The American democratic machine is creaking. And meandering in its echoes are the voices of marginalized communities, as the instruments that safeguard their livelihoods are continually blunted and peeled away.
Protest is an agency of the people that encapsulates the First Amendment, which preserves “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Yet, for a nation that trumpets “exceptionalism” in its democratic values, its incessant fixation on protests as sources of civic disagreement instead of a natural release valve for communities in pain is appalling.
Last Thursday, hundreds of students marched across campus in protest of former Florida congressman and Texas gubernatorial candidate Lt. Col. Allen West’s (R-TX) speech, “America is not Racist.”
Throughout the day, swaths of students marched through the Academic Spine with signs reading “Racism is real” and “Black voices matter.” During the speech itself, aggrieved students gathered in the Student Union chanting “No justice, no peace” and “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Allen West has got to go.”
West arrived on campus in the wake of two tumultuous years that saw longstanding racial violence and police brutality claim the lives of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Tony McDade and many others within communities of color.
He also arrived on a campus reeling from a pandemic that laid bare disparities in the U.S. healthcare system, which saw people of color disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and the rise of xenophobic rhetoric and violence.
But that’s not the story that national and local news outlets chose to report in the days that followed the event.
Dominating headlines since the protest range from Fox News’ “Student hides from ‘woke mob’ in bathroom as angry protesters target Allen West: ‘I was afraid for my life’” to The Buffalo News’ “Student group leaders report harassment after conservative commentator’s speech at UB.”
These headlines focus exclusively on a single account of violence from student organizers and neglect to acknowledge the perspective of any of the protesters.
Since then, these allegations of violence have taken a vise-like grip on the perception of the protest, despite being unconfirmed — University Police and university officials say they are reviewing the events. These claims have dominated the news cycle and diverted attention away from the protestors’ motivations.
Burying voices of protest under accusations of violence has a tried-and-true history in the political media landscape.
Look no further than just two summers ago, when protests erupted across the U.S. following Floyd’s murder. Former President Donald Trump relentlessly used terms such as “thugs,” “looting” and “riots” to describe the protests against police brutality in a bid to stain the movement with an image of violence.
And yet, more than 93% of the estimated 7,750 Black Lives Matter demonstrations held across the country between May 26 and Aug. 22, 2020 were peaceful, according to a report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a nonprofit organization that tracks global political protest and violence.
Two years later, the reception of last week’s events at UB shows that ascribed narratives of violence to otherwise legitimate protests remain the usual culprits in disenfranchising the voices of protestors. Frankly, the onus is on both local and national media outlets to be held accountable for fair and balanced reporting.
Whether or not violence truly did break out at UB remains to be seen. But regardless, the grievances and motivations of student protestors remain absent from the national conversation.
For a nation that touts itself as some grand democratic experiment, that is bitterly shameful.
Kyle Nguyen is an assistant news/features editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Kyle Nguyen is a senior news/features editor at The Spectrum.