Riots have become a nightly occurrence in America, driven by social justice-fueled outrage against police brutality. Every city is just one officer-involved shooting away from erupting into violence. Despite the evidence (including bodycam footage) that exonerated the police officer involved in the fatal shooting of 27-year-old Ricardo Munoz, who lunged at an officer in Lancaster with a knife, riots erupted in the Pennsylvanian city and elsewhere across the country. The protesters’ anger was primarily fueled by misinformation and agitation on social media.
Every city is just one officer-involved shooting away from erupting into violence.
Not all of this protesting starts out ill-intentioned; all it really takes to get someone to march against injustice is to show them that this injustice is happening right outside their doorstep. Most people care about right and wrong, and when they perceive an injustice, they’ll do whatever’s possible to make sure they’re standing on the right side of history after the ashes settle. And most people who protest aren’t doing so just to score woke points or start trouble. They believe what they’re told-and what they’re being told, in this instance, was that a 14-year-old autistic boy was “executed” in cold blood by a psychopathic police officer in Lancaster, PA.
On September 13th, 28-year-old Ricardo Munoz lunged at a police deputy with a knife following an altercation with his mother, prompting one of his siblings to call 9-1-1. When police arrived, Munoz charged at the responding officer through the front door and attempted to stab him-footage of which was caught on the officer’s bodycam. The officer has no choice but to respond, shooting and killing Munoz.
This sequence of events was then retold on social media by popular commentators like T. Greg Doucette, an American lawyer whose Wikipedia page claims that he is “best known for indexing videos of police brutality.” Insead of a neutral recounting of the events that transpired during the Lancaster shooting, Doucette falsely claimed that Munoz, an adult who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia with a history of violence (he stabbed four strangers, including a minor, in 2019), Doucette described the shooting as a “summary execution of a reportedly autistic man they claim was armed with a knife.”
He added, without any corroboration, that Munoz’s dead body was left “visible on the ground for more than two hours” (a dog-whistle for those who had been traumatized by the treatment of Michael Brown’s body, back in 2014).
America, facing some of the worst polarization and enmity in its history, is at each other’s throats-and the mob justice culture of social media is inciting the rift.
Doucette’s dramatization, among other viral tweets, helped to fuel outrage against the shooting. The Black Lives Matter demonstrators who turned out in force in Lancaster streets (just as they had in Kenosha, Washington DC, Portland, New York, and other major U.S. cities) believed the lie and retold the story of an autistic teenager who was cruelly executed by a trigger happy police officer. Media interviews with demonstrators, including one who was previously filmed attacking a police vehicle, exposed the dearth of facts circulating among protesters who believed their cause was just.
Munoz’s death was not a one-off incident. The initial reports about the Jacob Blake case in Kenosha, Wisconsin, falsely suggested that Blake (who was wanted on an arrest warrant) was trying to break up a fight before the encounter. In Louisville, details of the Breonna Taylor shooting was heavily clouded by speculation and outright fiction, with most of the pertinent facts swept under the rug as social justice activists like Shaun King claimed that police officers shot a nurse after failing to announce themselves in the execution of a no-knock warrant.
The Courier-Journal debunked many of the lies spread about the case even before the Kentucky AG’s office released its findings. For starters, Taylor was not asleep when the shooting happened. Police also announced themselves before entering the residence. Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, shot first. Taylor was named in the warrant. The list goes on.
But the story of a woman stone-cold murdered in her bed is enough to make anyone upset, even drive them to the streets. Combined with other stories of injustice that continue to mount, it’s enough to get half the nation up in arms about police brutality-especially when you believe the narrative that police violence is an epidemic worse than the coronavirus (despite a year-on-year decline in police-involved killings).
The narratives that fuel the divide goes both ways. While proponents of the Black Lives Matter movement and self-proclaimed Antifa are keen to paint the police as lawless thugs bent on oppressing Black people and other minorities, those who support the police just as eagerly promote the view that every Black Lives Matter protest is a hair away from turning into a riot. America, facing some of the worst polarization and enmity in its history, is at each other’s throats-and the mob justice culture of social media is inciting the rift.
