If Martin was alive, he would be breaking windows with the rest of the thugs.
—one of many disturbing and downright racist blurbs in the comments section of Glenn Beck’s Blaze (7/15/13)
While George Zimmerman’s acquittal on murder charges in his shooting of Trayvon Martin elicited outrage and protests nationwide and raised questions on race and racial profiling among the public (if not in the courtroom), right-wing media ironically, but unsurprisingly, followed Zimmerman’s lead by using stereotypes to anticipate violence—in this case, from Martin’s supporters, who were expected to engage in violent riots in the verdict’s aftermath.
While there were some isolated reports of violence, the vast majority of reactions were peaceful and civil across the nation (Time, 7/24/13). This discrepancy between what right-wing media feared from protesters (and, more to the point, black America) and what actually happened suggests a deeply embedded profiling mentality—not just in Zimmerman, but in media as well.
Conservative talk about rioting, from Pat Buchanan’s vision of a repeat of the 1992 Rodney King race riots, to conservative social media’s tea-leaf reading of black America’s actions based on Twitter posts (Slate, 7/14/13), to Newt Gingrich fearing protester “lynch mobs” (CNN, 7/15/13), all seemed to imply that blacks would get violent. But if you really wanted some grade-A fear mongering, then Alex Jones’ Prison Planet (7/2/13, 7/14/13) was a one-stop shop, citing Buchanan, Twitter posts, and a prediction from a former Chicago cop (6/28/13) who envisioned riots that would actually “dwarf the Rodney King and the Martin Luther King riots of past decades.”
In a pre-verdict piece, Time (7/11/13) raised concerns that expectations of the actions of those who would be outraged by Zimmerman’s acquittal might be as racialized as Zimmerman’s evaluation of the threat Martin posed.
Laura Ingraham, filling in for Bill O’Reilly on the O’Reilly Factor (7/12/13), took aim at the Time article, saying the “liberal media...has gone bananas.” One of her panelists cited black ministers and public figures calling for calm as evidence that fear of a violent reaction couldn’t be prejudiced. Of course, calling for calm and expecting chaos in the streets are two different things, but there is little time for nuance when conservative media converge on strict talking points.
After all, much of conservative media were in harmony suggesting that “liberal media” race-baiting would be “responsible” for these projected riots (GlennBeck.com, 7/11/13), and accusing them of trying to “gin up racial tensions where none needed to exist” (Breitbart, 7/13/13). Liberal media being, of course, any reporting that didn’t sufficiently ignore the story, or that didn’t reflect views that racism is largely imagined and discrimination is somehow reasonable. And no right-wing effort would be complete without resorting to conspiracy, like suggesting the Obama administration was deliberately promoting racial tensions (Slate, 7/11/13).
A few days after the verdict, there were a handful of reports of violence in Oakland, California. Conservative media were all over it. Infowars reported “fury” (7/15/13) while a Blaze headline (7/15/13) declared “CHAOS” with the outlet’s typical caps-lock intensity. Some, though, questioned the accuracy of the initial reports (Salon, 7/16/13). An online video of supposed riots in Miami went viral, but was actually video of the aftermath of a Canadian hockey game (Politics USA, 7/14/13).
Predictions of large-scale rioting were being used to paint as violent a mass mobilization of thousands of outraged Americans. Conservative media, not content with their own push to label the verdict reaction as a race riot, even took issue with media reports that didn’t reach their level of hysteria. When local media described protests as “mostly peaceful,” which would be an objectively accurate description, some saw a media bias (Examiner.com, 7/16/13).
Whether they’re trying to paint Trayvon Martin protesters as violent rioters or Occupy Wall Street as a bunch of drugged out hippies (Mother Jones, 10/11/11), right-wing media’s targets (i.e., those who seek economic, social or racial justice) can count on being described as dirty, violent or dangerous. Not only do these depictions distract from calls for justice or reform, they can also serve to justify police crackdowns. And there is certainly no better way to call for law and order—and possible state violence—than to stoke fear and report chaos.