Mostly peaceful protests

It doesn’t take much work to find photos or videos of violence at BLM protests. For example, here is a Twitter feed with videos from a recent protest in Portland in which a protestor was hit by Molotov cocktails thrown by other protestors:

Or we have this still:

CNN Calls Kenosha Riots "Fiery But Mostly Peaceful Protest" | News Radio  1200 WOAI | Michael Berry

(You can read more about this at

At the same time, we have a widely shared article from The Guardian stating that Trump is wrong, the protests are peaceful. You can read it here just in case you haven’t yet seen it on dozens of Facebook posts:

The headline states: Nearly all Black Lives Matter protests are peaceful despite Trump narrative, report finds

And inside we read: The vast majority of the thousands of Black Lives Matter protests this summer have been peaceful, with more than 93% involving no serious harm to people or damage to property, according to a new report tracking political violence in the United States.

This is then quoted by many to say — see, they are peaceful. Only racists say otherwise.

There are some problems with this article.

What does “serious” mean

First, what does serious harm mean? For example, if a building is set on fire (such as the one discussed in the linked article, in Seattle) but doesn’t burn down is it serious damage or not serious damage? If only one building out of all of the buildings in the city is burned down, is that serious damage or not serious damage? If a person’s car window is smashed in, and they can’t afford to repair it and lose their job, is that serious damage? (Before you attack me for hyperbole, transportation issues are a problem for many low income workers. See the excellent book $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America)

Some rush to say “Businesses have insurance. It doesn’t matter.” This is of course ridiculous on many levels (is it ok to injure someone who has health insurance?), but the impact to people is tremendous. For example, consider these stories about minority business owners in Philadelphia:

Risk psychology

The next issue with the article is the way it intentionally or unintentionally measures risk. Humans are, by nature, risk adverse. We are also bad at math.

Suppose the brakes on your car fail 1/14 times, leading to serious damage to people or property. Would you let your child drive it?

How about if 93% of the time you don’t have a serious accident?

Can you think of any product you use that you would be comfortable with knowing that 1/14 times you used it there would be serious damage to a person or property?

These are the same odds. One is stated positively (93% are safe) and one is stated negatively (1/14 times there is a major problem). We react differently to the same numbers depending on how they are presented.

Because the article states that 7% of the time there is serious damage, the car accident analogy is apt, and it doesn’t make sense to use a much lighter analogy.


The next problem with the article is that of context. It states that 7% serious harm is peaceful. But against what do we compare it? The article lists a number of protests examined to lend credence to their conclusion. But, these numbers are not tied to their conclusion. They are simply stated and there is no context. (More on that later.)

What is the usual rate of violence at protests?

The Women’s March of 2017 had 3-5MM particpants. The Kerala women‘s rights protest had 5M participants. Depending upon sources, BLM protests have had up to 25M protestors. I can find no reports of violence from either of the women’s rights marches. Combined they are somewhere between the same size and 40% the size of BLM protests. Is that the benchmark we should use? If so, 7% is dramatically higher than we would expect.

The violence is not because the marches are for racial justice. Some might imply that, but it is a deeply flawed suggestion. Simply look to the March on Washington or the Million Man Marches or the Million Women March. These are smaller in scale but still gathered several million participants, and likewise I could not find reports of significant damage. (In fact, I didn’t find any reports of any damage but I didn’t search deeply.)

We could argue that covid has triggered the violence, but the March on Washington is at the same time without the same issues. I suspect that crowd makeup, organization techniques, and crowd dynamics play much more of a role. For example, the March on Washington was designed by its organizers to be peaceful and was well planned and executed, while the Portland night events are quite possibly designed to be violent.

This still leads to the question… how much violence is a normal amount of violence and how much should we accept?

I suggest the following: if the chance of your family being seriously damaged at an event is higher than you would wish on them, the rate is too high.

Is violence the norm or the outlier?

The next issue we need to look at is whether violence is the norm or the outlier. The article shares none of the statistics. But the number could be:

Out of every 100 events, 7 result in significant damage.

Out of every 50 events in the day time, 0 result in significant damage. Out of every 50 events at night, 14 result in significant damage.

Or any other combination.

Furthermore, we need to ask, how many protests result in damage, not just significant damage. When asking this question we should not look at it with the lens of how much damage do we like when we believe in the cause, but how much damage would we accept from a cause in which we don’t believe. Violence is a double-edged sword.

One narrative says that the daytime protests are much more peaceful than the nighttime protests. We know that the peaceful protests get far less air time and FB coverage than the violent ones, so there is a strong selection bias by news and FB towards the violent since it drives more views.

If this is correct, we would be better off with more data and a classification to understand whether most protests have no violence and whether local governments should do more to control the night protests.