PROTEST, COUNTER-PROTESTS, COUNTER-COUNTER-PROTESTS
A report from the non-profit organization Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project shows that 93% of Black Lives Matter protests that occurred immediately following the death of George Floyd on May 26th and August 22th were “peaceful.” Supporters of the protests-including Michelle Obama-have used the statistic to downplay the violent nature of the other 7 percent. In some instances, the media has described violent riots as “fiery, but mostly peaceful” or some variation thereof.
Tensions continue to escalate as protests are met with counter-protests, which are then themselves, met with further violence.
That 7% cannot be ignored. The Insurance Information Institute, which compiles information from companies tracking insurance claims related to civil disorder, estimates that damage from riots will cost in excess of $2 billion in claims. In a statement to Axios, Triple-I stated that damage between May 26th and June 8th are estimated to be among the most expensive in US history.
The human cost of the riots also can’t be ignored. Recently commemorated by President Trump, Retired St. Louis Police Capt. David Dorn was murdered in St. Louis while protecting a friend’s store from rioters and looters. According to Forbes, Dorn’s murder was only one of at least 19 individuals killed in just two weeks of demonstrations over the death of George Floyd. Over the past three months, more than a hundred police officers suffered injuries-some of which were grievous. 29-year-old Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Officer Shay Mikalonis was shot in the back of the head while struggling with a rioter. He suffered a traumatic brain injury.
These instances of violence have (understandably) seeded the fear that every protest has the potential to turn into a riot-a fear that is one reinforced by conservative social media influencers whose highlighting of these instances of chaos has prompted some members of the public to go as far as to arm up and attend counter-protests against proponents of Black Lives Matter and Antifa. Tensions continue to escalate as protests are met with counter-protests, which are then themselves, met with further violence.
In Yorba Linda, California, Black Lives Matter organizer Tatiana Turner was charged with attempted murder after driving through a crowd of Trump supporters following an altercation between Black Lives Matter protesters and conservative activists who came out in support of the police.
Aaron Jay Danielson, a Trump supporter who showed up for a MAGA rally organized by the conservative activist group Patriot Prayer in Portland, Oregon, was murdered by Michael Reinoehl. Reinoehl described himself as “100% Antifa,” brandished a massive Black Lives Matter fist on his neck, and regularly posted video footage of his participation in the nightly siege of the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse and other protests in Portland onto social media. From video footage that surfaced of the killing, Reinoehl can be seen stalking Danielson and his friend from an alcove before emerging to fire the fatal shot. The other bullet, aimed at Danielson’s friend, missed the target. Reinoehl would later be killed by US Federal Marshals in their attempt to arrest him after he pointed the gun he used to execute Danielson at pursuing officers.
Amid all of this wreckage and violence is the constant stream of social media commentary, fanning the flames of fear, apprehension, and violence.
DEATH BY DEFAMATION
The violence of social media isn’t just borne offline, as incensed mobs take to the streets after influencers peddle falsehoods. The violence also occurs because of social media’s power to defame and slander. Take the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old who, by some documented accounts, was in Kenosha to keep the peace following widespread violence the night before, was forced to defend himself against three attackers-two of whom were killed in their attempt to take his life.
As detailed by Tucker Carlson, and L. Lin Wood, a member of Rittenhouse’s defense team (who is widely renowned for representing Nicholas Sandmann and Richard Jewell), Rittenhouse’s actions were not premeditated. In a statement to the press, Kyle’s attorneys said:
“Kyle did nothing wrong. He exercised his God-given, Constitutional, common law and statutory law right to self-defense. However, in a reactionary rush to appease the divisive, destructive forces currently roiling this country, prosecutors in Kenosha did not engage in any meaningful analysis of the facts Rather, after learning Kyle may have had conservative political viewpoints, they immediately saw him as a convenient target who they could use as a scapegoat to distract from the Jacob Blake shooting and the government’s abject failure to ensure basic law and order to citizens.”
