. I was originally going to cover police brutality in this post as well, but I’m bumping that to Part III to give it the space it deserves.
PASSIVE V. ACTIVE
Joshua Adams does a great job handling this issue in his article, “The Importance of Active vs. Passive Voice in Protest Coverage” and I encourage you to read it.
For the purpose of this conversation, I’m going to summarize his main points.
Active voice is subject then verb: “Jane ate pizza”
Passive voice inverts this format: “Pizza was eaten by Jane.”
While the sentences essentially deliver the same message, their structure impacts how we process them. Our brain focuses on the first part of the sentence more than the second part, so while we see “Jane” more in the first sentence, we see “Pizza” more in the second.
Passive voice also enables the use of assumed agency. Instead of writing “Pizza was eaten by Jane” we could also write “Pizza was eaten” which leaves Jane out of the picture entirely. If you’re focusing on the pizza alone and who ate it doesn’t matter, then the sentences are still relatively the same in meaning, but this structure really comes in handy if you are avoiding guilt or association with the verb. Children trying to get out of trouble are well aware of how to use language to this effect even if they don’t know it. Let’s say Jane’s older brother was really counting on some leftover pizza after three hard hours of Call of Duty only to discover the pizza is gone. When asked about what happened to it, Jane might say “It was eaten” but conveniently leave out her part in its demise.
Now that we’ve gone through some grammar lessons, let’s look at some media coverage about protests. The second tweet, or protesters struck a journalist with his own microphone, is using active voice. A journalist was struck and the protesters did it. Clear victim, offense and perpetrator.
Take the first and third sentence:
A photographer was shot in the eye
A reporter was hit with a pepper ball on live television by an officer who appeared to be aiming at her
Just by the arrangement of the sentences (A photographer was shot and a reporter was hit) we can tell their passive. Notice the first one completely omits the perpetrator. Are protesters running around shooting rubber bullets? Did the rubber bullets fall out of the sky? Of course not. A police officer shot the photographer. By omitting “police officer” from this tweet and many like it, the media (intentionally or not) discreetly shields violent officers from their brutality. Our brain sees sentences like these and processes the violence as random rather than connecting it to police brutality.
The second sentence acknowledges the officer hit her, but gives them the benefit of the doubt by noting they “appeared to be aiming” at the reporter. Terms like “appeared” lessen the accusation. The structure of the second tweet about protesters hitting a journalist did not give the protesters the benefit of the doubt even if they didn’t intend to hit the reporter.
Additionally, seeing “protesters,” “protesters,” “protesters” at the beginning of every sentence keeps them at the top of our minds, whether good or bad, while passive voice omits police officers from activity associated with protests. After being bombarded with headlines of property destruction, car fires and injuries, our brains begin to associate the protesters with the damage. We begin to wonder why they’re out there at all. We blame them for the destruction and their own injuries even if they were brutalized by police officers. Comments like, “Well, you shouldn’t have been out there” or “you shouldn’t have provoked them” get thrown at protesters when we should be asking what gives the police officers the right to exert force in situations where it’s unnecessary.
“PROTESTERS ARE VIOLENT“
This section is going to be long because addressing this claim requires multiple steps: how we define violence, property destruction and protesters, and other protests throughout American history.
Definition and Application of “Violence”
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines violence as “the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy.” The World Health Organization goes further and defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.” The first focuses on the offender, their intent, and the impact of their actions. The second definition expands the qualification of violence by including any action intending harm regardless of whether damage occurred. If there was a “high likelihood of resulting injury,” the act was violent. Psychological harm is also included, not just physical. However, the second definition also limits the scope of violence by specifying harm must be inflicted upon a person, such as “oneself, another person, or against a group or community,” which is why psychological harm can be included into the definition. You cannot psychologically harm a stapler, for example.
On their face value both terms appear rather similar, but upon application the second works better than the first. If someone angrily backs into a pole causing damage to the vehicle and the pole, we wouldn’t say the act was “violent.” A group of teenagers in the bed of a truck smashing mailboxes is usually not deemed “violent.” If that group of teenagers starts threatening seniors, the term “violent” still isn’t usually used to describe them: dangerous, yes. Reckless, rowdy or delinquent, yes, but not violent, not unless they physically harm other people. Even then, if these teenagers begin shoving classmates, smashing faces in lockers, or forcing their heads in toilets, we often refer to those acts as “bullying” rather than “violent” even though the victims would say otherwise.
