It is well accepted that protests are vital for a thriving democracy. They are viewed as an avenue for social change, in fact, other than voting they are one of the few other ways to voice your opinion and are even guaranteed by the first amendment in the United States. Protests certainly have the ability to set the political agenda and change the debate. People tend to have a positive connotation when they think of setting the agenda and changing the debate. This appears as a good idea, and it can be, but there are many implications. In a highly polarized society, such as the United States today, debates about social issues tend to change the debate for the worse.
When George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in May of 2020, Black Lives Matter protests around the entire country quickly erupted. There is no doubt that the news cycle in May and throughout the summer was dominated by Black Lives Matter protests coverage. As a result, this opened the door to debates about systemic racism, police brutality, defunding the police, and many other issues related to civil rights and equality. As some BLM protestors got violent, this gave republican politicians and news networks such as Fox News political leverage. It gave anyone who wanted to attack the democratic party the opportunity to do so. This only occurred because in a highly partisan society, every controversial social issue is used for cheap political points. For example, Fox News has described the BLM protests as marxist protests, they have accused the movement of wanting to end the nuclear family and even have gone as far to say that BLM founders “has as its mission to overthrow the United States” (Monroe and Savillo, 2021). Unfortunately, unless protests are done completely peacefully any violence is low hanging fruit for republicans to demagogue the issue, especially when partisanship is high. Much disinformation came from BLM protests, and as a result many people thought negatively of the BLM movement as a whole. However, there would not be as much disinformation if politics were not so partisan right now. The truth and facts do not matter in a polarized political landscape because scoring cheap political points to “win” is far more important than the good of the country. Ironically this misinformation used for cheap political points is actually framed to be for the good of the country yet, but it is detrimental. This is why protests have the ability to do more harm than good. Especially if the subject is perceived as a controversial social issue, BLM was used by the far right to create political tension to utilize for their own political gain.
In 2021, 85% of democrats or democrat-leaning supported the BLM movement, while 78% of republican- leaning and republicans opposed the BLM movement (Horowitz, 2021). It is self-evident that these statistics show a clear separation between party lines, democrats support BLM while republicans do not. In addition, these statistics clearly show a polarized society. These numbers do not actually reflect if people truly support what the BLM movement stands for, because there is an abundance of misinformation that has been broadcasted that now forms peoples opinions about the movement. I say this because if Fox News is claiming that these protesters intend to overthrow the United States, (despite credible reports that conclude 93% of BLM protests are peaceful), of course people that take this disinformation for the truth are going to oppose the movement (Mansoor, 2020). For example, one of Pew Research Center’s respondents said, “I used to support BLM, but now I see them as violent domestic terrorists not interested in addressing the real problems within the Black community. BLM is about a communist revolution not about helping the Black community…” (Perrin, 2021). Given that 93% of the BLM protests have been peaceful, I think it is a fair assumption that this statement was guided by misinformation. In addition, this statement proves that before the BLM protests, this individual had a more favorable opinion of the BLM movement, however, his opinion took a negative turn due to how the far right depicted the protests and movement as a whole. Overall, in a highly polarized political landscape protests can sometimes have the ability to alter people’s opinions for the worse and as a result make real progress even more difficult.
Although protests can have many negative unintended consequences, especially in a polarized society, this is not to say that protests should not ever happen or that they can’t be important to democracy sometimes. A Pew Research respondent said, “Reading articles on the BLM movement has opened my eyes to the degree of systemic racism in this country and the world” (Perrin, 2021). For some individuals, the BLM protests helped to educate them and change their opinions. There are of course positives, people just tend to not consider the negatives when the word protest comes to mind.
The fact of the matter is that there are unintended consequences from protests that people tend to overlook. Protests are a tool and a right to democracy but they can be an especially damaging tool when politics are extremely polarized.
Horowitz, Julianam (2020, January 9). Support for Black Lives Matter declined after George Floyd protests, but has remained unchanged since. Pew Research Center. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/
Mansoor, S. (2020, September 5). 93% of black lives matter protests have been peaceful: Report. Time. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://time.com/5886348/report-peaceful-protests/
Perrin, A. (2020, October 16). 23% of users in U.S. say social media led them to change views on an issue; some cite black lives matter. Pew Research Center. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/10/15/23-of-users-in-us-say-social-media-led-them-to-change-views-on-issue-some-cite-black-lives-matter/
Monroe, Tyler & Savillo, Rob. Fox News has attacked black lives matter over 400 times in a 6-month period. Media Matters for America. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://www.mediamatters.org/black-lives-matter/fox-news-has-attacked-black-lives-matter-over-400-times-6-month-period