The summer of 2020 saw a wave of protests that demanded systemic change and made our nation’s continued racially motivated violence and inequity impossible to ignore. As people across the United States gathered to protest racial inequality and police brutality following the murder of George Floyd on May 25th, many turned to social media in the midst of pandemic-related stay-at-home orders. 

The media covered the protests in such a way that even those who had previously dismissed racial issues paid close attention, learning about the history of racism beyond the cursory and sanitized explanations given to us in the American education system. Now, attention was turned to recognizing the persistent inequities within our society, even with the increasing partisanship that has been a feature in the Trump administration. The media portrayal of these protests, however, was not without its own bias. The constant depiction of force used by law enforcement and the national guard without discussion of whether or not it was warranted had the effect of desensitizing the American public to the violence experienced by protestors. 

The coverage of these protests centered on two main narratives. Politicians asked protesters to moderate their emotions and actions and, in many instances, imposed curfews to curb the protests. Meanwhile, discussions from media pundits walked a fine line of supporting the Black Lives Matter movement while simultaneously portraying actions like property damage and attempts to incite violence as widespread. These allegations were hastily made despite having little evidence to support claims that protestors aligned with movements like Black Lives Matter were involved in such incidents. News stories also showed the massive deployment of law enforcement and mobilization of the national guard, accompanied by accounts of the use of so-called “non-lethal weapons,” such as tear gas and rubber bullets, against protestors.

A group of five National Guard members stand next to a tan armored vehicle, in a parking lot surrounded by wire in Northeast Minneapolis.

According to a study by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, nearly 95% of the protests associated with the Black Lives Matter movement this summer were characterized as peaceful. However, this was not the prevalent narrative depicted within media sources. Rather than contribute to a calm resolution to the situation, politicians and law enforcement’s actions and rhetoric to “crack down” on protests escalated tensions in many cities.

As Americans, we must ask ourselves the following. Why are peaceful protests calling for racial equity and police accountability immediately met with armed members of law enforcement in riot gear? In fact, a 2011 study of 15,000 protests dating from 1960 to 1990 shows that even after taking into account protester behavior including “throwing objects, using weapons, and damaging property,” law enforcement were more likely to respond with violence against Black-led protests than White-led ones. Historically,  anti-racism movements have been labeled as terrorist groups. Following the 2020 summer protests, we saw this rhetoric once again readily used by the Trump administration and law enforcement groups in attempts to reduce the credibility of the Black Lives Matter movement.

This stands in stark contrast to the treatment of mostly white, pro-Trump supporters protesting COVID-19 lockdown measures and election results. Beginning with “Operation Gridlock” in mid-April, to armed protestors and increasingly violent rhetoric in May, protests organized by conservative groups in Michigan grew increasingly aggressive. Yet arrests were only recently made in the plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer. In the Kenosha, WI protests in late August, Kyle Rittenhouse was not only peacefully arrested after shooting three protestors and killing two, but reporting also shows local police forces did nothing to stop him. Why weren’t these incidents met with the same amount of force or tactics such as the use of “non-lethal weapons”?

The disparities in treatment, however, come as no surprise when we look at the history of Black people in the United States and their fight for equality. The Selma march in spring 1965, led by civil rights activist and former Representative John Lewis, is a clear example of a peaceful protest that was brutally attacked by police instigators. Championed by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders, the message of nonviolence within the Civil Rights movement has been maintained as the ideal form of protest. However, this message has also been co-opted by critics ready to denounce civil rights movements by holding protestors to an impossible moral standard. 

It is evident that the history between police forces and African-American communities has always been tense. Still Professor Keisha Blain of Harvard University has helped make a direct connection between policing and the subjugation of these communities through her close examination of the history of policing within the United States as a form of control.

Police violence against protestors in Minneapolis is part of a long history of anti-Blackness that attempts to suppress people exercising their right to peacefully protest when their demands call into question the status quo. The discrepancy in the treatment between protestors who are demanding that people’s right to life be respected and protected through increased police accountability and those who are protesting pandemic lockdown measures and election results serves as a stark reminder of the continued violent treatment of civil rights protests, which must cease to be normalized in our country. Protesters asking for an end to their family and community members being extra-judiciously murdered by law enforcement officers hired to serve their communities should not be met with violence and the use of “non-lethal” weapons in turn as they march for their rights.

**This blog is the first of a two-part series on the normalized suppression of peaceful protests against racism and police brutality in the United States. 

The authors are a group of alumni and current graduate students affiliated with the Master of Human Rights Program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. They are currently conducting an independent research project documenting the experiences of protestors who witnessed violence enacted by law enforcement during the Summer 2020 anti-racism and police brutality protests following the death of George Floyd.

Sarah Allis is an alumnus of the Master of Human Rights program, concentrating on research methods.

Joy Hammer is an alumnus of the Master of Human Rights program with a concentration in international conflict and security.

Paul Olubayo is an alumnus of the Master of Human Rights program with a concentration in International Justice and Human Rights Law. Paul presently works at an international Anti-Slavery organization.

Hannah Shireman is an alumnus of the Master of Human Rights program with a concentration in research methods. 

Bailey Sutter is a second-year Master of Human Rights student with a concentration in racial justice, education, and the school to prison pipeline.

Vanesa Mercado Diaz is a second-year Master of Human Rights student with a concentration in women’s rights, migration, and Latin America. 

Raven Ziegler is an alumnus of the Master of Human Rights program with a concentration in business and human rights.