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Out of State, Out of Mind: Media Narratives and the Recent Protest Movement

Paid organizers for the communists are only trying to get good negroes in trouble. Alabama is a good place for good negroes to live in, but it is a bad place for negroes who believe in SOCIAL EQUALITY.” If you updated the language and added some flavor-of-the-day woke terminology to these sentences from a 1930s pamphlet, they wouldn’t look out-of-place on a pundit’s Twitter feed these past few weeks. Recently, every esteemed media progressive has responded to the protests erupting throughout the country with all the support and promises to “listen” that you would expect, but with the condition that things remain peaceful. Such ruling-class demand for the perfect “peaceful” protest has led to denunciations of those that don’t as “agitators” and “looters”. As you may have guessed, the sentences in the aforementioned pamphlet are followed by “The Ku Klux Klan is watching you. TAKE HEED”. This matter is worth exploring.

Originally published by Regeneration. Written by Stephanie Clarke.

As of this writing, several weeks have passed since George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed while handcuffed in police custody. Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his windpipe, suffocating him, while three other Minneapolis police officers stood by, audibly mocking the victim to onlookers [1]. This has sparked a backlash that exceeded anyone’s expectations, one that has spread throughout and beyond the United States. These protests have attracted people from all kinds of backgrounds, all fed up with the brutal and incompetent nature of our leadership, in the police force and beyond. These protests have resulted in several hundred million dollars in property damage, the burning of several buildings (including police stations) and the overwhelming of a small city’s police force. This has led to the deployment of military helicopters and Predator drones, which have been spotted patrolling numerous American cities [2]. The police, in between kneeling for George Floyd and hugging organizers, have indiscriminately sprayed crowds with tear gas and rubber-coates, acting with general impunity in suppressing protests. With this show of force from the ruling class has come another, one less blatant but no less dangerous: the media narratives.

Like most media narratives, this particular one began with a true story disseminated by the genuinely well-meaning. A man depicted in a cell phone video smashing windows of a store was supposedly identified on Twitter as Jacob Pederson, a Saint Paul police officer [3]. This has yet to be conclusively proven, and likely never will, but it is believable; plainclothes cops are known to infiltrate protests. It was spread by protestors and their allies as a warning, more than anything. If a suspicious guy seems to be trying to incite you to take part in a violent act, you’re best off staying away; that’s been an activist rule of thumb for ages. Regardless, it served to plant a seed of doubt. This seed of doubt was gradually nourished by things that could potentially be happening in low-quality Twitter videos, until it grew from a speculation to a concrete fact, one incidentally professed by the entire media class at the exact same time: these riots and the damage they are causing are being incited by “outside agents”.

I

I’ll give them credit, it’s a great line. The best piece of propaganda is something that can be spun any way, depending on the exact opinions and goals of who says it. For the far right, fairly predictable lines about antifa terrorists and law and order and small businesses deployed in similar situations, ghoulish and racist lines, but not particularly novel ones.

For the liberal, it allows them to conditionally pledge their support to the good protestors while projecting whatever grievances they have onto the bad ones. Depending on who you ask, the rioters who injected anger and violence into this otherwise serene movement are either privileged white anarchists, white supremacists, Russians (naturally), or even FBI operatives. 

The mayors and governors, the self-styled progressives, at least, get their justification. They can mourn the dead and participate in all the photo ops they want while authorizing the average tacked-up police grunt to brutalize whoever they see fit. After all, if some of the protestors are criminals, then surely they need to be dealt with for the good of the protest, you don’t want criminals to ruin your movement, do you? 

Even for some of the protestors, ever-respectable social influencers, this narrative is a benefit. Enough surface-level invocations of MLK and calls to respect the police, enough sanitized feel-good protest, casting aside the ones who don’t look good on CNN, and you might just have a decent career ahead of you. There’s nobody the establishment loves more than a radical opposition they can dictate the terms of.

There is definitely an ugly racist undercurrent to all of this, one that strips the agency from the scores of outraged nonwhite Americans, effectively denying their emotions. However, I feel slightly unqualified to discuss such a subject, and other works have done it better than I can hope to. Even with the racism notwithstanding, it’s so rare to see all major voices in the pundit class unite on a point so specific. The question debated is not whether or not there are outside agitators, the question is who they are and what they want. It’s a kind of class solidarity that’s honestly enviable.