So that begs the question: should the term “violence” be used to describe the destruction of property at all? Yes and no. If an abusive father trashes the kitchen, smashes the T.V. and destroys a child’s toy in front of them, we would recognize those acts as violent and both definitions agree. There’s nuance. Property destruction can be violent, but we do not categorize all intentional property destruction as violence.
That brings us to the protests.
Does a brick through a storefront window constitute violence? In some cases, perhaps. The psychological trauma felt by shop keepers is real and undeniable. Yet the vast majority of human injuries during this movement have been inflicted on protesters: not business owners, bystanders, or cops. Property destruction has the potential to be violent, but macing a nine-year-old is always violent regardless of the circumstances. Arguably, what is more violent- stealing a lamp from Target or shooting a protester in the face with a rubber bullet? What about jumping on a car or pushing a 75 year old man on the concrete? In terms of human harm, the police have committed far more acts of “violence” than the protesters, yet the term tends to be applied to protesters despite these differences.
Before breaking down protesters destroy property, it’s important to understand that the majority of property destruction throughout these protests has not been executed by protesters. Twitter has been particularly pivotal in demonstrating the difference between the protesters and looters. Waves of phone videos have flooded the newsfeeds of every platform of countless marches, sit-ins and moments of silence. Besides condemning racist systems and police brutality, protesters have openly denounced opportunistic looters using protests as camouflage and in some cases, prevented destruction. In the now viral video shot by Forbes reporter, Andy Solender, black protesters stand arms-out front of Target to block predominantly white rioters from smashing the storefront.
Differences between rioters and protesters noted, let’s address the core of the property destruction debate: that destroying property is not a valid form of protest. Taken as an absolute statement, I disagree. A few days ago, an image went viral of a statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader, being rolled into the harbor by predominantly black protesters. The statue was described as a “slap in the face” by a black protester present at the time and cheers reverberated throughout the streets when it hit the water. He was proceeded in death by a week when Confederate General Robert E Lee was ripped off his podium. Almost immediately after Edward Colston’s demise, multiple Christopher Columbus statues came down and confederate statues were hit with graffiti and red paint.
Such statues are a reminder history is double-sided and for those marginalized, the message is clear: we prioritize our racist heritage over their healing process. The primary defense of these statues is their historical value, yet it’s important to note these statues were not erected when the Confederacy existed, but during the height of the Jim Crow segregation to 1) intimidate black people and 2) bolster white pride. They were largely funded by an organization called the, “Daughters of the Confederacy” to glorify the underlying cause of the civil war and today, they stand as homages of hate. In the coming months and years, pay attention to whether these statues will be replaced. If so, it’s against the wishes of the people. If not, officials knew they were wrong all along and dragged their feet.
Such statues are a reminder history is double-sided and for those marginalized, the message is clear: we prioritize our racist heritage over their healing process
Yet destroying statues glorying racist figures is quite different from tagging a car in terms of intent, so let’s examine random property destruction. In his Vox article, “What we’re missing when we condemn “violence” at protests,” politics and journalism professor Jason Johnson picks apart media coverage of property destruction. He encourages readers to pay attention to pictures of property destruction: the close-ups of a burning car, graffiti on a monument, or bits of glass in front of a smashed window. In most of these cases, the damage is limited to a block or so, and the McDonald’s two streets away is still open for business throughout it all. Yet media coverage would have us believe the entire town is on fire because that fear gets more attention. It’s interesting to note most fires are actually not set by protesters, which is why so few are ever arrested for arson. Rather, they are unintentionally set by police officers. Tear gas canisters are still hot hours after and flares thrown haphazardly can easily light garbage cans on fire.
Throughout Part I, I emphasized the use of language is equal in importance to the message. Similarly, when it comes to the news or social media, what is being covered is just as important as why. Those that focus on the property destruction are often strangely silent about the protesters injured at the hands of police. They may tweet about the tragedy of David Dorn’s death, who was a 77 year old retired cop tragically beaten to death by looters, but forget to mention the deaths of another 18 people, predominantly young black men, have died during the protests or the numerous injuries inflicted by unprovoked police officers on camera.
The finger-pointing conversations about property destruction are meant to drown out discourse about police brutality and paint the protests as being illegitimate. “Well, we agree that George’ Floyd’s death was sad but violence isn’t the answer,” they say, but often these same people voiced outrage at Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem Even the NFL apologized this week for not taking players’ concerns about racism serious. In reality, no form of protest is innately right because protest exist in opposition to the system, and a look back shows exactly that.