But the prosecutors in Kenosha were not alone. Ambivalent to the facts of the case, social media outrage quickly swelled to vilify Rittenhouse as a “white supremacist” and a “murderer”-a claim echoed by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (MA-07).
Public smear campaigns like the one against Rittenhouse are enough to coerce someone into taking their own life, which is what happened in the tragic case of Jake Gardner. Gardner, an Omaha bar owner, and US Marine veteran, allegedly shot and killed a protester during a Black Lives Matter protest in late May.
In video footage, Gardner was seen standing up for his father in front of their bar after two rioters attempted to vandalize the property. The shooting victim surprised him by jumping on his back, eventually getting him into a chokehold. Gardner was forced to retaliate by firing two warning shots, one of which hit the victim squarely in the chest.
Charges were initially dropped given the preponderance of video evidence exonerating Gardner, prompting anger and outrage across Twitter. After all, another black life had been taken. As unrest grew on social media, the mob took to the streets for more looting, rioting, and destruction, until Omaha appointed a special prosecutor, who would go on to disagree with the district attorney and file criminal charges against Gardner.
Gardner, defamed as a neo-Nazi, was eventually evicted from his place of business and faced upwards of a million dollars in bail fees. Five days after a grand jury indicted him for manslaughter, Gardner committed suicide outside a medical center in Oregon where he’d relocated to feeling death threats in Nebraska.
The tragic demise was broadcast by Shaun King, who, even in death, branded Gardner as a “white supremacist.”
On Twitter, Omaha State Senator Megan Hunt (who proudly carries the bio “Bi queen. Abolish ICE. Equality before the law 2k20. She/her/hers” in her profile) celebrated his death. “Jake Gardner is gone, but the white supremacist attitudes that emboldened him are still with us today,” she wrote in a series of tweets:
“White supremacist groups, including ones Jake Gardner was in communication with, rely on you thinking that none of this is a big deal so they can organize their support. They have been successful: White supremacist violence now makes up the majority of domestic terror in the US.”
None of what Hunt says about Gardner is based on evidence, but the mob, as always, won’t let facts get in the way of its outrage.
Randy Essex, Executive Editor of The World-Herald, commented on the utter tragedy of the situation, and how social media discourse impeded both justice and common human decency: “Moving toward equal treatment for people of color is an important, ongoing battle Suicide by our nation’s veterans, of whom Gardner was one, is a crisis we also must address We cannot do these things if we get sucked in by Twitter influencers who benefit from encouraging people to scream and threaten.” Essex calls out everyone-people from both sides of the spectrum-for fanning the flames of controversy and encouraging outrage. He continues:
“James Scurlock and Jake Gardner carried the experiences of their very different lives onto Harney Street on the chaotic night of May 30 and got into a fight. Video shows that much without dispute. Gardner brought a gun that he fired three times, and the judicial system was set to determine if his actions were criminal. That also is an indisputable fact
Now two families mourn their sons and brothers, and the issues that brought these men together remain as unresolved challenges critical to our future.
This has been a complicated, painful and nuanced case, but this much is certain: Throwing bombs on social media, calling each other names and threatening reporters will not move us toward a more equitable society.”
Implicit in Essex’s commentary is the idea that social media’s viral mob justice can only end in violence and social unrest-and can only take away from real justice enacted by police and law enforcement.
On Thursday, thirteen people were charged by federal and state officials in an alleged domestic terrorism plot to kidnap Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Bloodshed was spared because law enforcement was able to step in and prevent any violence from happening, quickly arresting and charging would-be militants from undermining the rule of law through violent, criminal action. Law and order were upheld.
Simply put, social media is killing more people than the police ever have, or ever will because mob action is driven entirely by the virality of a tweet. When given wings, a single post can take off and ruin your life-and it has, as shown time and time again. People can get swept away by the tides of emotion that swell up every time a perceived injustice is happening, and not even realize their complicity in the outcome.
Everyone just needs to calm down and let the cops do their jobs. Everyone.
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