Panic! at the Neighborhood

Why rumors of a protest shook La Jolla, and how more rumors shook America

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Kyle Berlage, Assistant Graphics Editor

On June 5, at 1:09 p.m., a strange email landed in my inbox from an anonymous sender. “As you may be aware, Antifa and its related radical left wing organizations plan to target the Village of La Jolla for a large protest march either this Friday or Saturday. To obviate a police response, their time and date will be determined with only a few hours notice,” the email warned. “The standard protocol for many of these protests has been to begin with peaceful demonstrations which convert into widespread arson, looting and mayhem… Consequently, we are respectfully asking the able bodied men of La Jolla, those with a sense of gallantry and valor, to come down and help peacefully defend our village shops and residential neighborhoods.” 

You might think that the use of such momentous and frankly medieval language would predict a huge battle: one group defending their picturesque city against the evil imposters attempting to burn it all to the ground. Spoiler alert: none of that happened. There were no Black Lives Matter protests in the Village of La Jolla on Friday or Saturday, and statistically, any protest that would occur, would be quite unlikely to turn violent. So why did these rumors have so much power in La Jolla, and across America?

There is no doubt that some protests throughout the country have turned into violent riots. Specifically, the initial outrage that swept the streets of Minneapolis has been popularly seen as “mostly violent riots,” according to a poll by YouGov and Yahoo News. Portland, Oregon is also going through a similar situation as the initial outrage to Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, with special agents being sent into the city to quell the protests. With these riots, there have been many different attempts to utilize the emotionally charged images and language of the protests to further right-wing politicians’ and media corporations’ own political and economic benefit, creating panic at the prospect of a Black Lives Matter protest in their neighborhood.

Right wing media outlets are some of the most crafty when using these images to concoct a dystopian view of the protests. For example, in a clip of Tucker Carlson Tonight from July 3rd titled “Who are the criminals destroying your country?,” Carlson uses repeated images of the same protests as well as images of a couple from St. Louis holding guns outside of their home as if they were being threatened by those protesting down their street. One of the tricks used by Carlson is to repeat a very short clip of the St. Louis couple, during the most charged part of the encounter, in order to keep emotions high when the viewer reacts to his commentary. These techniques are also used from the first click on the Fox News website, with a charged title and a subtitle that reads, “They’re not protesters or civil rights activists. They’re violent criminals being used as a militia by the Democratic Party to seize power.” But as right wing media outlets use these protests to further their economic interests and keep viewers watching, many politicians are using the same techniques to further their political gain.

Just as the media does, politicians also use their platforms to spread irrational fear about protests. For example, in response to statues being torn down, Republican congressional representative Jim Hagedorn said that those fighting for the Black Lives Matter movement were, “at war” with “western culture,” terms that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, fuel white supremacy. Another instance of the political weaponization of the protests comes from Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, where he said, “[the protests are] not about violence. It’s not even about race. They want to replace and destroy our great nation,” as well as saying that the concept of white privilege is a “racist” term. But as the media and these politicians stir panic to further their own gain, the information they spread about protests being overwhelmingly violent is either warped or false.

According to research company Ipsos, out of the approximately 1,400 protests that happened in the wake of the death of George Floyd, around 81 percent had no observable violence. In fact, out of the 18 protests that happened within San Diego County, only two protests, or 11 percent of the protests had observable violence. But even though there was comparably little violence at these protests, especially within San Diego County, psychologists may have a reason for why protests might be seen differently by some La Jollans.

According to psychologist Arthur Dobrin D.S.W. in PsychologyToday, exaggerated views of the protests can be compared to a glass half-full or half-empty situation. He said, “Those who see racism as baked into the bones of America see the protests as justified. While condemning violence, they also can understand how rage can follow from malignant injustices. Those who see protesters as violating critical norms of society and view the police as guardians of public safety and property in a perhaps flawed but fundamentally just society will view the violence as the dominant and most important aspect of the demonstrations.”

So as some La Jollans reacted to the circulating rumors about protests in the area, their more conservative and pro-police “frames” of viewing the protests blurred the fact that a protest in La Jolla was unlikely to become violent in the first place. So as whoever wrote that anonymous email to me fundamentally misunderstood what “Antifa” is and the statistical improbability that a protest would turn violent, the combination of media and political exaggeration of the protests, as well as the writer’s own frames of seeing the protests, provides a reason for why they felt that email needed to be sent.