Policing Protest: the Dangers of Media Bias During Urban Uprisings

Amidst a national reckoning with anti-Black racism and white supremacy throughout the United States, legacy media outlets have published highly problematic and dangerous articles on recent protests against police brutality. Recent local coverage of protests in Detroit, which included a nonviolent march up Gratiot Ave. on the city’s East Side on Tuesday June 2nd, illustrates this national trend and plays directly into the hands of those who would prefer to see these protests squashed rather than succeed.

That Tuesday evening march proved to be a pivotal moment in Detroit’s swiftly evolving protest movement. Two days prior, Mayor Duggan had announced a citywide curfew of 8pm in response to what he described as “unruly crowds” that “threatened the safety” of police officers, the public, and property. The curfew became a point of conflict for organizers involved in the unfolding protests. Those who encouraged protestors to follow the curfew to avoid police violence were praised by media and city officials. Others, like Tristan Taylor and Nakia-Renne Wallace, felt that to obey the curfew “would be signing on to another hundred years of excessive racism and police violence.” When the latter group resisted the curfew on June 2nd, their violent arrests by the Detroit Police Department proved to galvanize the movement.

The curfew had come amidst a flurry of media coverage and statements from city officials, police, and established civil rights leaders blaming unrest on outside agitators coming into the city and causing trouble. The presence and actions of white non-Detroiters in recent protests is a complex issue that is important to discuss and analyze. But to have that be the defining storyline resurrects well-worn racist tropes about outside agitators and marginalizes the anger and agency of Black Detroiters who have been in the streets mobilizing their righteous anger since day one.

History has shown us that media plays a critical role during fast-moving periods of urban uprisings. In the days since the nationwide uprisings began, local media outlets have tried to drive a wedge between a protest movement against police brutality and systemic racism that has been unfolding in Detroit’s streets. A standard divide and conquer storyline defined much of the coverage of protests against the city’s curfew, pitting those who decided to engage in civil disobedience against those who chose to fall in line. This is the same kind of media coverage that was used in the 1960s to discredit Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s strategy of engaging in direct action confrontations with those who upheld unjust laws.

Nationwide, curfews are being imposed as a means of suppressing protests under the guise of protecting private property and public safety, as if white supremacy operates on a time clock and punches in and out. “When police are killing black, and brown men, women, trans community, and poor folks do they do it between certain hours of the day?,” Detroit organizer Carolyn Baker asked. “Do they start beating folks ass and right at 8pm stop because it’s a curfew?”

The uncritical treatment of Detroit’s curfew in the bulk of coverage has been revealing. Prior to Police Chief James Craig announcing that the curfew was “discretionary” and would not be enforced, reporters and city officials had set up the curfew as a line in the sand by which to judge the protestors. Those that obeyed curfew have been portrayed as peaceful, responsible, and law-abiding citizens, earning endorsements from Mayor Duggan along the way. Those that challenged it have been depicted as troublemakers inciting violence and inviting confrontation with the police. Interestingly, the former treatment is usually reserved for protestors on the other side of 8 Mile.

We need to pay close attention to the choice of words reporters use to describe the actions of protestors, because they make abundantly clear whose side the author is on. “Headed for trouble,” “defy officers,” “incited the crowd,” “rampages,” are the words used in a recent local news article to describe protestors and the protests. This language makes police assaulting peaceful protestors with teargas and arrests seem not only reasonable and rational, but an inevitable and just response.

It’s also important to note who is commonly portrayed as the victims and criminals in these protests. The same article repeatedly cites “violence” and “damage” in other cities, explicitly referencing “massive fires” and a police officer “clinging to life.” It also selectively quotes a Facebook post from organizer Tristan Taylor warning that “The protests in Detroit may NOT be peaceful this evening.” While the post was a warning to fellow activists about the likelihood of police violence being inflicted upon peaceful protestors for resisting curfew, it was portrayed as a threat. Such articles seldom mention, however, the thousands of protestors and journalists who have been brutalized by police fists, clubs, cars, tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets. While the only violence on June 2nd was meted out by DPD officers, it was Taylor who was arrested and held overnight on charges of “inciting to riot.”

This is not simply a matter of differing opinions or perspectives. This kind of media coverage from predominantly white media outlets is dangerous and has real consequences on the lives of Black people. When the dominant narrative established by media outlets uncritically champions the benevolence and patience of police officers, while vilifying the motivations and actions of protestors, the use of excessive and lethal force to suppress protest becomes a rational and justified response to challenges to the status quo.

In 1967, when newspapers published front page stories about Black snipers firing on police officers with little to no evidence, rumors of organized bands of snipers perched on rooftops spread like wildfire in Detroit and Newark, NJ. This made police and national guardsmen trigger-happy, opening fire on buildings and cars when they saw flickers of light or sudden motion out of the corner of their eyes, killing dozens of Black people in the process. No officers or guardsmen were ever convicted of these killings—in many cases, snipers were blamed for the deaths.

Like the current president, Lyndon Johnson took a hard line on “law and order,” vowing to clamp down on “lawlessness,” “looting,” and property damage. Buoyed by stories about the so-called “riots” being orchestrated by “outside agitators” and “extremists,” Johnson tasked J. Edgar Hoover with investigating, infiltrating, and subverting civil rights organizations through the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). Thus began the well-documented yet under-acknowledged militarization of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to carry out a calculated and deadly war upon Black America.

Unlike other cities, Detroiters haven’t engaged in widespread property damage downtown where rallies and marches have largely been held. Even if people did, though, one would be hard-pressed to condemn protestors without smacking of hypocrisy. After all, it hasn’t been young Black Detroiters who have looted the city of its taxes, pensions, and public assets to build privately-owned stadiums, businesses, charter schools, and luxury developments that cater to wealthy white newcomers. Yet Kevyn Orr, Mike Duggan, and Dan Gilbert — all “outside agitators” — are repeatedly championed as the rightful saviors of Detroit.

This is the context that conservative and liberal pundits alike have left out while drooling at the chance to use property damage as a means to discredit an entire movement against racist violence. This false equivalency of damages to private property in response to centuries of racist violence inflicted upon Black people on a daily basis has played an important role in maintaining the global system of white supremacy that millions of people worldwide are currently rising up against.

As a result, the mainstream media will have us believing that those rising up in the streets are dangers to society, rather than those tasked with enforcing the status quo through violent repression. This manipulation blinds us to the racist violence inherent within our society and prevents us from recognizing our common humanity. It is dangerous and wrong.

Malcolm X warned us about this over 50 years ago. In an address given in Harlem on the heels of the first summer of urban rebellions in the 1960s, he noted that “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” We need to be paying close attention to the stories that are being pushed by local and national media in response to the ongoing struggles against state violence and white supremacy. If we are to achieve meaningful and systemic change, the narratives that define this historic moment must come from the experiences and analyses of Black Detroiters. Otherwise, we’ll be here again, and it won’t take another 50 years.

Peter Blackmer is a Research Fellow at the Detroit Equity Action Lab, an initiative of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School.