Media Myths About Protests

Six media myths about the Black Friday demonstration in San Francisco, debunked.

Since November 24, protests have been raging across the nation in response to the non-indictments of police officers Darren Wilson, who fatally shot unarmed black teenager, Mike Brown, and Daniel Pantaleo, who strangled an unarmed black man, Eric Garner, to death in New York City on camera. We believe the media has covered the protests in a way that exaggerates their violence and has minimized their significance. Here are six myths about a large demonstration in San Francisco that took place on Black Friday, followed by what actually happened.

Myth 1: the Media Said the Protest Became an Ugly, Violent Riot

Ugly. Violent. Riots. Looting. Cowering shoppers. Frightened crowds. That’s what Americans heard about the Black Friday march in San Francisco from the media.

But how violent was the protest really? The answer: not very. Only a tiny minority of the people present was involved in property damage or assault. And those moments were vastly outweighed by long periods of peaceful marching.

You might think it’s hard to estimate how much of the protest involved criminality. But we’re going to try, based on a minute-by-minute report of the four-hour protest by San Francisco-based freelance journalist Sam-Omar Hall, eyewitness accounts (including from us), and from information released by San Francisco Chief of Police Greg Suhr.

In the five incidents of vandalism and violence in Union Square, an estimated 9 people were involved, out of about 400 protesters — in other words, just 2 percent of those participating. The incidents took place over a span of about 15 minutes, starting at 6:43 p.m. — the only time during which vandalism occurred in the first two hours of the march.

Over the next two hours, in the Mission District, about nine isolated incidents of vandalism and violence took place during a span of about 20 to 30 minutes. In all, the four-hour protest involved isolated incidents of criminal behavior over about 35 to 45 minutes — far from the “riot” described by the media.

For comparison, let’s look back to earlier this fall, when the San Francisco Giants won the World Series. Rioting sports fans in the Mission District damaged 28 Muni buses; lit street bonfires on couches, trash cans, mattresses, and Lyft’s pink mustaches; smashed five police vehicles; and shot guns, wounding two people. The damage to Muni alone totaled at least $140,000. Despite the far greater intensity of property damage and violence, police only made forty arrests — half the number made on Black Friday.

Myth 2: There Was Indiscriminate Looting

In reality, property damage was targeted at major chain stores and upscale businesses. Stores damaged included Macy’s, Bank of America, Simayof Jewelers, McDonald’s, RadioShack, and Beretta — an upscale restaurant on Valencia Street.

What are the common denominators of these targets? They’re either large national chains or symptoms of gentrification.

Myth 3: Police Arrested 79 Vandals

In reality, police did not arrest any vandals. In a press conference last week, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr concluded his statement by saying that “All told that night, we made 79 arrests.”

But Suhr did not specify why the 79 people were arrested, leaving the journalists present with the impression that 79 arrests were made in response to violence and vandalism.

A later question, however, blew that idea to shreds. In response to a media question about how many arrests were made in regard to vandalism, Suhr admitted, “We have no arrests for vandalism.”

In fact, of the 79 arrested, all but 4 were cited and released for misdemeanors unrelated to assault or vandalism. Of the four booked into jail, two were for outstanding warrants, leaving only 2 arrests that had anything to do with violence that night.

But of the 9 news reports of the press conference, only 2 mentioned that none of the 79 arrests were for vandalism.

Myth 4: Police Acted Legally Throughout

In reality, police mass-arrested seventy people on legally dubious grounds. Starting at about 9:45 p.m., police silently arrested around seventy protesters who were trapped and huddled together on Liberty Street. The arrests occurred over a period of about two hours.

So you might imagine that cops had good reasons for the mass arrests. But you’d be wrong.

Those arrested were compliant, exhausted, and wanted to go home. Here’s how they ended up cuffed and jailed instead:

The group had turned onto Liberty in an attempt to escape two police lines trapping them on Valencia. Police chased them onto Liberty and ordered them to get out of the road and onto the sidewalk. Everyone got onto the sidewalk.

Then a different police line approached from ahead and ordered protesters to get back into the road. Police circled the group of protesters, forcing everyone back onto the sidewalk and up against a wall on Liberty.

Police wouldn’t respond to questions, and when approached, they lifted what looked like automatic weapons. (These weapons were probably rubber-bullet guns.) No one knew what was happening, everyone was tired, and no one was offering any resistance. People started calling family to say they were likely getting arrested, as police began picking off and cuffing protesters one by one.

People were not read their rights. Police quickly mumbled the charge numbers to each person as they were handcuffed. It turned out that everyone present had been charged with jaywalking and with failure to obey a law enforcement officer. Everyone was taken to the Hall of Justice in vans, cited, and released some hours later — except for three people detained overnight because they had prior warrants.

Were the arrests legal? Not really, because it was impossible for protesters to simultaneously obey two sets of officers and be on and off the sidewalk at the same time, one legal expert explained. “Implied with any directive is the ability to obey or comply, so if they told you to do something that was in some way impossible then that would be unlawful,” said Danny Everett, a criminal defense attorney and former San Francisco deputy district attorney.

The arrests were legally dubious in another respect, too. The officer who handcuffed one of us — Ryan Heuser — told Heuser that he had “failed to disperse.” But no dispersal order was given in the vicinity of the mass arrest.

We later learned that a dispersal order was given to a different group, several blocks away on Valencia and completely out of earshot. This tactic has been used recently by Los Angeles Police Department officers who arrested a large group of protestors after a dispersal order had been read in a different part of downtown.

Is that a legal move by police? Not exactly. “If you give an order to one set of people and then expect another to comply with it, then that would not be lawful,” Everett said. “It’s not a lawful order.”

Myth 5: Police Acted With Great “Restraint”

Police Chief Suhr said last week that police acted throughout the protests with “restraint.” Media accounts have supported that narrative and totally avoided any criticism of police tactics.

Yet during the protest, SFPD used a kettling tactic — essentially blocking or trapping protesters in a tight area — that is highly controversial in other countries. In the United Kingdom, some legal experts say that kettling is used to make protesting so unpleasant that people who experience it will never protest again.

It’s also widely accepted that kettling is likely to provoke violence. In Union Square, it was only after protesters had been kettled between police lines for more than fifteen minutes that we heard glass break for the first time. “Does the benefit of any prevention of disorder by kettling justify the anger, dismay, and sometimes further disorder that it creates?” asked British reporter Dave Hill in a report after a notorious kettling incident in London in 2010.

Myth 6: Police Acted In The Public Interest

Arresting people who aren’t criminals is not in the public interest. But arresting protesters who didn’t commit a crime has one major advantage for police. It makes those people less likely to ever take to the streets and protest again. “I would highly anticipate that there’s a 99.9 percent chance that all those charges would be dropped,” Everett said. “The purpose is to arrest you and defuse the situation.”


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