LSE Professor Bart Cammaerts reflects on the role of media and communications in the anti-racism protests going on in the US and elsewhere in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.
It is not entirely surprising that street protests are the first post-Corona political manifestations we can observe. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were experiencing a global cycle of protest and contestation. In the last months of 2019, large protests took place in amongst others Chile, Bolivia, India, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Spain, Hong Kong, France, and UK. During the lockdown, the right to protest – like so many other of our civic liberties – was de facto suspended. However, the causes of these protests have not suddenly evaporated and at the same time, a total lockdown which impedes grievances to be aired, also acts as a gigantic pressure cooker. So, it is only logical that once the lockdowns are being eased everywhere, the floodgates open and people pour into the streets to voice their anger and disgust.
Neither is it surprising that race, race relations and police violence is at the centre of current protests in the West. For a variety of reasons, the COVID-19 epidemic has hit people from BAME backgrounds considerably harder than the white population. In addition to this, the policing of the draconian lockdown rules has acerbated the already disproportional repression directed at poor and ethnic minority communities, in the US, but also in the UK. As we were in essence living under martial law, police forces received unprecedented powers to police the lockdown. Given that poor people and people of colour were more likely to be outside rather than inside – because they do essential work, or because they might not have savings to rely on – they were also much more a target of repression compared to middle class families who could afford to stay inside and work from home.
It took the power of an image, in this case, of an innocent black man being murdered in a calm and understated manner by white police officers in Minneapolis to (re-)ignite already simmering frustrations and anger regarding police violence in the US and beyond, as well as expose larger issues of structural racism in Western societies. The media angle here is that the video clip that circulated online is an example of what is sometimes called sousveillance, or bottom-up surveillance, whereby ordinary citizens use their mobile phones as weapons to record and document police violence.
A few other observations regarding the role of media and communication in the context of this wave of anti-racist and anti-fascist protests can be made. Let me cluster them around mainstream representation by ‘the media’, self-representation by activists, and the resonance of the protests.
The media’s response to the ‘I can’t Breathe’/BLM protests has been mixed and confusing at best, downright misleading and distorted at worst. Many editors and journalists, over here as well as in the US, understand and supported the legitimate anger that lies at the heart of the protests. There was even some degree of excitement amongst some that there was finally something to report that was not Corona-related. In Europe, we could also witness a kind of smugness which creeped into the reporting of the protests in the US, with the subtext ‘look how horrible it is over there, unlike here’. In the US, certainly after some of the protests turned violent, the protest paradigm was activated in many newsrooms, meaning that the focus shifted almost exclusively to the spectacle of violence and protesters were being demonized and dehumanized as thugs, looters, scum, etc. As so often, knowing that violence and the spectacle this generates, would reflect negatively on a movement, security forces and political opponents often resort to infiltration and so-called agent provocateur tactics. There is more and more evidence emerging that this is also happening in the US at the moment.
When we assess the self-representations, it becomes apparent that one of main consequences of the protest paradigm is a skewed framing of the protests as violent and a disproportional focus on damaging property whereas in reality the majority of protests and protesters are extremely angry but voicing that anger in a peaceful manner. So, on the one hand it is this peaceful anger, as well as the vast diversity in age, gender and race of the participants, which the self-representations on social media platforms predominantly show. On the other hand, just as with the initial video of the murder of George Floyd, visual self-representations also document the unbelievable and ruthless police brutality and repression in the US. In many ways, it is not really necessary to bring in the army as Trump requests because the images made by protesters of police actions and tactics expose the deep militarisation and the fascistic nature of police forces and actions in the US. The sousveillance imagery produced by activists thus also points out the contradictions and paradoxes of brutal state violence against mostly black people who are protesting against brutal state violence against black people. The way the state and security forces react to the protests is thus precisely an illustration of the very reason why the protests are taking place.
Finally, I would like to reflect on the resonance of the protests amongst non-activist US citizens and beyond the US. Regarding the former, surveys (although methodologically problematic due to low N values, only being conducted in English and high margins of error) show quite high support for the protesters (between 65-80%) and also high levels of condemnation of political elites (between 50-60% disapproval of Trump’s handling) and police responses (45-50% disapproval) to the protests. However, whereas there might be some degree of sympathy and understanding for the justified anger around what happened, non-activist citizens in the US are less enthusiastic about the violence (about 70% disapproved) and the damage to property (80% agreed with the statement that property damage undermined the protesters’ goals). There was also marked support for bringing in the national guard (about 65%) and even for putting the army on the street (55%). In all of this polling data there is also an enormous polarisation between republican versus democrat voters.
When it comes to the resonance beyond American borders, it is fascinating to observe that what is happening in the US, in all its gruesomeness, is also leading to a backlash in Europe and a renewed focus on institutional racism here as well as on police intimidation, racial profiling and police violence. Indeed, our societies are not immune to the same mechanisms which are maybe more pronounced in the US, but therefore not less pressing here. In Belgium, for example, the US protests have led to attacks with red paint on several statues of the genocidal king Leopold II. In the UK, protests against racism and police brutality in British society were organised, and a statue of a slave trader torn down, making us also remember that before George Floyd, there were: Smiley Culture, Julian Cole, Sarah Reed, Edson Da Costa, Mark Duggan, Jermaine Baker, Jean Charles de Menezes, Sheku Bayoh, Sean Rigg, Belly Mujinga, Naomi Hersi, Christopher Alder, Cynthia Jarrett, Joy Gardner, Michael Powel, Roger Sylvester, Rocky Bennett, and many others.
All the ingredients are there for a hot summer.
This article represents the views of the author, and not the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.