the language of the unheard: protest and protest violence after george floyd’s killing in minneapolis


The protests that followed the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis resident, by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin have returned matters of racism and police brutality to the fore of American public consciousness—to be more precise, to the fore of White-American public consciousness. The COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate health and economic effects on Black Americans deepen the tragedy of Floyd’s killing, the police killings of other Black individuals in recent weeks, and the ensuing repression of Black-led protests across the United States against police impunity.

My primary media source most days is a Minneapolis-based radio station called The Current, the rock-music and Prince fandom arm of Minneapolis Public Radio (MPR). A few times every day, The Current features news blurbs from MPR News, a statewide reporting outfit and National Public Radio (NPR) member station. As news of George Floyd’s killing and the ensuing protests has increased, I’ve paid more attention to the details and narrative structure of MPR’s coverage of local protest events.

MPR’s initial portrayal of the Minneapolis protests was a disappointing, if not surprising, brand of the law-and-order commentary that nominally liberal mayors, governors, and media accounts made respectable in the decades that followed the recurring wave of summer riots and mass protests in American cities during the 1960s. While paying lip-service to the general inequity of local race relations, this narrative privileges fear of property destruction, especially among White property owners, and plays up the dangerous shock-and-awe of the riotous street. These narratives imply that military-grade police crackdowns, repression, and surveillance are necessary tools for the maintenance of social order, even if they may regrettably require the occasional use of excessive force against civilians.

This coverage–which we might refer to as the “White-fear narrative”–papers over the social and political basis for Black protest, the extent of police repression, and the process by which protesters decide to employ violence against police forces, buildings, and other targets. An oft-quoted phrase from Black freedom activist Martin Luther King, Jr. summarizes an opposing view: far from pathological or menacing, violence during protests amounts to the “language of the unheard.” As with all of King’s most lyric quotes, “language of the unheard” captures only a fraction of King’s private and public opinions about the strategic, moral, and social consequences of riotous action. In his 1968 book Where Do We Go From Here, King introduces his account of the 1965 Watts riot by elaborating on the phrase: protest violence is “the desperate, suicidal cry of one who is so fed up with the powerlessness of his cave existence that he asserts that he would rather be dead than ignored.” The context for what King controversially describes as “self-defeating riots” is “the daily ugliness of slum life, educational castration and economic exploitation.” This “desperate cry” is an intentional act of self-sacrifice and resistance against the rioter’s impoverishment. Here, riotous violence is a purposeful act of Black revolt, rather than the random, viral, or group-targeted contagion that White-fear narratives imply.

I’m working on a research project to evaluate these two arguments. From a moral perspective, the validity of either argument rests on whether and to what extent one views political justice as sufficient grounds for violent action. In that vein, I believe as a matter of principle that riotous action is a defensible form of resistance against repression–including the forms of police repression that shape the daily lives of Black Americans. In empirical terms, however, both arguments also have what social scientists call “observable implications”–processes that we should expect to observe during a protest episode if either argument holds. Whatever my moral priors, my project aims to evaluate whether empirical evidence supports (1) White-fear theories, in which violence is random, viral, or White-targeted; or (2) “language of the unheard” theories, which imply that violence is a symbolic form of resistance to past political repression or economic marginalization.

The first part of this project is descriptive. The basic research question that these two narratives provoke–What explains why protests against the police killing of George Floyd resulted in violence in some areas of South Minneapolis, but not in others?–requires first that we understand where violence took place during the initial days of the Minneapolis protests, and where it did not. Sympathetic accounts of events in Minneapolis and other recent protests across the United States have emphasized that these are “mostly peaceful” protests, which deteriorate into violence only after police provocation. I think this is right, but there are also multiple, not-necessarily-consistent ways in which a protest can be “mostly peaceful.” Consider three: (1) a majority of protesters refrain from violence; (2) the protest involves only momentary instances of violent action; or (3) violence by protesters occurs in a small minority of locations in which it is most likely to occur. This project examines whether we observe the latter pattern during the early Minneapolis protests. Whether this spatial pattern also accounts for the former two is a separate empirical question.

