This morning Michelle Obama released a 24-minute video titled “Michelle Obama’s Closing Argument” which argues that everyone should vote for Joe Biden for President. The first section is a sustained argument that the coronavirus death toll is all Trump’s fault which, as usual, ignores that the worst outbreak in the U.S. happened in New York, a state with a Democratic Governor. But I’m not going to go through her entire argument. Instead I want to focus on a point she makes midway through about protests.
Michelle Obama claims that Trump is trying to blame peaceful BLM protesters for violence as a way to distract from his own problems. That’s a pretty well-worn talking point by now but Obama gives a bit of a twist, expressing some empathy for struggling white Americans. “You’ve worked hard all your life and for too long you’ve watched the rich get richer,” she said. She continued, “You’ve lost your farms, your livelihood to corporate greed. You’ve seen your beloved towns shattered by joblessness. You’ve watched families destroyed by drug addiction and mental health challenges. All of this long before this virus hit.
“And it is frustrating to hear some folks say that you’ve been the beneficiary of privilege, that the color of your skin gives you a head start. That is the reality for far too many hard-working, decent Americans.”
She’s pretty clearly talking about blue-collar white voters here. And she’s also talking about the BLM message of white supremacy and white privilege that, she admits, doesn’t really seem to benefit a lot of them. And that’s where she turns back to Trump.
“Right now the president and his allies are trying to tap into that frustration and distract from his breathtaking failures by giving folks someone to blame other than them,” Obama continued. “They’re stoking fears about black and brown Americans. Lying about how minorities will destroy the suburbs. Whipping up violence and intimidation. And they’re pinning it all on what’s been an overwhelmingly peaceful movement for racial solidarity.
“It’s true. Research backs it up. Only a tiny fraction of demonstrations have had any violence at all. So what the president is doing is once again, patently false. It’s morally wrong and yes it is racist, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work.”
There are no footnotes in this statement obviously but it seems clear that Obama is referring to this survey of violence called the US Crisis Monitor. Here’s the gist of it:
The vast majority of demonstration events associated with the BLM movement are non-violent (see map below). In more than 93% of all demonstrations connected to the movement, demonstrators have not engaged in violence or destructive activity. Peaceful protests are reported in over 2,400 distinct locations around the country. Violent demonstrations,4 meanwhile, have been limited to fewer than 220 locations — under 10% of the areas that experienced peaceful protests. In many urban areas like Portland, Oregon, for example, which has seen sustained unrest since Floyd’s killing, violent demonstrations are largely confined to specific blocks, rather than dispersed throughout the city (CNN, 1 September 2020).
So the argument being made here is that on 7% of protests have become violent and really that’s not so bad. Except that this metric hides most of what is really going on. If there are 100 protests and 7 of them turn violent, you could say the rate of violence is 7% which is apparently what this research did. But you could also look at those seven violent protests/riots and find that within those there were many individual acts of violence. For instance, in some cases police wind up arresting a dozen or more individuals during a riot and that doesn’t count all the violent behavior (throwing rocks, using lasers, vandalism, etc.) for which no one is ever caught or punished.
When there is rioting and looting in a city like New York or Chicago, there are likely hundreds, possibly even thousands of individual criminal acts taking place but so long as it all takes place as part of one night’s “protest” the researchers would count that as just 1 bad night. In other words, the data Michelle Obama is relying on here is obscuring as much about the violence as it’s revealing. Maybe only 7 percent of the protests became violent but that 7 percent represents thousands of violent and destructive acts doing billions of dollars of damage over a period of just a few months.
The other problem here is that Michelle Obama is completely ignoring the messaging that even many of the peaceful protesters have put forward. There have been many protests in Portland and Seattle and Kenosha and elsewhere that didn’t become violent (at least not every night), and yet the people there were chanting “All cops are bastards” or agitating for major cuts to the police budget, or simply hectoring police and calling them murderers. Of course people are free to peacefully protest and say what they want, but I think Michelle Obama is glossing over the extremism of these protests and the degree to which most Americans, including most black Americans, probably think some of the solutions being offered are not helpful. Simply put, protests can be objectionable and extremist even if they don’t become riots on a given night.
Bottom line, not all protests have been violent and not all of them have used extremist rhetoric but some of the protests have been extremely violent and many of the peaceful protests have been just plain extreme. Arguing, as Obama is doing here, that white racial resentment is the only reason anyone could possibly object to all of this is absurd. It’s possible to be entirely sympathetic to the idea that the death of George Floyd shows the need for changes in policing and still think the BLM anti-police protests are a bandwagon of terrible ideas which would only make things worse for everyone.