I was listening to the radio on my way home from work this evening, and they did a spot on the recent UC Berkeley protests. I couldn't help but notice that most of the airtime was devoted to discussion of the violence that had taken place, and relatively little time was spent on the actual reason for the protests. They even went out of their way to call attention to the fact that a couple Republicans were injured in the protest.
The two articles I could find on the topic from the same news station were titled, "Riot Forces Cancellation Of Yiannopoulos Talk At UC Berkeley", and "UC Berkeley Chancellor Blasts Violence Over Yiannopoulos Speech". Just as on the air, both articles lead with the violence and bury the reason for the protest in the middle of the article.
Looking at a few other (somewhat left-leaning, even) news agencies yields a selection of similar, mostly-negative headlines, with one or two neutrals or positives:
- Alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at UC Berkeley (The Mercury News)
- UC Berkeley cancels 'alt-right' speaker Milo Yiannopoulos as thousands protest (The Guardian)
- All Hell Breaks Loose at Campus Event for Alt-Right Leader Milo Yiannopoulos (Mother Jones)
- After night of violent protests, Berkeley cleans up damage (SFGate)
- Anti-fascist activists take on Trump and the far right: 'Resistance is our only shot' (The Guardian)
- UC Berkeley riot raises questions about free speech (The Mercury News)
Similarly, on Twitter, the local journalists I follow were tweeting mostly pictures of fire and looting. (I won't link to their posts since there are a lot of them.)
Frankly, this looks bad for anti-fascists. Whether or not you think violent protest is okay in principle, our message is getting lost behind fear and violence.
When people see fire, shattered windows, and smashed ATMs, that's what they're going to focus on. It doesn't matter why people are lighting fires and breaking windows, it just matters that they are. Everything else they see—our message, the downtrodden masses, the police brutality—is colored by the fact that "protestors" started it. (And no, it doesn't matter that the provocateurs weren't part of the "official" protest. [link is to a local journalist])
I have not participated in any of the recent protests (large crowds are increasingly hard for my introverted self to handle). But when I was (non-violently) protesting for marriage equality in college, I would for the most part see three general classes of reaction:
- From bigots: Scowls and/or heckling
- From other supporters: Enthusiastic waving, honking, shouting, etc.
- From unconcerned bystanders: "Why are they blocking the street?"
Presumably we are protesting because we're trying to make a change. To do that, we need to convince everyone we can that our change is the right thing to do. We're not going to convince the bigots, fascists, and so on; they've already made up their minds. We're not going to convince other supporters; they don't need convincing. That leaves people who are on the fence, unconcerned, uninformed, or just plain haven't thought about it much. These bystanders are our target audience.
Protests are a great way to get their attention; a little disruption goes a long way in getting bystanders to sit up and take notice. But when they do, they're first going to wonder, "Why are those protesters blocking the street?" It's incumbent on us to have a crystal-clear answer, and make sure that nothing distracts from that message.
"Black Lives Matter!"
"Women's rights are human rights!"
"Immigrants are welcome here!"
If a bystander's first impression is of fire and broken windows, that is how they'll remember our cause. If people are injured or killed, even if it's not our fault, that will stick in their minds more than anything we might have to say. Our opponents will use this to their advantage—they'll label us "violent extremists", they'll accuse us of trampling on their rights, they'll counter with their own, "reasonable"(-sounding) arguments, and those arguments will resonate all the more for standing in opposition to violent extremists.
Violence distracts from the message, and then—just as it did at UC Berkeley—it becomes the story. The message is forgotten.