The Dangers of Being a Black Lives Matter Protestor
Photo by James Eades / Unsplash

The Dangers of Being a Black Lives Matter Protestor

The labeling of someone as a BLM protester leaves them susceptible to attack rather than acknowledged for their dedication

During the Civil Rights Movement, protesters were viewed more positively over time, especially after the public became aware of attacks against them. An example is the positive mood swing after the vicious attack on peaceful protesters crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday. The image of protesters dramatically improved, and as a direct result, the Voting Rights Act was passed, which was the main goal of the protesters.

Students protesting the Vietnam War were viewed more positively after the Kent State shootings, where National Guard troops killed four students and wounded nine. Public support for the war dwindled. President Nixon soon signed legislation to end the draft, putting it in stand-by mode. Changing attitudes about the Vietnam War led to its earlier end.

When millions of protesters took to the streets after the video was released of George Floyd’s murder at the hands (and knee) of Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin, the protesters were initially viewed favorably, and their cause was seen as just as voting rights and ending the Vietnam War. Who could be against ending police brutality and murdering citizens, even imperfect ones?

The protesters' goals included the end of qualified immunity, which generally protects police officers from legal liability when they violate the rights of individuals and use excessive force. Qualified immunity was the response to the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, which allowed lawsuits against state and local officers who refused to protect African Americans from — or even participated in lynchings. In 1967, the Supreme Court protected officers and communities from “frivolous lawsuits.” Protesters sought to divert funds from militarized police forces into mental health resources: less tanks, more counselors.

These protesters were unlike the civil rights protesters of the 1960s, who were mainly Black people (with the support of many white people) in support of Black causes. The George Floyd protesters were mostly white. They had finally seen what Black people have been reporting for generations and had had enough.

Once before in American history, during Bacon’s Rebellion, the groups of the lower classes, enslaved Black people, Black indentured servants, and white indentured servants, joined forces against the government and burned down Jamestown. There wasn’t much of a middle class in 1676, only the rich and the poor. The thought of poor people banding together instilled terror in the rich, and they devised a new economic model. Slavery became the basis for cheap labor, and indentured servitude was all but eliminated. A new class structure was created, and the poorest white man was elevated above the slaves when they once worked side by side.

The response to the George Floyd protests took a while but eventually came. Despite the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of the protests, the acts of violence were singled out and promoted. Defunding the police was relabeled as eliminating police forces and the rule of law as opposed to responding appropriately with mental health resources to mental health issues. The primarily white protesters were called Black Lives Matter protesters as a means of demeaning them. Most of the violence was attributed to ANTIFA, though those arrested increasingly belonged to groups like the Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois, and Oath Keepers.

It looked for a while like the George Floyd protesters might achieve some of their goals. Communities were agreeing to review qualified immunity and allow more community oversight. Mental health resources would increase, and maybe the answer wouldn’t always be bringing guns to a pillow fight. Black Lives Matter surged in popularity, and donations spiked. The backlash spiked as well. Black Lives Matter and its leaders came under attack for their alleged philosophy, their finances, sexual orientation, gender, and attitudes. The group's decentralized nature led anyone anywhere to be described as a Black Lives Matter leader, with the actions of any individual being attributed to the whole. Soon enough, no longer was over-policing of Black communities, police brutality, and the killing of unarmed Black men and women the problem. Black Lives Matter was the problem and needed to be dealt with.

Related: My Viral Tweet About Police Brutality Made Bank—And I Didn't See a Dime

Black protesters, except Bloody Sunday, which happened to be seen on national television, have rarely gotten the bump in popularity that other protesters have when killed or abused. Police shootings of protesters at Southern University, South Carolina State University, and Jackson State University barely register in the nation’s consciousness. While the Kent State shootings have been memorialized, the shootings of Black students are all but forgotten except on the campuses themselves.

Photo by Carol Spivey

In the years since the first George Floyd protests, “Black Lives Matter protesters” have transitioned from protesting events to becoming targets. Right-wing militias and other counter-protesters often meet BLM protesters. In many cases, the counter-protesters aren’t there to Back the Blue but to object to the presence/existence of Black protesters, often violently. According to the ACLED database, at least 38 distinctly named far-right groups have directly engaged with BLM protestors, and 26% of these events have resulted in violence.

Kyle Rittenhouse left his home in Antioch, IL, and traveled to a Black Lives Matter Protest in Kenosha, WI. That 2020 protest was in response to Jacob Blake being shot several times in the back while walking away from police officers while holding a knife. Officer Rusten Sheskey says he “believed he was about to be stabbed” by the man walking away from him. Sheskey was the only officer of several present that fired his weapon; Blake survived the shooting but was paralyzed from the waist down.

