The report contradicts the message from the Trump campaign and much of the right-wing media, which has focused endlessly on the small percentage of violent conflicts.
President Donald Trump and his allies have spent much of the summer painting protests against police brutality and systemic racism as violent and radical, but new data confirms that the overwhelming majority of protests have been non-violent.
A new report from the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) found that 93% of protests affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement that occurred in the United States this summer remained peaceful and did not include “violence or destructive activity.”
ACLED, which analyzes war zones and political turmoil around the world, launched the US Crisis Monitor report in partnership with Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative. Using media accounts and other publicly available information, the report identified 7,750 protests across all 50 states between May 26 and Aug. 22 that were connected to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Of the more than 2,400 distinct protest locations found, only about 220 ever became “violent”—which the report’s authors defined as protesters clashing with police or counterprotesters or causing property damage. But even in those rare cases, demonstrations that turned confrontational were “largely confined to specific blocks, rather than dispersed throughout the city,” the report found.
The report contradicts the message from the Trump campaign and much of the right-wing media, which has focused endlessly on the small percentage of violent conflicts in cities like Portland, Oregon. As part of his new “law and order”-focused campaign, Trump has called protesters “criminals,” and “thugs,” decried Black Lives Matter as a “symbol of hate,” and mischaracterized broad swaths of protesters as members of “antifa,” a loose, decentralized collective of anti-fascist activists whom Trump and conservatives have falsely painted as terrorists.
Those attacks represent a “deliberate mischaracterization of groups or movements [involved in the protests],” according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The focus on rare acts of violence and property damage has had an impact on support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Public support for the protests peaked in June, a week after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, sparked nationwide demonstrations. But as the Trump campaign and the media disproportionately focused on instances of looting and property destruction, support for the movement fell—especially among white voters.
“Despite the media focus on looting and vandalism, however, there is little evidence to suggest that demonstrators have engaged in widespread violence,” the ACLED report concluded.
In fact, the Trump administration’s response seems to actually be spurring violence. Researchers at ACLED warned that the government’s aggressive crackdown—which has sometimes included “firing less-lethal weapons like tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray or beating demonstrators with batons”—appears to have escalated the conflict in America’s streets.
“The heavy-handed police response appears to have inflamed tensions and increased the risk of violent escalation,” the report states.
Prior to the arrival of federal officers in Portland, Oregon, fewer than 25% of demonstrators were “met with state force,” the report states. That figure jumped to 40% in July and August. The percentage of violent demonstrations in the city also surged dramatically after federal agents arrived, from 53% to 62%.
“Although federal authorities were purportedly deployed to keep the peace, the move appears to have re-escalated tensions,” the report reads. This escalation, along with an increase in extremist activity, puts the US at serious risk of “political violence and instability” ahead of the 2020 election, the authors warned.
“In this hyper-polarized environment, state forces are taking a more heavy-handed approach to dissent, non-state actors are becoming more active and assertive, and counter-demonstrators are looking to resolve their political disputes in the street,” the authors wrote. “Without significant mitigation efforts, these risks will continue to intensify in the lead-up to the vote, threatening to boil over in November if election results are delayed, inconclusive, or rejected as fraudulent.”
The report found evidence of more than 20 “non-state groups” engaging in more than 100 demonstrations, most of which were in response to protests affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. These predominantly right-wing groups included armed militias like the New Mexico Civil Guard and the Three Percenters, and also extremist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, Proud Boys, and Boogaloi Bois—one of whom shot and killed a security officer in California in May.
Armed vigilantes who may or may not be affiliated with groups are also a growing presence at demonstrations, the report found. At least 50 such incidents have been reported around the country since May 24. In recent weeks, one of these incidents turned deadly.
On Aug. 25, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse of Antioch, Illinois traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin, following local protests against the police shooting of an unarmed Black man, 29-year-old Jacob Blake. Rittenhouse shot three protesters that night, killing two.
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Rittenhouse was allowed to leave the scene, just hours after local police officers thanked armed members of the Kenosha Guard for being present and gave them water (He has since been charged with double homicide).
The report’s authors said that police officers’ encouragement of right wing groups could fuel further unrest.
On Thursday, a group of pro-Trump counter-protesters interrupted a Black Lives Matter protest in Times Square, where demonstrators were marching to demand justice for Daniel Prude, a Black man who was killed by Rochester police in March. Video from the scene shows the New York Police Department (NYPD) escorting the Trump-supporting contingent into an unmarked police vehicle that then plows through a crowd of Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Multiple protesters suffered minor injuries, according to Gothamist. The NYPD said on Thursday evening that it was investigating the incident, but claimed the vehicle was not one of its own.
Democratic nominee for president Joe Biden has condemned the violence, and challenged President Trump to do the same. Trump, however, has doubled down on his attempts to sow division. On Monday, the president defended Rittenhouse, the man charged with homicide in Wisconsin. During a rally in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, three days later, he referred to protesters as “domestic terrorists.”