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Why some counterprotests to Black Lives Matter are turning violent

Counterprotester clashes are detracting from one of the largest social justice movements in history.

Right-wing activists rally at Cox Park in Louisville, Kentucky, in preparation for a march to the Louisville Metro Hall on September 5, 2020.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

Saturday, September 5, was supposed to be the day Louisville reveled in one of its most celebrated traditions — the Kentucky Derby — the coronavirus notwithstanding.

Instead, much of the attention on the city that day was directed to just outside the dirt track at Churchill Downs, where the Louisville Metro Police Department and the National Guard assembled tall barricades in anticipation of protesters calling for results in the Breonna Taylor case, which has seen little movement in the seven months since the about-to-be-27-year-old was fatally shot by police in her home. Protesters showed up — and so did armed militia.

While there were no spectators in the stands (fans were all virtual), hundreds of armed members of NFAC — the Not Fucking Around Coalition — positioned themselves on the grass outside the complex hours before the event. The group of Black men and women assembled with weapons and announced themselves to the police as “the response not the threat.”

“We had hoped to come back to Louisville to celebrate a victory with these people. We had hoped that [the Taylor case] would have been closed,” the group’s leader, John “Grandmaster Jay” Johnson, said at Saturday’s event. Some in the Black community had previously urged Churchill Downs to cancel the Kentucky Derby to show solidarity with the fight for racial justice.

But the group dispersed before the Derby even began when a white militia group appeared. Though Johnson told reporters he had an agreement with local police departments about NFAC’s presence, he said the agreement was breached when that other armed collective — who said they were there to protect the city against NFAC — was allowed in the same space.

Meanwhile, a few miles away in downtown Louisville, Black Lives Matter protesters clashed with members of the far-right armed militia group American Patriots USA earlier in the day. Protesters carried Black Lives Matter flags and chanted “Breonna Taylor” as the counterprotesters carried Trump Keep America Great flags and chanted “USA” and “Back the Blue,” referring to police.

Protests against police violence and for racial justice have been happening around the country since May, when video of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd went viral. While counterprotesters have been showing up in cities for just as long, in recent weeks, tensions have gotten more heated and violence at the hands of extremists has turned fatal.

That same Labor Day weekend, protesters and armed militia gathered in the streets of other cities in the wake of other deadly clashes. On Labor Day, more than 1,000 supporters of Trump, including Patriot Prayer supporters, QAnon conspiracy theory supporters, and members of the Proud Boys, gathered in northwest Oregon to express support for the president and Aaron Danielson, a Patriot Prayer supporter who was killed in a clash the previous weekend in Portland by Michael Rienoehl, who considered himself an antifa supporter.

Protesters also clashed with police and counterprotesters in Rochester over the previous police killing of Daniel Prude, leading to the resignation of top law enforcement officials.

“We first went out thinking it would be a peaceful protest, but things turned on the first night,” said Danielle Ponder, a public defender based in Rochester who has protested every night since the video of Prude’s killing was released on September 2. “We were met with pepper spray completely unprovoked. It was like war, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We can’t stop now, and I hope this empowers people to demand more.”

The intensity and frequency of these clashes makes it apparent that there will be more to come as summer draws to a close, and with two months until Election Day. And protesters have made it clear that they will not stop until justice is delivered. Far-right counterprotesters, on the other hand, are feeling greater pressure to maintain the status quo of a Trump presidency. Add local and federal officials calling in more police or the National Guard as a solution, and tensions only rise. The chaos could result in more division and deaths, taking the focus off one of the largest civil rights movement in history and its mission to seek justice for Black lives.

Why clashes are on the rise and in the headlines

A new report from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project, in collaboration with Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative, identified 7,750 Black Lives Matter protests from May 26 through August 22 at 2,400 locations across the US. An examination of these events found that 93 percent of them remained peaceful while protests at about 220 locations turned “violent” — defined as the destruction of property, and including clashes between protesters and police and counterprotesters. The report also found that in these places the violence was restricted to specific blocks of the city and not widespread.

Yet, despite the fact that protests remained largely peaceful over the course of about four months, the report warned that a hyper-polarized environment spurred by state forces that take “a more heavy-handed approach to dissent” will only make non-state actors “more active and assertive,” and that counterdemonstrators will “resolve their political disputes in the street” ahead of the election.

“Without significant mitigation efforts, these risks will continue to intensify in the lead-up to the vote,” the authors wrote.

The report also noted the National Guard had been deployed across the country at least 55 times since the killing of George Floyd in late May, which has only inflamed tensions. It also found that government forces disproportionately used force — fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray, or beat protesters with batons — when intervening in Black Lives Matter protests, relative to other kinds of demonstrations.

In Portland, for example, federal agents were sent to ostensibly keep the peace in July, but instead used excessive force and detained people in unmarked vehicles, only reescalating tensions. After the deployment of Department of Homeland Security agents in Portland, “the percentage of violent demonstrations has risen from under 17% to over 42%, suggesting that the federal response has only aggravated unrest,” the report states.

Counterprotest activity is also on the rise, a trend that can quickly escalate the number of violent clashes, according to the report:

Between 24 May and 22 August, over 360 counter-protests were recorded around the country, accounting for nearly 5% of all demonstrations. Of these, 43 — nearly 12% — turned violent, with clashes between pro-police demonstrators and demonstrators associated with the BLM movement, for example. In July alone, ACLED records over 160 counter-protests, or more than 8% of all demonstrations. Of these, 18 turned violent.