Rittenhouse says he came to Kenosha to “protect property against violence.” The 17-year-old walked through the Kenosha streets carrying an assault rifle. He pointed his gun at Joseph Rosenbaum and shot him dead when Rosenbaum attempted to take his gun away. Rittenhouse phoned a friend and then continued on patrol. He later killed another man who tried to disarm him and wounded a third man who was armed while on the streets providing medical care. Rittenhouse was acquitted by a jury who believed his explanation he was “in fear for his life.” Rittenhouse became a hero of the right-wing media for causing the deaths of two Black Lives Matter protesters.

On July 25, 2020, Uber driver Daniel Perry encountered a BLM protest while driving alone. He initially stopped and honked his horn, then ran a red light and accelerated toward the protesters. In 2020, there were 104 recorded incidents of people driving into BLM protesters. Garrett Foster was pushing the wheelchair of his quadruple amputee fiancee, Whitney Mitchell. Foster was also legally carrying an AK-47 rifle.

When Perry drove into the crowd and stopped, Foster approached him and directed him to stay in his car and leave the area. Perry shot Foster several times in the chest. According to several witnesses, Foster never pointed his gun at Perry. One of those witnesses was Perry himself.

“I believe he was going to aim at me. I didn’t want to give him a chance to aim at me.”

After telling the police Foster never aimed at him, Perry changed his story and said he did. Perry’s social media posts made before the shooting made clear his hatred for Black Lives Matter and his desire to kill some of them.

“I might have to kill a few people on my way to work, they are rioting outside my apartment complex,”

“I might go to Dallas to shoot looters.”

“No protesters go near me or my car.”

A friend of Perry’s testified at his trial that Perry had discussed multiple shooting scenarios as to whether or not they were legal. Perry disagreed with his friend that a shooting could be legal, even if he created the conflict. Perry had conducted Internet searches for the phrases “protest tonight,” “protesters in Seattle gets shot,” “riot shootouts,” and “protests in Dallas live.”

Perry wasn’t even charged initially after claiming self-defense as an excuse. Almost a year later, he was indicted by a Travis County grand jury on charges of murder and aggravated assault. Nearly three years later, he stood trial. The prosecution’s case was that the victim was legally open -carrying a gun, and the shooter had made multiple statements of intent and killed a man who posed no threat. The defense claimed Perry was standing his ground and feared for his life. After two days of deliberations, the jury convicted Perry of murder but not aggravated assault. Perry was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He would be eligible for parole in 12+1⁄2 years.

Perry became a cause celebre for right-wing media and politicians. Tucker Carlson attacked Texas Governor Greg Abbott, asking for a pardon within hours of Perry’s conviction.

After Perry’s conviction, Donald Trump told a crowd at the NRA that the left was persecuting gun owners. Trump called it “Prosecutorial abuse.” In Texas, the governor cannot issue a pardon without a recommendation from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which is full of the governor's appointees. Abbott promised he would sign a pardon immediately if a recommendation from his Board reached his desk. The Board made the request, and Abbott immediately granted the pardon.

Daniel Perry is often referred to as an Army sergeant, although he was out of the service when he fired his gun that day. Garret Foster is a former Air Force veteran, which is rarely referred to. Being associated with Black Lives Matter erased his veteran status and even the protection of whiteness. He may have already lost his white card in the eyes of some when he got a Black fiancee. Abbott made an unusual request for an expedited review, even before his sentence was issued.

After Perry’s pardon was granted, Whitney Mitchell issued a statement:

“With this pardon, the governor has desecrated the life of a murdered Texan and U.S. Air Force veteran and impugned that jury’s just verdict," wrote Mitchell. "He has declared that Texans who hold political views that are different from his and different from those in power can be killed in this state with impunity.”

It’s virtually open season on Black Lives Matter protesters, whether real or imagined. When BLM protesters marched in Washington DC in June of 2020, Donald Trump called out 1,500 National Guard troops, enough to fill every doorway along the route of their protest. Trump has called Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate” while inviting his supporters to share the sentiment.

It is not only popular to hate Black Lives Matter and, by extension, Black people; in some circles, it’s mandatory. Perhaps one day, the pendulum will swing back. Until then, the labeling of someone as a Black Lives Matter protester leaves them susceptible to attack rather than acknowledged for their dedication. Civil rights protesters are now honored for their sacrifice. Opponents of the Vietnam War came out on the right side of history. Black Lives Matter protesters are treated like pariahs so that their cause can be ignored.

Perry served one year of his 25-year sentence. Along with his pardon, Perry had all his gun rights restored. Heaven forbid he ever has to face any more peaceful BLM protesters unarmed.

This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of William Spivey's work on Medium. And if you dig his words, buy the man a coffee.