If you were paying attention to cable news coverage and social media feeds of anti–Donald Trump protests in Washington, DC, on Inauguration Day, you might have gotten the idea that the nation’s capital city was literally on fire.
Here, for example, is one image that was shared widely on Twitter:
Someone set the limo on fire. pic.twitter.com/y4AFr5HNjk— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) January 20, 2017
This kind of property damage is awful, tragic, and unnecessary. It should go without saying that none of it should have happened.
But as someone who lives right by where these protests took place (I could see the car from my rooftop) and watched them on the ground, I can confirm that violence wasn’t as widespread as news coverage might have suggested. And there definitely weren’t riots.
For most of the time, the protests were, frankly, boring. There were the regular chants of “no Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA” and “not my president.” People mostly walked around talking to other demonstrators and holding up their signs. At one point, some of the protesters sat down on the ground and played cards, while others chatted with the police. There was even a (really bad and annoying) concert.
Yet most of the images people saw, based on the comments I saw on social media describing the protests as “riots,” were of a few broken windows and a burning car, as well as police responding with pepper spray and smoke bombs — creating a visual of a war zone.
This exposes a problem with media coverage in general: When protests are peaceful (and boring), newsfeeds cut out. When something is on fire, it gets all the attention. I saw this on some cable news and social media feeds throughout the day. And while I get why it happens (covering hours of peaceful protests would be bad for ratings), it can be misleading.
The great majority of protesters were peaceful
Here’s an attempt to clear up what really happened: Yes, the protests briefly got violent here and there — seemingly because a handful or dozens of people (typically anarchists), out of hundreds or thousands of protesters, decided it was a good idea to vandalize property, including the burning car, a few storefronts, and some public trash cans.
But this was a tiny minority of the demonstrations. For hours, it was mostly chanting and walking — with a few five- or 10-minute spurts of people doing dumb things in between. As Washington, DC, Police Chief Peter Newsham said earlier in the day, “We had thousands of people that came to Washington, DC, to peacefully demonstrate, but unfortunately we had a small group that wanted to disrupt the inauguration.”
At times I even heard protesters tell the handful of agitators “not to destroy property” and that violence “only helps Trump.” Most of the protesters seemed to want no part in the violence of a few.
Another protester is screaming at the crew smashing a limo. Lots of ppl here frustrated by actions of few: pic.twitter.com/CgSzqHZ3Lm— Greg Krieg (@GregJKrieg) January 20, 2017
Yet chances are you didn’t see much of that on your social media feed or cable news.