What People Are Getting Wrong About Protesters
Forget what you think you know about protesters and take a moment to listen to what they have to say.
In his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that “every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.” The last four years have seen a marked increase in protest movements, and this summer alone, millions of Americans marched in Black Lives Matter protests across the country—in cities known for famous marches in the past and in small towns and suburbs unaccustomed to such expression. These protests were largely peaceful. Despite this, many people still have a negative perception of them and assume the worst about protesters, painting demonstrations with a broad brush and conflating the Black Lives Matter cause with egregious cases of violence.
What do protesters wish more people knew? A lot, actually. We spoke to 17 everyday American citizens who showed up with signs in hand to speak out against racism, to support justice, and to denounce inequality. Some are young, some are older, some have been protesting for years, and some came out for the first time this summer after the murder of George Floyd. These are their opinions in their voices, shared in an effort to shine a light on why they protest and to explain what it’s like to be misunderstood while trying to make a difference.
One protester doesn’t speak for all protesters
“I think too many people misunderstood why a lot of folks took to the streets in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. The pandemic, growing economic inequality, a more explicitly racist political climate, and multiple, more highly publicized examples of police violence culminated in the massive uprising we witnessed. No one in my close circle questions why I support the protests and am heartened by the radical demands to defund and abolish harmful systems and institutions. But I wish more people understood what’s at stake and why protest remains one of our most powerful, transformative tools. There are multiple goals, and protesters range in perspectives, values, and ideas. One protester doesn’t speak for all, and yet a connective thread for those engaged is building a more just world. We all agree that what’s happening now is wildly unacceptable.” —Tracey, 37
Racism makes people see BLM protests as inherently dangerous
“I’ve been protesting for years, so I’m used to being misunderstood and misinterpreted. But I think it’s worse with the BLM protests because of racism—a belief that majority-Black movements are inherently more violent or dangerous. That angers me and makes me sad. It also makes me realize the privilege inherent in being a White person speaking out about this. I am far less likely to be harmed by police or by White supremacists than my Black friends are, and the media is less likely to depict me as a rabble-rouser because I’m middle-aged and White.” —Lena, 64
Protesting is a constitutional right
“It’s just so sad that fellow American citizens think that exercising our constitutional right to free, peaceful protest is somehow threatening. That view is tinged by systemic racism and unfounded fear, and it is not productive to pushing our country forward. I would like to keep informing people like me, with good intentions but shielded by White privilege, that these protests are essential to pushing the national conversation forward.” —Anna, 46
You walk away feeling better
“We went as a family. My husband was by my side, and we also took our three-year-old. I am a Black woman, a mom, a wife, and a Christian. I stood next to young students, as well as seniors who had marched on these same Chicago streets in the ’70s. We all had our own personal reasons for being out there, [but] we all marched to show unity and solidarity. We were needed to do something. I wish people knew that you walk away feeling better, that you feel like you are not alone, that you are not crazy for being sad and mad and discouraged and angry and more…all at the same time.” —Rose, 39
We felt like we had to do something
LordHenriVoton/Getty Images“I know I was being judged by some for attending protests over the summer during a pandemic. But I couldn’t sit at home knowing some people were willing to put their bodies and lives out there during COVID because the world needs to know that Black lives matter. The people against protests post random facts and pictures trying to depict Black men who have been murdered at the hands of police in a certain way to justify the violence—they are not seeing the larger problem. It isn’t just about individual racism; it is about the system that created these racist policies and the culture that we all live in. I wish people understood that the agitators and people attending just to cause violence are not part of the movement. Looters do not equal protesters.” —Nicole, 43
Sometimes protesting is the only way to get people to pay attention
“This country was founded on our right to protest, so it feels really bad when people misinterpret peaceful protests. Protest is a way to magnify something that is not being dealt with in the broad light of day. People may get upset when traffic is blocked or there are other barriers for protest, but protesting is a right. And sometimes protest is the only way to get people to pay attention. Protesters are pushing to change the system, because the system is not broken—it’s working exactly as planned. People think racism is the shark, when in fact racism is the water.” —Ronnie, 49
The protesters aren’t the ones inciting violence
“The national conversations surrounding protests are very damaging and dangerous and a complete misrepresentation of what is actually happening. Every protest I have attended has been completely peaceful and well organized. The only violence has been at the hands of the police. I’ve witnessed organizers make such a huge effort to make sure that participants are not inciting or encouraging violence or agitation with law enforcement. It is incredible to watch organizers fighting for their lives and still remain more calm and level-headed than the police. Law enforcement, on the other hand, has incited and encouraged violence or altercations with protesters. Any ‘looting’ or violence that has been the focus of the media has been completely blown out of proportion in my mind, and it completely disregards or ignores any of the reasoning for the destruction of property.” —Elaine, 26
Protesting is empowering but heart-wrenching
“It’s empowering being surrounded by people who believe in the cause as much as you do, but it’s also heart-wrenching to know that something so basic as human rights requires millions to gather and march on the streets. Protesters have been personally hurt by this country time and time again. Protests won’t stop until racial inequalities are addressed in our country, at a national and local level.” —Mike, 25
Protesters are not rioters or looters
“We (protesters) are not all unemployed bums. I work for a major health care system and protest during my free time. I love my country or else I wouldn’t be out here so passionately trying to be heard. Protesters are not rioters—there is a difference. But just like everything else in the world, there are good and bad people, and unfortunately, the bad people make protesters look bad and turn our protests into riots. I do find it quite ridiculous that people automatically jump to the conclusion that if I am protesting, then I don’t support my police, which is absolutely untrue. I love the police and back them, but what I don’t love is racist police. Everything in life has its good and bad, and when I protest, I am out there protesting bad police and the fact that racism is still an issue after all these years.” —Kyla, 33
Not all Americans are treated the same
“We all don’t live in the same America, and not all Americans are treated the same. Protest is [meant] to display a passion for justice and a call to action for justice and equality for all. We want real change, compassion, and leadership that formally denounces White supremacy and creates a system that educates, acknowledges, and changes the systemic problems of extreme bias and racism.” —Chris, 41. In case you were wondering, this is why desegregation didn’t put an end to racism in America.
