In response to a white supremacist and neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that left three people dead, much of the conservative media has unified behind a single talking point: What about Black Lives Matter?
On Fox & Friends, co-host Pete Hegseth claimed that “violent aspects of Black Lives Matter ought be called out” during a segment of the show’s Sunday edition. Across social media, people equated the group with violent white supremacist factions, insisting that both sides were to blame. On Wednesday, right-wing filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza claimed outright that “alt-left terrorist[s]” associated with Black Lives Matter were “just as dangerous–if not more–than any white nationalist.”
President Trump himself echoed the point. “Many sides,” he claimed, were to blame for the bloodshed. “[It’s been] going on for a long time in our country,” he said on Saturday, after news broke that one counter-protester—a 32-year-old woman named Heather Heyer—had been struck and killed when an alleged white supremacist rammed his car into the crowd.
In a press conference intended to address infrastructure on Tuesday, Trump took the narrative one step further: the “alt-left” and counter-protesters (of which Heyer was a part) were to blame for the violence over the weekend. “I think there’s blame on both sides,” he said. “I have no doubt about it.”
Although Trump avoided singling out Black Lives Matter directly, it was clear that Trump was lumping civil rights activists with white nationalists.
Claims that Black Lives Matter presents a violent threat, however, began long before Saturday’s rally.
“[In the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri protests] I watched the birth of what is one of the most dangerous and disruptive and divisive leftist approach[es] to tearing down this country,” said radio host and Fox News contributor David Webb in July 2016, shortly after a black gunman opened fire on a crowd of police officers in Dallas, Texas, killing five. “A collusion between groups that frankly are anti-American. That’s what Black Lives Matter is. You can call it anything else you want.”
The gunman was not associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, but that detail mattered little to those looking for a reason to criticize the group and associate it with mass violence.
In July, conservative commentator and NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch again cast Black Lives Matter as a violent threat, telling Fox News host Tucker Carlson that the group was responsible for any clashes stemming from the protests breaking out across the country. “They’ve turned to fostering more division instead of solving it,” she said.
Those who know the Black Lives Matter movement well, though, vehemently disagree that the group engages in or supports violence.
“In no uncertain terms do I think these [two sides] should be considered equal,” said Charles H.F. Davis III, Ph.D, an assistant professor at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. “People often mischaracterize or misunderstand the context in which the Black Lives Matter movement is taking place—all of it is in response to white terrorism.”
More importantly, many people on the ground at rallies who claim black activists are perpetuating violence are only telling half of the story. “Defending oneself is not the same [as what white supremacists in Charlottesville did],” he said.
Manipulating the narrative
The “evidence” supporting the the claim that Black Lives Matter is a violent movement largely involves inaccurate anecdotes. The stories are frequently cherry-picked and dismiss important details that drastically change the narrative.
In the case of the Dallas gunman, Micah Xavier Johnson, authorities said that he had been laughing and singing during the attack and had stated at one point that he “wanted to kill white people, especially white officers” — a phrase that right-wing outlets and anti-black groups quickly picked up on.
Johnson was never actually associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. On Facebook, he had reportedly liked the New Black Panther Party and the African American Defense League, which was founded by Mauricelm-lei Millere, a man known for “calling for violence against police specifically, on a regular basis,” Oren Segal of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism told The New York Times. Local activists said Johnson was not affiliated with any BLM group. Nonetheless, Black Lives Matter leaders quickly issued a response, calling “for an end to violence, not an escalation of it” in a statement after the attack.
The condemnation of Black Lives Matter came anyway. “Clearly the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter encouraged the sniper that shot Dallas police officers,” Republican state Rep. Bill Zedler tweeted. On The O’Reilly Factor, Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) blasted the group, pinning the blame on President Obama for not condemning it more aggressively. Larry Klayman, a lawyer with radical views on race and government, sued Black Lives Matter for spreading “anti-white” hatred and for supposedly starting a “race war” that culminated in the deaths of the five slain Dallas officers.
The raw data
White supremacists are much more likely to commit violent crimes than other sub-groups or classifications of domestic extremism. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), in 2015, white supremacists accounted for 38 percent of all extremist killings, followed closely by Islamist, anti-government, and anti-abortion extremists. Left-wing extremism accounted for around 1 percent of all killings; so-called “black extremism” did not register.
“Typically, white supremacists make up the vast majority of non‐ideological perpetrators, as white supremacists engage in a large amount of gang‐related and traditional criminal violent activity in addition to their hate‐ or ideologically‐motivated violence,” the ADL reported, explaining the numbers. Those groups were often also visibly associated with white supremacist groups—tattoos and insignia on their clothing during the crime often identified them straight off the bat.
By comparison, the number of violent crimes committed by those aligned with civil rights activism is virtually non-existent. Right-wing platforms have attempted to tie black violence in large cities like Chicago to Black Lives Matter, for instance—but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to say whether any of those crimes were tied to people aligned with the movement.
In historical terms, white supremacist and neo-Nazi violence also largely overshadows any alleged acts committed by other groups—something Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors is quick to point out.
“This country is rich with an ugly past characterized by genocide, slavery and rooted in white supremacist values to its core,” Cullors said, in a statement to ThinkProgress. “[The United States] must come to terms with its past. …[It] must deal with the white supremacy and racism that permeates every institution, the economy, the dominant national culture.”
Ultimately, Cullors argues, Trump is empowering white supremacists, making groups like Black Lives Matter even more essential.
“We know that this entire administration, this entire country and its elite political leadership are those very same torch carriers with or without white caps,” Cullors said. “As [the president] condones white supremacy, he facilitates a state for white supremacies to continue to terrorize communities of color…especially Black communities.”
‘A response to violence’
Black Lives Matter’s biggest voices can claim something the white supremacist movement cannot: They’ve made an actual effort to denounce racially-charged violence.
In a statement following an attack by a black gunman in Baton Rouge, Louisiana last July that left three police officers dead, prominent Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson reiterated that “the movement began as a response to violence, it was a call to end violence, and that call to end violence was true two years ago, was true 10 days ago, and is true today.”
Here, Davis believes that Black Lives Matter is on the right path. “Changing narrative control is incredibly important,” he said. He argued there’s something to be said for a widespread denunciation of violence in any form. But, he argues, there are limits to this approach.
“Black Lives Matter has already taken steps to articulate a cohesive message,” he said. “What we don’t want to have happen, [what] we’re not here to respond to is [every violent act]. It’s a distraction.”