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The media is missing the point about violence at anti-Trump protests

Stop concern-trolling protesters about "helping Trump win."

An anti-Trump protester in Chicago. Jonathan Gibby/Getty

Increasingly, protests against Donald Trump have featured some form of violence: people punching Trump supporters, throwing flaming T-shirts, breaking through police lines, hitting patrol cars and officers with rocks.

These are bad things, and people should not do them.

But every time something like this happens, the reaction among certain pundits is identical to the reaction when, say, protesters interrupt Trump rallies and get punched: They take it as an opportunity to chide the strategy of the anti-Trump forces, as best said by NeverTrump Republican operative Tim Miller.

This line of thinking totally misses the point of anti-Trump protests, regardless of how nonviolent or confrontational they are. You can't paint all anti-Trump protesters with the behaviors of a few of them — but in order to understand that, you have to understand what protesters are actually trying to do.

The people coordinating Trump protests and the people throwing rocks probably aren't the same people

Just because some people at anti-Trump protests throw rocks (and flaming T-shirts) doesn't mean that all anti-Trump protesters are throwing rocks and flaming T-shirts. Here's how the New Mexico Political Report described the scene outside Trump's rally in Albuquerque:

Protesters—a very different crowd from those who spent most of the day waving signs and chanting slogans behind barriers—then threw rocks, eggs and other objects at police while police fired back smoke canisters and pepper spray.

Police said on Twitter the "remaining contingent is only looking to cause trouble & be destructive."

Police say several officers were being treated after being hit by rocks.

These parts of the protest made national news and were shown live on cable news channels.

The early hours of the protest were very different.

Maybe there is some overlap between the people chanting and marching peacefully outside a Trump rally and the people throwing rocks at police officers afterward. It can be hard to know for sure — and police officers certainly have their own reasons to distinguish "outside agitators" from "legitimate" protesters, even when the distinction isn't accurate.

But in the absence of any actual evidence that the people throwing rocks are involved in anti-Trump protest work, the logical conclusion is a pretty simple one: Protests are often loosely coordinated or uncoordinated activities, and the people leading the protest don't have any control over the people who are doing dumb things.

You can call on protest coordinators to decry violence, but if the people who might be engaging in violence don't know or listen to the protest coordinators, that doesn't help much.

The point of protesting Donald Trump isn't to get Hillary Clinton elected president

The implication of "out-of-control protests against Donald Trump will get Donald Trump elected" is that the political backlash against violence at Trump rallies is a bigger risk than whatever benefits protest might provide. That's true regardless of who's engaging in the violence; the same "protesters are just helping Trump" sentiments are heard when protesters are throwing rocks at police and when Trump supporters are throwing punches at protesters.

If you think the best response to the rise of Trump is to keep him from getting elected president, then avoiding actions that might end up helping Trump get elected is probably a good strategy. But fundamentally, the people who have been coordinating anti-Trump protests think that the rise of Trumpism is bigger than Donald Trump himself: that it has both reflected and unleashed a bigotry that's being reflected in policy (at all levels of government) and in everyday behavior.

They don't think electing Hillary Clinton will put the genie back in the bottle. So they're not taking action to elect Hillary Clinton. They're taking action to demonstrate that there are people who are not okay with the sentiments Donald Trump represents, and to force other people to pick a side.

"For some of our members, these actions were their first experiences openly confronting racism, or the first actions in which they put themselves physically at risk," Andrew Willis Garcés wrote in a post on the blog Waging Nonviolence earlier this year. "However imperfect our protests have been ... they are offering an alternative to the story of white silence, and are galvanizing many to act."

Peaceful protest is invisible

When I talked to anti-Trump protesters earlier this spring, I heard a lot of variations on this sentiment from organizer Marisa Franco: "Trump has received an extraordinary amount of coverage by the media. So far he's just been able to roll out and say what he pleases, and people who like it go to his rallies and everyone else is just kind of watching."

As a journalist who's spent a lot of time fact-checking, criticizing, and contextualizing Donald Trump's statements, I was pretty frustrated by that sentiment at first. But the fact of the matter is that most people who hear things Donald Trump says aren't necessarily reading Vox.com, or other print and online outlets that have been covering Trump critically. Much of the mass media (specifically television) really does cover Donald Trump without interruption, and doesn't pay much attention to peaceful anti-Trump protesting.

Only when protests get tense, confrontational, or violent do the cameras start rolling.

So if you're a young person who reacts viscerally to the things Donald Trump says about Mexicans or Muslims, what do you see as the available, appropriate response? Furthermore, if you're a young person who personally feels the effects of Trumpist attitudes — if you feel that your life is under threat because you're nonwhite, and you don't feel that anyone appears to care — what do you think needs to be done?

During the riots in Baltimore in 2015, Mark D. Smaller, the president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, told Vox, "These groups can become the vehicle for expressing anger, rage, and helplessness. One must keep in mind that this behavior is not simply random, but a group or community's way of communicating their frustration at chronically not being listened to, responded to, and finally marginalized."

Trump might be an opportunity to get people engaged on other issues

Obviously, protesting Donald Trump — no matter how peacefully you do it — doesn't automatically change anything. But the broader strategy of the people trying to coordinate anti-Trump protests is to use the energy Trump generates to get people involved in ongoing battles (often state and local ones) to protect the rights they feel he threatens.

"We've been getting people's information for next steps and how people can stay engaged," organizer Z! Haukeness told me during anti-Trump protests in Wisconsin, "and it's the easiest canvassing I've ever done."

If your concern is that throwing rocks at police officers isn't a "productive" way to express opposition to Donald Trump, then this should be greatly reassuring to you — that energy is being harnessed in more "productive" ways. But in order for it to be harnessed, it has to be expressed to begin with.


Why did violence break out at Trump rallies in March?