We come from a place of revolutionary love
“The women’s march [after the 2016 presidential election] was probably my first ‘protest.’ I participated in my small town of Hillsborough, North Carolina, due to work constraints. I’ve been to dozens since. Although my first wasn’t this summer, I have been frustrated by claims that the demonstrations, which is how I like to refer to them, are violent. Me and my fellow protesters, for the most part, come from a place of revolutionary love. Protests often become violent because of the involvement of law enforcement. Black people have the same right to protest that White people did in the early days of our republic. Most people comply with the law. I’m an attorney. Any criminal charges at protests I have been at have been nonviolent, non-damaging misdemeanors and are overreactions from law enforcement.” —Jim, 44
The goal is never to make trouble
jacoblund/Getty Images“The goal is to bring awareness about the problems. The goal is to be heard and to make necessary changes. The goal is never to make trouble. I wish people knew that we are everyday people just like them. We work, raise our children, work hard to take care of our families. We would rather be at home enjoying our free time, but because the state of America is where it is, we have to take a stand.” —Hope, 42
Protesters are mostly non-violent
“In my view, any violence on the part of the protesters has come from a very small portion of the crowd and was mostly directed at inanimate objects, rather than people. There are a handful of committed anarchists who seem to use these types of events as cover to perpetrate acts of vandalism and also apparently a few cases of escalating provocateurs. The nonviolent majority of the group were subjecting themselves to the possibility of violence not from fellow protesters, but from counter-protesters, frustrated motorists, or those in official uniform. The use of nonlethal but still injurious weapons against reporters has been an egregious violation of the First Amendment. Drivers have purposefully driven into unprotected crowds, peaceably assembled. It’s also worth noting that many protesters self-regulated vandalism when they saw it happening—for example, by stopping graffiti on a bus in Houston or damage to a sidewalk in D.C.” —Pete, 39. In another case, demonstrators ended up protecting the cops they were protesting.
It’s about giving a voice to people who aren’t being heard
“I wish people could understand the importance of joining together to give voice to those whose voices have not ever been truly heard. Nearly all of us would be a protester given the right circumstances. I believe that advocating for others brings us closer to our best selves, and I believe that I have learned that, in large part, through protests.” —Monica, 48
The only way to achieve change is through action
“I was recently told by my uncle that being an anti-fascist wasn’t something to be proud of. I was at a loss for words as I considered the fact that his grandfather was sent to France in the summer of ’44. I’m frightened when I hear [neighbors] applaud the actions of our sheriff’s department when it decides to abuse its authority in response to us. We just want change, and the only way to achieve change is through action.” —Kelly, 26. Here are 14 small ways you can fight racism every day.
It is about equality, plain and simple
“The vast majority of the protesters are only there to improve the lives of those who are less fortunate. My 11- and 15-year-olds, who marched in support of Black Lives Matter with me, are marching in support of their Black classmates, teammates, and friends. It is about equality, preached by Jesus and [written] in our Constitution. It seems like such a simple goal, but it’s also elusive in history. Wouldn’t Jesus be marching, too, if he were here?” —Brendan, 50
I protest because I love this country
“It saddens me deeply to have all the actions of a city or town’s protest be lumped together. It could be several hundred protesters, but if a few people with bad intentions or lack of impulse control end up destroying some property, that’s all people hear about. Every time I go to a protest, I pray that my intentions will be seen for what they are. I hope that the fear some people have can change into understanding. Maybe by seeing their neighbors and coworkers in the protest, they could understand that the protesters aren’t frightening strangers. We go home to our children and our families, and we go to work—we are not plotting to overthrow the world. I protest because I love this country.” —Aimee, 42. Here’s how to keep supporting racial justice after the protests are done.
For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.