In an article about Women’s Suffrage in the U.S., the Library of Congress describes the increasingly controversial tactics adopted by protesters before (white) women were finally to vote in 1920. The Suffragette movement started when the U.S was formed, but it really gained traction in the 1840’s. So eighty years, for those doing the math. In 1916, after four solid years of picketing, petitioning, parading and even performing dramatizations, suffragettes began looking for other alternatives. To her suffrage organization, Harriet Stanton Blatch, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter, said “We can’t organize bigger and more influential deputations. We can’t organize bigger processions. We can’t, women, do anything more in that line. We have got to take a new departure.”
Suffragette began protesting in front of the White House during WWI and were arrested for completely legal protests. While in prison, suffragettes continued protests by picking worms out of their rotten food and sending them to the warden and holding hunger strikes. Prison guards responded by holding suffragettes down and shoving feeding tubes through their noses. About protesters on the outside, the Library of Congress notes “demonstrators were brutally attacked by police, soldiers, and onlookers when they picketed outside the New York Metropolitan Opera House, where Wilson was speaking.”
Property destruction has been used in other American protests to great success. On December 16th, 1777, American colonists dumped 342 chests of tea into the harbor in what would later be known as the Boston Tea Party. The reason? To fight taxation without representation.
The Stonewall Uprising, similarly, started as a riot. On June 28th, 1969, police officers raided the gay nightclub, Stonewall. These types of raids were common during the time because it was illegal to drink in public while gay or to operate a gay bar, but Stonewall had been somewhat except until this point because it’s mafia owners had been paying off the police. Cops rounded up patrons and harassed them, groping women and forcing drag queens into restrooms so their gentiles could be checked. Those let go didn’t disperse though; they stayed outside. After a cop hit a lesbian, the crowd turned and began throwing bottles, cobblestones and pennies, rocking the cop cars and popping tires, until the cops barricaded themselves in the Stonewall Inn. It caught on fire-who set it is debated- and even after the cops fled, the riots continued for five days with thousands of participants.
Of course, the Civil Rights movement is perhaps the most discussed set of protests in the U.S. because of it’s size, execution and tactics. There were the Greensboro four and their sit-in, Rosa Parks and the bus boycotts, the Little Rock Nine who were spat at, pushed down stairs, kicked, beaten and had acid thrown in their face all for going to high school, and the 54 mile march led by MLK from Selma to Montgomery.
And while we like to whitewash history, property was destroyed during MLK protests. He personally didn’t do it and the protests weren’t less legitimate because it happened even though that excuse is being tossed around today. In 1963, the Birmingham Campaign began to pressure local businesses into desegregating facilities and hiring all ethnicities. In a controversial decision, children led the lines May 2nd and marched to town hall in groups of fifty and by the end of the day, 1,200 students, some as young as eight years old, were in jail. The next day, the protests shifted. Cops hit children with fire-hoses strong enough to peel bark off of trees. Black adults on the sidelines began throwing rocks at cops while cops let loose their dogs. The situation hit the news cycle, and after a week, over 2,500 were in jail, 3,000 more were protesting in he streets. The National Guard showed up. Buildings and cars were burned, a police officer and several others were stabbed. Yet the city relented, the Public Safety Commissioner who ordered the hoses and dogs, Eugene “Bull” Connor, was ousted, and the march paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited literacy tests used to limit black voting rights.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is held up as a model of peaceful protests so much that any act of civil disobedience in the U.S. is compared to King. Note the number of times black and white photos of MLK recirculated these last two weeks, many with quotes about non-violence, or praising King for never “looting.” The underlying message is that if the protests were happening differently, the poster would support the cause, yet as we’ve learned Not even Dr. King could control how his protests played out. In addition, if we’re going to quote MLK we’ve got to represent him in his entirety.
Yes, it’s real warm and sunny to post, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
But it’s not as comforting to post, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.“
What about, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” or ““Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will?” If Dr. King is clear about anything, it’s that complacency is the enemy of justice.
One quote in particular that stands out to me was written by Dr. King when he was in the Birmingham jail during: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.“
When it comes to this latest movement, recognize that our country is founded on protests that “weren’t done the right way” but they got it done regardless.
“BUT THE SMALL BUSINESSES?“
Again, this section is going to focus more on how this argument is brought up than the argument itself. Yes, small businesses are having their windows smashed in and products stolen and registers set on fire. No one is denying that. Thankfully, numerous GoFundMe pages have been set up, like this one, and other communities are compiling lists of local small businesses owned by black people, like this one.
