by Deborah MathisDecember 28, 2020
In 2020, civil resisters ripped the cover off long-held grievances and long-running wrongs. They fostered new coalitions from across the demographic spectrum. They changed the old “you say”/”I say” about race and justice into a frank conversation, an exercise in self-reflection and, as importantly, an exercise in listening.
There is one other thing this year’s ubiquitous and unrelenting mass demonstrations for social justice accomplished: They produced a maturation in how the news media cover civil resistance, both in the United States and abroad.
The intensity, persistence, and cross-sectional participation made 2020’s demonstrations irresistible to journalists. Many major news outlets dispatched whole teams to cover civil resistance. A few remained trapped in play-by-play mode, breathlessly reporting protesters on the front lines. Those deserved attention, but deeper analysis was also needed, as many scribes seemed to recognize this time.
A growing number of journalists discerned the difference between violent and nonviolent resistance, in accord with the civil resistance community’s understanding. Many seemed to have found the line that separates not only violent from nonviolent actors, but violent from nonviolent actions. Some of these new contextualists were adamant about not painting peaceful demonstrators, looters, and anarchists with the same broad brush. A splendid few rendered even more perspective, removing property damage from the “violence” inventory, noting that the difference between smashing a window and bashing a jaw is more than a matter of degrees.
On the whole, it was a welcome portent of “wokeness” for news gatherers whose interpretations of both protest actions and the injustices that propel them have historically come up short. The best reporting requires context and depth. The care some journalists took in unpacking the “why” and clarifying the “who” is laudable and promising.
Still, this new contextualism is bound to be rebuffed by governments that treat challenges to their policies, laws, and practices as threats to society itself, and therefore something to be confronted with violent repression.
In Belarus, the Lukashenko regime continues to arrest, detain, and brutalize scores of people who peacefully demonstrated against the manifestly rigged presidential election in August. Likewise, in Thailand, pro-democracy, anti-monarchist leaders have been jailed despite the nonviolent nature of their movement. In U.S. cities, police unleashed chemicals, projectiles, and batons upon people peaceably gathering to support the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality and racial profiling. In Conakry, Guinea, security forces used tear gas and gunfire against a crowd of people who were celebrating what they thought was October’s lawful election of former Prime Minister Cellou Dalein Diallo over the tyrannical President Alpha Condé, who commandeered a third term. A reporter in Mexico City who was simply covering redoubtably peaceful protests of sexual assault and violence against women was herself manhandled and detained by police.
In the face of such incidents, clearly not even fact, truth, and accurate, consistent reporting can guarantee a fair outcome. But such media coverage often accrues to the benefit of movements committed to staying the nonviolent course and can weaken the hold of those who abuse their power.
Honest, insightful reporting that precisely reports who, what, and how, serves as a form of resistance all its own by attacking the ignorance, myths, and unwarranted fears on which injustice feeds. Scholars Erica Chenoweth (Harvard) and Jeremy Pressman (University of Connecticut)—who are among the growing number of civil resistance scholars-turned-public intellectuals in the name of enhancing movement coverage—proved as much in an October op-ed in the Washington Post, where they debunked a portion of a recent threat assessment by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“(T)he report misleadingly added that there had been ‘over 100 days of violence and destruction in our cities’ [during the summer of 2020]. In fact, the Black Lives Matter uprisings were remarkably nonviolent. When there was violence, very often police or counterprotesters were reportedly directing it at the protesters.”
By their authoritative account:
“96.3 percent of events involved no property damage or police injuries, and in 97.7 percent of events, no injured were reported among participants, bystanders or police.”
Empirical data and specific details cut through the clamor of agenda-driven reporting and messaging.
In addition, many journalists have now begun to realize that actions like rallies, sit-ins, and marches are often based on intensive strategic planning and training, not always spontaneous, organic “showdowns.” Further, they have recently discovered that there is an entire field of study dedicated to civil resistance—a treasure trove of quantitative research and objective analyses about the methodologies and effectiveness of nonviolent versus violent strategies with a growing community of researchers and scholars.
This realization seems to have begun late last year. When covering civil resistance in 2019 in Algiers, Beirut, Baghdad, Hong Kong, Khartoum, Santiago, and other locales, international news outlets such as France’s Le Monde, Norway’s Aftenposten, and Spain’s El Pais went beyond reporting the play-by-play of events, and sought out experts at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and elsewhere to explain the strategic underpinnings of those movements.
Of course, it is not the media’s job to assist either side of conflict. But they have an absolute duty to seek and report facts as completely as possible, including the inconspicuous ones. In many instances, they showed they can do this when covering the Great Unrests of 2019 and 2020. May this enlightenment be momentous, not momentary.
Join the conversation on Twitter @civilresistance, hashtag #ICNC2020Top10
Check out our "Top 10 Civil Resistance Stories of 2020, Looking Forward" countdown, with new posts rolling out every Monday from December 14, 2020 through February 15, 2021.