CLEVELAND — Hundreds of protesters marched down East 9th Street in Cleveland on Monday, chanting slogans like "Black Lives Matter" and "no justice, no peace" in the first major protest of the Republican National Convention. On the side, a black boy jumped off his sibling’s stroller, walked up to some approaching police officers, and fist-bumped them. Other police officers smiled, talked, and waved at protesters and journalists.
It was a remarkable scene, really the ideal of America: As protesters peacefully marched down the street, police officers similarly stood guard and even interacted with some of the activists — many of whom had very loud criticisms of law enforcement — in a peaceful way. Protesters used their First Amendment rights, police guarded them without hesitation, and journalists could report on it with no intrusion.
The scene was emblematic of the first day of protests at the Republican convention. Activist after activist and police officer after police officer all told me that they had heard of no violence among protesters. And based on what I saw, it’s true: Every rally and march I’ve attended in Cleveland so far was completely peaceful. It defied many warnings by police and the media that the convention protests would burst into chaos.
The closest event to a confrontation came when pro–Donald Trump religious zealots parked in a public square. They shouted racist, Islamophobic, and anti-gay slogans, telling the protesters — who carried pro-LGBTQ, anti-Islamophobia, and Black Lives Matter signs — that they would go to hell. But even this moment ended peacefully: The protesters ultimately moved in, deciding they would drown out the pro-Trump bigots with their own slogans. After some chanting back and forth, the crowds dispersed.
The ideal of America doesn’t always work this well; there has been violence at Trump rallies, and there have been riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore. But here’s the thing: For all the violence you hear about in the news, what happened in Cleveland is really the typical protest — total lack of violence at political rallies and marches isn’t abnormal; it’s the norm in America.
Black Lives Matter and anti-Trump protests have been mostly peaceful
Early on in Ferguson, Missouri, after looters burned down a QuikTrip convenience store, racial justice activists — and the Black Lives Matter movement in general — got a reputation for violence. Later on, anti-Trump protesters also got a bad rap for violence after a Trump rally got out of control.
But this characterization in the media isn’t the full picture. There have been literally hundreds of Black Lives Matter and anti-Trump protests in recent years. Most people have probably only heard of a handful of them — specifically, the ones that erupted into chaos. But that’s only because the hundreds of others didn’t erupt into chaos.
Even on the night of the Dallas mass shooting that killed five police officers, Black Lives Matter protests were held across the country over the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Those protests were peaceful. But one violent extremist, attacking police in a way that all peaceful protesters condemned, ended up scarring the mood and message of that night.
The same has been true in protest after protest — even in Ferguson, Baltimore, and anti-Trump events. Most people demonstrate peacefully. But it takes just a few people causing chaos or even a small skirmish to draw the media cameras, which then turns the whole story into how violent the protests are. (The same could even be said about pro-Trump rallies, where one guy punching a protester detracts from the hundreds not acting out.)
The media is typically justified in reporting these events. It certainly was in the horrific Dallas shooting. And the coverage was justified when riots broke out in Ferguson and Baltimore. But in such cases, the public should know that these few violent extremists don’t speak for most of the protesters.
As activist DeRay Mckesson said after the Baton Rouge shooting that killed three police officers, "The movement began as a call to end violence. That call remains." The people I spoke to in Cleveland backed this up: Protesters called for peace, and not a single one told me they wanted any violence — including those who had radical ideas like "abolish the police."
Violent extremists can hijack any movement. But that shouldn’t define the whole movement.
Even when violence does break out at protests, it shouldn’t be used to define every protester, nor should it automatically negate their message. It’s not abnormal for Americans to ignore violent extremists in order to continue having necessary policy conversations.
For example, in the past, anti-abortion extremists have attacked abortion clinics — such as in 2015, when a shooter killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. He was driven at least in part by opposition to abortion. But that didn’t — and shouldn’t — stop reasonable critics of abortion from continuing to speak out in a peaceful manner.
Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr. was repeatedly criticized — including by government officials — for allegedly inciting violence by leading the charge for civil rights in the 1950s and '60s. And it was true that there was some violence — particularly riots — related to the fight for civil rights back then.
But King didn’t let the violence, which he condemned, define his approach: He knew that the civil rights movement was the right thing to do, and the criticisms he faced because of others acting violently didn’t stop him from successfully speaking and acting out in a peaceful manner.
It shouldn’t have, either. Kevin Drum, a blogger at Mother Jones, eloquently made this point:
People and groups have to be free to condemn abortion or police misconduct or anything else — sometimes soberly, sometimes not. And it's inevitable that this will occasionally inspire a maniac somewhere to resort to violence. There's really no way around this. It's obviously something for any decent person to keep in mind, but it doesn't make passionate politics culpable for the ills of the world. We can't allow the limits of our political spirit to be routinely dictated by the worst imaginable consequences.
Protests are messy. When thousands or millions of people rise up in very passionate demonstrations, some bad, violent people are going to get caught up in the cause.
But in America, we have by and large managed to reject that violence and discuss the legitimate political and social issues of the day in a peaceful, albeit contentious, public forum. The violent and extreme should not be allowed to change that.
So next time you hear about a protest getting out of control or violent, consider what happened at the hundreds of peaceful protests — or, as in Cleveland, a quiet fist-bump — you probably didn’t hear much about.