While Tucker Carlson (net worth: 20 million) [4] wistfully mourned the loss of an Arby’s on Fox News, his mortal enemy, CNN, was far more even-handed in their assessments, writing more broadly about “the extremists taking part in riots across the US”.[5] The article makes sure to call out agitators of all political persuasions, with a nod towards Russian involvement. CNN correspondent, professional boot sommelier Jake Tapper (net worth: 8 million) [6], described a crowd at the White House chasing off a Fox News reporter as “an unacceptable assault on freedom of the press”. This was a day after freelance reporter Linda Tirado was struck in the face by rubber-coated bullets fired by Minneapolis police officers, permanently blinding her in the left eye. [7]

A couple weeks ago, US Senator Tom Cotton weaponized this narrative to terrifying effect in his op-ed in the respected salon of the New York Times. Cotton writes of the rioters in New York City, “Some even drove exotic cars; the riots were carnivals for the thrill-seeking rich as well as other criminal elements.” [8] This potent image, of trust-fund white anarchists bussed en masse down from Bard, molotovs and baseball bats at the ready, is used to justify the whole point of Cotton’s piece, a plea to our president to send in the troops to quell the lawlessness in our cities. This article shocked a lot of people, including liberal pundits who had gladly repeated its assertions a week earlier. But is Cotton’s solution not the logical conclusion of this narrative? If some of the protestors are just nihilistic agitators hellbent on seeing the world burn, how exactly do the Jake Tappers of the world suggest they are dealt with? The true answer, the one they would never admit to believing, is that they’d be as fine with the troops reestablishing order as Tom Cotton. They just might act a bit outraged, but as things would go back to normal, they’d move on. They always do. In their line of work, even the worst cruelty is ultimately ephemeral.

II

One hundred years ago, striking workers and anti-war activists were smeared as agents of the Kaiser. When the federal government was mass deporting IWW-led copper miners, national defense was the reason given to the public. It’s what Eugene Debs was arrested for, “criminal sedition”; he spent three years in jail for speaking out against a senseless imperial war [9]. Once WWI ended, and the Germans were out as the foreign threat, the Bolsheviks took their place. The first Red Scare, weaponizing fears of foreign communists infiltrating the United States, led to thousands of union members imprisoned, effectively ending the IWW as a militant labor organization [10].

Decades later, the civil rights movement was considered communist subterfuge. McCarthy’s HUAC and Hoover’s FBI were used to surveil, arrest, and imprison leftists involved in the postwar struggles against Jim Crow, especially black leftists. At the height of it, W.E.B. Du Bois himself, well into his 80s, was arrested, chained up, and brought to trial as a dangerous subversive [11]. Martin Luther King, hailed as a model of peaceful protest by those who denounce these rioters, was heavily spied on by the FBI seeking to discover his Communist ties. When the FBI found out about an affair he was having, they wrote him an anonymous letter, urging him to kill himself [12]. King remained under their surveillance until the day he died, at which point the system that hounded him absorbed him.

None of this is particularly obscure history, and the people so horrified by these current events are almost certainly aware of it all. What this betrays is less ignorance, and more an upper-class liberal tendency to airbrush and soften the harsh realities of the past. These people cannot seem to conceive of possibly being on the wrong side of any social issue. Even the descendants of slaveowners picture themselves as abolitionists. Putting yourself out in the streets for a cause that truly threatens power is dangerous, there is no easy way to get around that. Even the movements that start with the purest intentions in mind end up being forced to deal with violence from the outside. This violence is actually what sparks these riots. They aren’t planned, they’re spur-of-the-moment reactions from people who are fearful of the brutal repression they endure, motivated by their strength in numbers, and above all frustrated with the lack of meaningful change. In this sense, I agree with the pundits; it never should have gone this far, but now, it’s too late to stop, and the tactic is working. Defunding the police is being discussed in mainstream politics, the goal for the protestors now is to see that the pressure is kept on, so this cannot be defanged.

An article I read recently noted the role Russiagate hysteria has played in eroding the last of any real journalistic standards in America. When journalists pushed unsubstantiated claims about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs that led to half a million Iraqi civilians dying, that was a “regrettable error”, make no mistake, but in the end everybody moved on, reputations intact. However, thirteen years later, when many of the same journalists spent most of Trump’s first term pushing a largely manufactured red-baiting conspiracy theory that served to overshadow his clear and obvious domestic crimes, that wasn’t regrettable, and it was barely an error. If Bush taught the press that there are no long-term consequences for journalistic failure, Trump taught them that you don’t even need to pretend to care about such standards [13]. 

Today, I see the same sort of extrapolated story pushed by every journalist with a six-figure paycheck, from the Trump diehards to the people who swear that Trump is a once-in-a-millenia danger to all we hold dear. Just as with the WMDs and Russia, such a line eventually reaches our politicians, where it cements itself as the truth. Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey, lovingly nicknamed “Gentri-Frey” by Minneapolitans, claimed in a press release that police were investigating the links of “white supremacists, organized crime, out of state instigators”, and (of course) the Russians to the protests [14]. This directly contradicts a statement from the Hennepin County Jail that most people arrested for rioting were from the city [15], but if a tree falls in the forest and everybody who saw it claims it didn’t, did it really fall? 

