Don’t Fall for the ‘Chaos’ Theory of the Protests

By invoking the word yesterday, Trump erased the purpose of demonstrators across the country. The media should not follow suit.

Protesters on May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Protesters on May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota (Scott Olson / Getty)

On Monday evening, in Washington, D.C., a crowd of people protesting the killing of George Floyd were gathered in Lafayette Square, on the north side of the White House. Agents of the state outfitted in riot gear marched up to the group. Mounted police officers formed a barricade in the street. The protesters, their hands raised, chanted: “Don’t shoot.”

The police shot anyway: rubber bullets. Tear gas. The people, turned into targets, ran. CNN reported on the scene, its anchors noting repeatedly how peaceful the protesters had been before the taut calm was broken. And then the network switched to a split screen. On the one side were the protesters, fleeing the militarized police. On the other side was Donald Trump, who had blocked the evening hour to deliver a speech from the White House’s Rose Garden. In it, he threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act, an 1807 law, to deploy federal forces against the protests that have risen in cities across America. He declared his intention to “dominate the streets.”

What soon became clear was that the two events were perversely connected: Why were peaceful protesters being tear-gassed, on national TV? Because Trump and his aides—nearly all of them men and every one of them white—had decided to punctuate his speech with a walk across Lafayette Square to a church where Trump posed, clutching a Bible. What became even clearer, though, was that the Bible-posing was not the photo op the Trump administration was aiming for; the clearing of Lafayette Square was. The video that played out on CNN’s split screen was a document of state power in action: the president, his will made manifest; the protesters, their eyes reddened from tear gas, forced to make way for the leader.

How do you capture the enormity of those events in a headline? How do you sum up the urgent threat to civil rights, the Riefenstahlian logic of the spectacle, the “American carnage” remade as a self-fulfilling prophecy? On Monday, The New York Times tried to contextualize the day’s events with the following banner: “As Chaos Spreads, Trump Vows to ‘End It Now.’” The summary was ostensibly meant to capture the split-screen collisions of Trump’s speech: protests against the impunity of state violence meeting the state itself. What the headline did instead, however, was erase the violence that had just occurred. With the efficiency of a single word, the American paper of record took the purpose of the Lafayette gathering in the first place—the protest of the killing of George Floyd—and obscured it in the fog of “chaos.”

After a public outcry, the Times updated its headline—to the less contextualized but much more accurate “Trump Threatens to Send Troops Into States.” But the paper’s dismissal of the protests that have taken place across the nation this week was one of many. “We are tipping into chaos,” The Washington Post argued last week. “Many demonstrations sank into chaos,” the Associated Press reported. “How a Night of Chaos in Minneapolis Unfolded,” the Times previously explained. A chyron on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show last night announced, “7th Night of Chaos Over George Floyd’s Death.” The summary of the evening’s events was a tidy reminder of how easily a word can do the work of a talking point. Here was a line Trump used as he vowed to deploy the power of the state against those calling for due process: “America needs … justice, not chaos.”

Chaos is a term of last resort. In everyday conversation, it’s the word you might use when you don’t know what other word might suffice. Deployed as an assessment of human events, though, chaos can suggest a dereliction of duty. It is incurious, and resigned to the incuriosity. The word implies a mayhem so extreme that there is no logic to be found in the tumult.

Demonstrators hold up their signs by Capitol Hill, on May 30, 2020, in Washington, D.C., during a protest over the death of George Floyd. (Jose Luis Magana / AFP / Getty)

It makes sense that Donald Trump, who has previously dismissed the protesters as “thugs” and terrorists—and who is himself a connoisseur of chaos—would use the term in a speech meant to undermine the protests’ moral righteousness. It makes much less sense, though, that the American media would take similar refuge in chaos as they inform the public about the civil-rights demonstrations. Protests, after all, have a language and a logic: “A riot is the language of the unheard,” Martin Luther King Jr. had it. They have their own grammar. They make their messages scannable through signs. They are legible; their purpose, in fact, is legibility.

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.