Understanding within-case variation in violence requires a consistent theory of both violent action and the distinction between violent-protest episodes and other episodic forms of political violence. There are multiple ways to classify protest violence, or acts of harm against persons or property. These include the theory of violence (or nonviolence) that protest organizers articulate or–as discussed above–the behavior of some preponderance of individual protest participants. Many of these classification schemes, however, depend on difficult-to-defend analytic judgments on the basis of imprecise data, or conclusions about the relationship between strategic intent and patterns of collective action that are virtually impossible to test. These analytic challenges demand a more dichotomous measure: nonviolent protests are an episode in which protesters do not employ a single act of violence, whereas violent protests–also known as riots–occur when protesters initiate one or more acts of violence in the absence of significant police repression. The mere occurrence of a violent protest does not imply that the movement whose claims the protest channels authorized violence at its outset, nor that other actors beyond that movement organized violence to undermine the movement’s goals or incite escalation. Identifying the purposes of violence for its agents involves qualitative information about intra-movement and intra-protest dynamics that falls outside the scope of this study.

That both events in Minneapolis and the episodic forms of police violence and protest across the United States continue to evolve as I write makes understanding patterns of protest activity an analytic challenge. The dynamism of this “repression-dissent cycle” means that the act of classifying episodes of violence has high moral and analytic stakes. As the world witnessed in Washington, DC, in early June, state security forces use the trumped-up pretense of violent disorder to justify egregious repression during and after protest events. Especially in studying patterns in riotous action during protests, anything less than a precise and transparent concept of the interaction between protest activity and police violence risks providing a scholarly justification for state-directed abuses. Additionally, conceiving of an event as a “protest” results in a different process of analytic simplification than does “police repression.” Both protest organizers and police units design collective strategies and tactics using available information about their opponent’s likely countermoves. Because of this strategic interaction, modeling circumstances in which protest organizers confront a high likelihood of reactive police violence prior to taking to the streets necessarily differs from circumstances in which the extent of that repressive response is not apparent. The specific police practices that differentiate “protest without police repression” and “low-grade civil conflict between protesters and police forces” will vary from case to case. One plausible cut point during the Minneapolis case and other recent protest episodes in the United States is the imposition of a police curfew, an artificial time at which once-permissible forms of public gathering become subject to police repression. I use the imposition of a police curfew by Minneapolis police on the evening of Friday, May 29th to define the temporal bounds of the South Minneapolis violent protest episode.

I use municipal data on “structural fires” from the City of Minneapolis’s Open Minneapolis data project to understand the pattern of violent protests in Minneapolis after the killing of George Floyd on Monday, May 25. The structural-fires data capture only the most visible forms of violence–arson–in which protesters engage; they do not, for example, pick up instances of window-breaking that might occur during a violent protest episode. To identify the scope of the structural fires plausibly associated with the initial Minneapolis protests, I narrow the Minneapolis map to the South Minneapolis neighborhoods of Phillips West, East Phillips, Central, Powderhorn Park, Corcoran, and Bryant. The area’s southwestern section, southside Minneapolis, was home to a vibrant Black community before the construction of Interstate Highway 35W disrupted local residents and businesses. George Floyd lived in Powderhorn. I limit the structural-fires data to incidents between Monday, May 25 and Friday, May 29, when the Minneapolis police began to enforce its curfew.

The structural-fires data indicate that 7 buildings experienced structural fires in South Minneapolis from May 25 – 29: four retail stores, a convenience store, an auto shop, and a gas station. Given the spatial constraints of the South Minneapolis area, these structural-fires data exclude attacks on the Minneapolis 3rd Police Precinct and the adjacent Target store on Minnehaha Avenue, both of which drew national attention. To facilitate further analysis, I divide the South Minneapolis area into grid units that approximate the average size of a Midwestern city block (200m x 100m). I aggregate the georeferenced structural-fires reports by grid unit. The structural fires from May 25 – 29 spanned five grid units, out of 440. With apologies to PDF fans, I display the grid-unit map of structural fires in South Minneapolis from May 25 – 29 in the following JPEG:


These descriptive data tell a clear story: the initial Minneapolis protests against the killing of George Floyd were overwhelmingly peaceful. From May 25 – 29, structural fires occurred in 1.1 percent of all grid units.