Small businesses provide almost half the country’s jobs, about 45% of national production and almost all the employment growth (Office of Advocacy, 2019.) They are fundamental to the idea of the American Dream. Yet, when it comes to debates like these, “small business” tends to be a cute, non-controversial shield tossed up by people with no actual stake in small business. I work for a small business. I have a bachelor’s in businesses management and studied small business models during undergrad. You don’t have to tell me about the problems facing small businesses because I live them every time I clock in for work which, notably, has been a lot less recently in light of our world’s current situation.
Here are some hard truths: if you lament the busted windows of small businesses in Minneapolis, but order something from Amazon you could have gotten from a small business, then you care more about shutting down these protests than supporting small business. If you spend more time decrying a handful of people stealing lamps from Target than you ever have against corporations like Amazon, Wal-Mart and yes, even Target, that have actively pushed small businesses into the ground for decades, then you don’t care about small businesses. And FYI- Target isn’t a small business despite how it’s being lumped in with small businesses in this breed of posts shaming looting, so pillaging Target does not hurt small businesses in the slightest.
In this video, Trevor Noah explained the sentiments about why people seem to be more upset about Target than the death of George Floyd, and noted that watching Target get looted bothers us because we metaphorically sign a social contract to participate in society. That contract requires us to abide by certain behaviors, like not looting, in order to gain the benefits and protections of living in a society.
But think of those who don’t benefit from living in society, who are hassled by the cops at a much higher frequency, who are incarcerated in higher proportions and for longer than their white counterparts for the exact same crimes, who are accused of benefiting from affirmative action when all affirmative action does is cut back on the number of incompetent white candidates (see the Harvard case about affirmative action that happened back in October)? Those unprotected by the social contract don’t have reason to value the social contract.
Those unprotected by the social contract don’t have reason to value the social contract
Going back to small businesses: If you care so much, where were you when Wall Street corporations sucked the SBA loan funds dry?
Rewind three months back to the beginning of quarantine. The federal government announced it was releasing $349 million in low interest loans for small businesses affected by COVID-19. That fund was sucked dry almost immediately, but not by small businesses. The SBA report shows that 2% of businesses took 30% of the funds and that only 17% of the total funds were issued out in loans less than $150,000, which is the range where most “mom and pop” places would have been. Courtesy of Marc Davis’s article, here are some of the culprits and their 2019 revenue:
- Zagg Inc. at $522 million in revenue
- Hallador Energy Co at $323 million revenue
- Lindblad Expeditions Holdings Inc. at $343 million revenue
- Quantum Corp. at $403 million revenue
Ruth’s hospitality ($468 million) and Shake Shack ($595 million) were also among the chosen, but gave the money back after social media backlash. The other companies haven’t and likely won’t at this point.
At the small restaurant I work in, we worry about food waste and rotating product. We worry about Yelp reviews and taxes. We worry about the fridge making a weird noise, the spotty internet, and our dish soap running low because we forgot to order more. When we were down 10%, then 20% and 20% week-to-week as COVID-19 burgeoned, we were terrified we wouldn’t make it to our one year anniversary. But throughout my time working at a small business, and even the years I spent prior in customer service, have I ever worried about theft, fires and lawsuits? Not so much.
Let’s say one day I arrived at my restaurant to smashed windows and some missing equipment (I say some because our ovens weigh more than baby elephants) I would be shocked, sad and confused but I’d be thankful it happened when we were closed. No one would have been hurt. I’d also relax knowing we have an insurance policy that would cover this. In fact, we might be able to buy nicer equipment in the event of theft which is why insurance fraud is a thing, but that’s an entirely different conversation.
I recognize a huge number of small businesses, especially ones owned by working class people just trying to catch a break, may not have these safety nets. I also recognize that the federal government offering small businesses loans instead of grants all while handing Wall Street a $454 million bailout (with up to 10 renewals) is far more detrimental to small businesses than anything a punk teenager with a brick can do. The threats posted by gentrification, by corporations moving in to lower class neighborhoods, hiring outside the community, driving up rent and pushing small businesses and locals out, by online giants stealing logos and designs and reselling them without crediting artists- those should be what we’re decrying in the ongoing attack against small businesses. Looting is a problem for a week, but ever-rising rent will continue to drive inner-city businesses into the ground forever unless we do something about it.
My hope in writing these articles is to tackle the mindsets underlying what I’ve seen white people post throughout the Black Lives Matter movement. Recognize by no means is this a comprehensive discussion about civil disobedience. This is a starting point; not a destination, so please use this as a jumping board to continue your research.
Coming up in Part III: police brutality and a review of our fundamental sentiments on policing.