And the protesters who have shown up this week, in Minneapolis and New York and Los Angeles and Baltimore and many other cities around the nation—the majority of those protesters, at any rate—have shown up in ways that have been the opposite of chaotic. They have been expressing their outrage at the killing of Floyd by the Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin. They have been protesting the fact that Floyd’s death, at the hands of a police officer, was one of many. They have been protesting the killing of Breonna Taylor; the killing of Ahmaud Arbery; the killings of Michael Brown and Philando Castile and Jamar Clark and Freddie Gray. They have been protesting state-sanctioned violence against black lives. They have been protesting police impunity. Their message is coherent. “Justice for George Floyd.” “Justice Can’t Wait.” “Black Lives Matter.” “I Can’t Breathe.”
That is not chaos. And to dismiss the protests in that way, as swirling eddies of inscrutability, is to erase their message. It is also to erase the well-documented fact that, often, the people who escalate peaceful protests into violence are agents of the state. In the early 2000s, the scholars James Hertog and Douglas McLeod analyzed the way news outlets of the time talked about protests; they concluded that the coverage “generally disparages protesters and hinders their role as vital actors on the political stage.” They also described how the coverage achieved that moral distancing: The stories, the scholars argued, emphasized the dramas and the disruptions of protests rather than the ideas the protesters were fighting for. They played the protests for titillation. Hertog and McLeod termed this phenomenon the “protest paradigm.”
You can see that paradigm in coverage of the protests that emphasizes “clashes” between protesters and law-enforcement agents. (Brian Williams, anchoring MSNBC on Friday evening, referred to Louisville, Kentucky, as a place “where things got very sporty tonight.”) You can see the paradigm in the breadth of cable news’s coverage of lootings, and in its relative dearth of coverage of protesters calmly chanting and silently kneeling. (The headline of today’s issue of the New York Post, rendered in screamingly large all-caps, is “MAYHEM.”) You can see the paradigm in stories about police brutality that downplay the agents of violence—police officers—through uses of the passive voice; you can see it in op-eds that profess more concern about the loss of store merchandise than the loss of a life.
Journalists have been doing valiant work covering the protests—particularly as police officers have taken to targeting members of the media with rubber bullets and tear gas. But language matters, and framings matter, and the two, used carelessly, can combine to treat the protests as much less than what they are. The words that distance protesters from their righteous anger can also treat George Floyd, the father and the community leader, as an abstraction. And those words, in the process, abandon hope that his death might lead to a more just world. Chaos, deployed as a journalistic summary of civil unrest, works in the way that invocations of evil might after a mass shooting: The term throws up its hands. It ratifies the status quo. Evil just is; chaos just is; one must accept those facts and move on. What the protests are saying, though—and what the president effectively declared this week, as he declared a new kind of war on his citizens—is that acceptance itself is no longer an option.