There are frequent videos of protests during the day that would not be classified as significantly violent. For example, here is a protest in Pittsburgh during the day, which presumably is categorized as peaceful. (I picked this particular article because it is mostly pictures. Feel free to skip the text.) Some will view the terror felt by the elderly couple as highly desirable and the whole point of protests; others will think it is terrible behavior. What percentage of peaceful protest are this type of peace?

None of this is covered in the study or the article, so journalists are either doing a disservice to protestors by under reporting on truly peaceful protests and should have more coverage like shown here, or are doing a disservice to non-protestors by classifying anything that doesn’t result in severe harm as peaceful. More likely, journalists are doing a disservice to both.

The article doesn’t cover the pattern of non-significant damage. Presumably the endless boarded up shops and graffitied buildings in Seattle don’t count as significant damage, so does that level of non-significant damage occur at all events? A small fraction? This is also data that would be valuable for understanding context.

Headline Feint

Next we get to the conclusion. We have stats about how many protests were studied, but no context. We have statements that some incidents were provoked by anti-movement protestors (factual), but then a leap of faith to suggest that might be a dominant factor. (Hinted at but not stated in the underlying research, but promoted by many who quote the article. The research authors, unlike many who refer to the research, properly qualified their statement.)

There is then a second leap of faith to suggest that the police in fact were the cause of the violence. (We’ll talk about this problem later, which is typically an issue of scope of information, and lack of information during chaos by all parties involved.)

Then we get to the headline. First, we bring in brazen politicization by trying to state that Trump is the one saying these events aren’t peaceful. He might be, but many others share this view, such as alluded to in by CNN (spin provided by The Federalist). This part of the headline is just designed to get anti-Trump supporters to agree with the next step. (If I dislike Trump, I surely will disagree with what Trump says.) It is a valid technique, but readers need to understand its use.

Next, the article headlines unequivocally states nearly all the protests are peaceful, although that is a context-free conclusion quite separate from the data.

The better summary of this article is:

1/14 BLM protests result in significant property or personal damage

We at The Guardian think that is fine. (But please don’t do it to us.)

But what is the emotion?

The article is designed to make people who support the protests feel like they don’t need to worry about the violence. It is widely spread, even though as shown, the data from the article doesn’t support its conclusion.

A large number of people see images of police violence and think we need change and that we can do better as a country. For some it is intellectual (happens to people elsewhere but seems bad I’m on the good side) and for some it is more visceral (that person behaves like or looks like my family – Je Suis Sandra Bland).

Many are upset by the violence of the protests and are sickened by what it means for the people involved (lost business, lost jobs, lost life savings, grief and trauma from dealing with the damage, death and injury). As with police violence this can be intellectual (it is far away but bad) or more visceral (that is my town or my family). If you have been a victim of a crime, you a greater understanding of that feeling.

This is a mix of logic and emotion. The side who is emotional dismisses the logic of the other side and vice versa. To get to unity we need to hear and understand both.

Many feel that since they support the protests they must support the violence. (False choice.)

Many who are upset at the violence feel they need to be against the protests to be against the violence. (False choice.)

This is furthered by the Democrat mayors and politicians who do not condemn or actively enable the violence for their own political purposes. (E.g. the mayors in Seattle and Portland.) You can be for racial justice, but against violence and against Democratic mayors.

What this is really showing is tribal alignment. Once we affiliate with something (a brand, a sports team), even if the initial affiliation is very light, we psychologically reorient to become part of the tribe. If you prefer Coca Cola to Pepsi, you are part of the Coke tribe and will align with and defend other Coke tribal members. The same occurs throughout political debates, where people align with a tribe, and then happily accuse the other side of the same irrationality they exhibit. This psychology is very useful for marketers, and plays equally well when trying to foster extreme partisanship.

In reality side picking is a classic tryanny of the or. It is good for Facebook, good for cable news, good for short term political wins of uniting a fervent base, but terrible for society and long term political health.

If you are a supporter of BLM, you can say “I’m a big believer in racial justice, but I am against the violence.”

If you are against the violence you can also say “I’m against the violence. But I also am against discrimination.”

We can then argue about what that means, but from a common ground that most people are against discrimination AND against violence.

Unfortunately this means counteracting your own tribal thinking. (As an experiment, place both a Biden and Trump sign in your front yard or a Black Lives Matter and a Police Lives Matter sign. If you read the Paco Underhill book I link to earlier, you will learn more about the psychology behind this. It could be an interesting Ph.D. study for a future psychologist.)

Here is how Biden approached the issue as reported by NPR:

“Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple.”

(You can argue that it was too late, it was only after the polls flipped, or that it needs to be followed up with action, but regardless, a good start is better than no start.)

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