III

Perhaps the most disgusting part of these allegations is that they deny the incredible solidarity we’ve seen between white and nonwhite people across the US in rejecting the current order of business in the US. We’ve seen people of all backgrounds working together for a common goal, providing each other with food and water, nursing each other’s wounds, truly protecting each other, beyond the overwrought self-flagellating calls to “use yourself as a shield”. It is through this work we have learned our true strength, the police may be brutal, but they are far from all-powerful, and they are afraid. May George Floyd rest in peace; I hope with all of my heart that his murderers are brought to justice (it took days of rioting to even get his direct killer arrested), but these protests are no longer just about him.

This is about years of police militarization, and a cop culture that incentives officers to act like an invading force in their own cities. This is about a massive bailout being given, no questions asked, to every corporation that happens to reap what they sow, while forty million and rising are unemployed, and countless more that are bound to exploitative gig economy jobs. This is about a global pandemic, the mismanagement of such by the agents of capital killing more than a hundred thousand in the US alone, with the deaths disproportionately being nonwhite and poor. To shift the blame for this justified outpouring of discontent is to deny the shared anger of the working class and people of color, full stop.

When a narrative like this is spread, it usually does infect the populace, and indeed it may be no different this time. Yet, what gives me hope is that people largely aren’t listening, or so it seems. It may be likely that in a few days or weeks people in this movement will lose momentum and fall back into line, but it’s equally likely that I am writing about the flailing of a ruling class that can see its own end coming, the sellout’s smug assertion that everybody else must be as unprincipled as they are. This isn’t a revolution; it’s not 1918 and it’s probably not even 1848, but it’s something, and we need to hold on to this something and protect it from those who seek to defang and neuter it until it is no longer a threat to the established order. 


  1. Stoughton, S. W., Noble, J. J., &; Alpert, G. P. (2020). George Floyd’s death shows exactly what police should not do. Washington Post. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/george-floyd-police-training/2020/05/29/0aca572e-a127-11ea-b5c9-570a91917d8d_story.html
  2. Parrott, J. (2020). As Predator drones fly over U.S. cities, Dems push back on protest surveillance. Deseret News. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.deseret.com/indepth/2020/6/10/21270766/protest-geroge-floyd-border-patrol-drone-surveillance-national-guard-helicopter-black-hawk
  3. Abraham, Z. (2020). St Paul Cop Jacob Pederson Posed As Protestor, Smashed Windows During George Floyd Protest. Oakland News Now. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://oaklandnewsnow.com/update-st-paul-cop-jacob-pederson-posed-as-protestor-smashed-windows-during-george-floyd-protest/u-s-news/49263
  4. Tucker Carlson Net Worth. (n.d.). Celebrity Net Worth. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.celebritynetworth.com/richest-politicians/republicans/tucker-carlson-net-worth/
  5. Herb, J., Perez, E., O’Sullivan, D., & Morales, M. (2020). What we do and don’t know about the extremists taking part in riots across the US. CNN. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/31/politics/outside-influence-extremists-riots-us/index.html
  6. Jake Tapper Net Worth. (n.d.). Celebrity Net Worth. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.celebritynetworth.com/richest-celebrities/authors/jake-tapper-net-worth/
  7. Ehrenreich, B. (2020). A Journalist Marked by Police Violence. The American Prospect. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://prospect.org/civil-rights/a-journalist-marked-by-police-violence/
  8. Cotton, T. (2020). Tom Cotton: Send In the Troops. The New York Times. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/03/opinion/tom-cotton-protests-military.html
  9. Taillon, P. M. (2017). Labour Movements, Trade Unions and Strikes (USA). International Encyclopedia of the First World War. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/labour_movements_trade_unions_and_strikes_usa
  10. White, A. (2019). 100 Years Ago, the First Red Scare Tried to Destroy the Left. Jacobin. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/12/red-scare-industrial-workers-of-the-world-iww
  11. Heideman, P. (2020). How McCarthyism and the Red Scare Hurt the Black Freedom Struggle. Jacobin. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/05/mccarthyism-red-scare-civil-rights-movement
  12. Prokop, A. (2018). Read the letter the FBI sent MLK to try to convince him to kill himself. Vox. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.vox.com/xpress/2014/11/12/7204453/martin-luther-king-fbi-letter
  13. Taibbi, M. (2019). It’s official: Russiagate is this generation’s WMD. Substack. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://taibbi.substack.com/p/russiagate-is-wmd-times-a-million
  14. Walker, J. (2020). The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of the ‘Outside Agitator’ Story. Reason. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://reason.com/2020/06/01/the-rise-and-fall-and-rise-again-of-the-outside-agitator-story/
  15. Stahl, B., Lagoe, A. J., & Eckert, S. (2020). KARE 11 Investigates: Records show arrests so far are mostly in-state. KARE 11. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://www.kare11.com/article/news/investigations/kare-11-investigates-records-show-arrests-mostly-minnesotans-as-george-floyd-protests-riots-continue-minneapolis-st-paul/89-73f3e0e8-0664-41d5-8d3e-4467d04da7cb


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