In the nights following the police shooting of Jacob Blake on August 23 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, armed counterprotesters visited the city to purportedly protect it from looting and vandalism. One such vigilante, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, fatally shot two people and injured another, and was later charged with first-degree intentional homicide. This unrest would give rise to more unrest in Portland where Trump supporters clashed with antifa members — both groups separate from peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters — resulting in the death of Danielson.

Clashes will only continue to increase if police and state and federal officials continue their heavy-handed approach to demonstrators. “The current administration seems to thrive in the context of disorder, so you can imagine that there’s going to be more, which is just going to spin off confrontations,” University of Michigan political scientist Christian Davenport told Vox.

The recent clashes have historical precedent, rooted in the urban disturbances of the 1960s and ’70s. Beginning in 1964, tensions between Black demonstrators and law enforcement caused riots across cities like Rochester, Philadelphia, and Newark. By 1967, hundreds of cities had experienced long, hot summers marked by urban rebellion and unrest.

Ponder, too, sees the resemblance to the civil rights movement. “State troopers were out there with tanks and dogs!” she said of the current Rochester protests. “I’m out there wearing a T-shirt and jeans and we are being met by people flanked in complete military uniforms and officers in riot gear. It felt like a complete war zone. At one point we ran into a church. And I just kept thinking, ‘We’re hiding from our government in a church.’ They even pepper sprayed the outside of the church!”

Because of these historical connections, there are dueling performances, Davenport said. “To what extent can protesters stay seemingly nonviolent but persistent?”

While the Black Lives Matter protesters are there to draw attention to systemic oppression, the presence of the far-right counterprotesters represents a desire to resist social change. “These people aren’t upset. They believe they are protecting that which they see as the natural order. They see these other people as the heretics and the threat,” Davenport said.

And the increased presence of other non-state actors, like antifa and the NFAC, serves to “openly intimidate perceived ‘enemies,’” like the counterprotesters, according to the report. Though violence has not erupted every time these groups are present, tensions can escalate quickly.

In the end, counterprotest dynamics tend to squeeze out middle-of-the-road protesters. “We then have a race, not to the middle, but to the extremes,” Davenport said.

Making things more complicated and further compromising peaceful protesters is that right-wing counterprotesters and the government have overlapping interests. Some are there with guns, touting a need for law and order like the president does and chanting “Back the Blue” to signal their support for the work of law enforcement.

In one video from Labor Day weekend, a counterprotester told a Black Lives Matter supporter that they were there to support the police but not the “bad eggs” in the police force. “We’re not out here defending the actions of them fucking bad cops. At all. They need justice. But at the same time, we can’t blame the actions of just a few on everybody.” Flying next to the counterprotester was a large Trump 2020 flag.

“You have an ill-informed group that’s already hostile and a group that has way too much information about their lives and they’re frustrated about what’s going on and you stick these people out in the street with a lackadaisical police effort, this does not bode well,” Davenport said.

Why activists will keep organizing ahead of the election and after it

Through all this, Black Lives Matter protesters have never shied away from their demands: The desire to completely rethink how criminal justice and law enforcement systems function in America.

Ponder says their demands are clear in Rochester. Protesters are calling for the resignation of Mayor Lovely Warren and Deputy Mayor James Smith. They’re asking that the officers involved in Prude’s killing be prosecuted — Prude, who had a clinical history of mental illness, died after officers put a mesh “spit hood” over his head and that the city enact “Daniel’s Law,” which would prohibit officers from responding to mental health calls for help.

They’re also asking for the immediate demilitarization of the police, since 86 percent of all adult arrests in Rochester are misdemeanors. Last, activists are calling for the defunding of the Rochester Police Department, which receives about $100 million per year. The school district’s budget was recently cut by about 20 percent while the police department only received a 5 percent cut, Ponder said.

And they will continue to be out in the streets, much like 93 percent of peaceful demonstrations across the country, until their demands are met. The election has little bearing on this.

While the election is often thought of as a nice end point used to facilitate mobilization, the difficulty with thinking about Black Lives Matter only in the context of the election is losing “the deeper narrative that folks are generationally upset,” Davenport said. “It’s not every four years. It’s several decades worth of stuff that led us to this point that Democrats and Republicans are responsible for.”

Whether Black Lives Matter activists will choose to shift strategy in an effort to position themselves away from right-wing agents provocateurs, particularly ahead of the election, is still left to be seen, but questions about the connections between clashes and the election may take away from the deeper goals of the movement.

“What would this turn into if Black Lives Matter and associates could say, ‘Let’s shift the nature of our confrontation with violence-generating agents in a way that allows us to put forward pressure but doesn’t allow our behavior or presence to be manipulated in a manner that could potentially lead to something that facilitates this other narrative. Let’s not participate in what has become the anti-performance of our grievance. We’re not going to be fodder for this war machine,’” Davenport said.

Ponder, meanwhile, is thinking about change that needs to start locally in Rochester — “There are thousands of people who could have been Daniel Prude because our officers continue to dehumanize the Black community” — but also hopes the movement will continue to uplift and inspire young people, despite the repeated clashes with law enforcement and counterprotesters.

“I have never seen such a Black movement. I have never seen so many young Black people in the street protesting,” she said. “I hope this empowers them to demand more from their elected officials. And I hope they become the elected officials to really shift the paradigm and transform our system of policing and criminal justice.”