These data raise two additional questions:

  1. To what extent do the structural-fires data represent the full extent of violence during the initial Minneapolis protests, prior to police escalation on May 29? To address this, I will turn to event data gathered via Twitter.
  2. Are there particular characteristics of the grid units in which violence did occur that explain spatial variations in violence? To address this question, I will conduct a multivariate regression analysis of the effects of distance from the protest site, distance from the nearest police precinct, recent police shootings of Black individuals, and White property ownership on violence.

Here’s my GitHub page for this project: I will update the page as I make additional progress on the data collection and analysis.

I’m writing about this project now, rather than at its conclusion, because of my ethical ambivalence about the project’s very nature. My nascent dissertation project explores the dynamics of pogrom violence, a type of public contention that scholars often erroneously associate with urban riots and other forms of violent protest. Empirically, I expect this dissertation project will involve some form of comparison between, among other cases, the antisemitic violence of the Holocaust and the multiple, overlapping regimes of racial-terror violence in the United States. The dynamics of protest and repression in American politics fascinate and motivate my research; where they concern anti-Black violence, however, the racial order that these dynamics have produced is one from which I have benefited since birth. I am a White PhD student writing from the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, in a condo complex that the federal government first subsidized to provide all-White housing to defense workers during World War II. The renewed public condemnation of White silence and willful ignorance that has followed George Floyd’s killing has underscored why scholarship that falls short of placing anti-Black violence at the center of our scholarship fails to grapple with the central animating process of American and global political life.

At the same time, this well-meaning process of examining the pervasive and durable effects of racist violence risks reinforcing the same patterns of racial injustice that White scholars aim to oppose. Without due care, discussions of “mainstreaming race” in the academic field of political science may generate an implicit process of intellectual and professional appropriation, whereby White scholars acquire all of the conventional markers of prestige–citations, publications, fellowships, research funding–for reproducing the intellectual work of their Black colleagues. This is a structural problem that results from a long legacy of White racial order in both American society and the American political science profession. But as scholars, colleagues, and friends, we can also choose to chip away at these structural problems through our everyday practices. These practices raise important ethical questions: How might a White scholar research and write about Black protest? What obligations does the White scholar owe to the community whom they research?

It’s not yet clear to me what those practices are. We arrive at our work with the professional and social networks we possess, the knowledge we’ve accumulated, and the experiences we’ve encountered, and not anything else. At an individual level, it takes a lifetime of slow and deliberate action to dismantle the extraordinary hold of White supremacy. These actions are about transforming those professional and social networks, those sources of knowledge, and those experiences on a daily basis. Because these things only exist in relationships with other people, the process of transforming them is messy, complicated, and ethically murky in a way that a scripted checklist of “20 things you can do to check your White privilege” can never be. Some things I’ve done in the course of developing this research project are attending a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, DC; donating $100.00 to the Minnesota Freedom Fund; and contributing $50.00 to the work of a Black Minneapolis organizer, Lucina Kayee, whose request for funds the Minneapolis-based Reclaim the Block coalition retweeted. Are those things “doing the work”? I’m not sure, but I do know that they’re not–and can never be–enough.

I post these data, my analysis, and its outcomes as an invitation: to scholars who might find either the analytic process or the data itself informative, and to activists who might find the results of the analysis itself useful. I will keep working on this, and may later seek to publish my findings in an academic journal; regardless of the outcome, I commit to conducting the process with the transparency and accountability that ethical work requires. If you’re working on these or related issues and you’d like to collaborate or have found any of these materials useful, I’d love to hear from you:

For their conversation and comments, I thank participants in the Summer 2020 Comparative Government Working Group at Georgetown University.