Op-Ed: Non-Violent Reporting in a Year of Uprisings and Upheaval

Here’s an activity I used to run with my middle-school students during our journalism unit: Someone would desc

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Here’s an activity I used to run with my middle-school students during our journalism unit: Someone would describe an event, real or imagined, and the rest of the class would collaborate to make editorial decisions around how the story should be covered. Whose story is it? I would ask them. What’s the context? What’s at stake?

Most of the time, students would throw out a scandal from the lunchroom or the plot of an Avengers movie, and we’d spitball for five minutes, ten, until they eventually brought it to something like: Hours after the Empire committed genocide against the planet Alderaan, rebel pilot Luke Skywalker successfully destroyed the Death Star in a major blow to intergalactic tyranny.

This activity has been on my mind since July 25, when, during a march calling for justice for Elijah McClain organized by the Denver branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), two men in a Jeep, Kyle Faulkison and Greg Goodenough, drove through a crowd of protesters marching down Interstate 225. As hundreds of people dove out of the way, one protester, Samuel Young, fired at the Jeep, and in doing so accidentally struck two other protesters. The demonstrators exited the highway and completed their march to the Aurora Municipal Center, where some stayed into the night, breaking windows and lighting small fires. The next morning, Mayor Mike Coffman claimed that the protesters who damaged the Municipal Center were not advocating for justice, but were “domestic terrorists”; he went on to lament that the Aurora Police Department showed “weakness” in neglecting to use force against them.

Six weeks later, Faulkison and Goodenough have not been charged, Young is facing a maximum sentence of 112 years in prison, and on September 17, five PSL organizers as well as the co-founder of the Front Line Party for Revolutionary Action were arrested for their involvement in this summer’s demonstrations, including the march across I-225 on July 25. The organizers were arrested with an obviously performative show of force: Russell Ruch was apprehended in a Home Depot parking lot; five police cars surrounded Lillian House’s vehicle while she was driving; and Joel Northam was arrested when a SWAT team showed up outside his door.

Elijah McClain’s killers and those who helped to enable his murder — Randy Roedema, Jason Rosenblatt, Nathan Woodyard, Matthew Green, Dale Leonard, Peter Chicuniec and Jeremy Cooper — still have not been charged.

So: Whose story is it? What’s the context? What’s at stake?

Op-Ed: Non-Violent Reporting in a Year of Uprisings and Upheaval

In the hours, days and weeks that followed the July 25 protest in Aurora, Colorado’s news stations failed to sufficiently answer any of these questions, and in doing so, contributed to a climate that saw some of Denver’s most prominent activists arrested in an obvious attempt to suppress direct action in the Denver area. I know this because after COVID-19 displaced me from my central Illinois college town, I spent a month staying with my parents at their home in Littleton, where, let me tell you, they watch a ton of news.

And so, on the night of July 25, I sat with them in the living room as KDVR Denver delivered the following in its initial coverage of the Aurora protest:

Chaos erupting in Aurora at the site of the police station, the courthouse, and more... Police say this protest is no longer peaceful, that people are now throwing objects at officers. They are breaking windows. And we just learned there is a fire that has been set inside of the courthouse... Hours ago the peaceful protest was interrupted by gunshots as a Jeep [sped] through a crowd of hundreds of people on I-225. We know two people are shot…

There’s lots to unpack here, from the obvious prioritizing of property damage at the Municipal Center over the attempted murder of protesters on I-225 to the implication that demonstrators were somehow no longer calling for justice once they stopped behaving in a manner that the APD found acceptable. Notice, too, the way that the coverage assigns blame for destructive acts to protesters (“...people are now throwing objects at officers. They are breaking windows”) but treats the vehicle as an autonomous force (“...a Jeep [sped] through a crowd of hundreds…”). This last beat subtly apes the APD Twitter account’s initial statement on the incident: #APDAlert While the protestors were walking on I-225, a vehicle decided to drive through the crowd. A protestor decided to fire off a weapon, striking at least 1 other protestor.

The implications of these linguistic choices are clear: individuals protesting police violence are responsible for their actions, but those who interrupt their demonstrations are not.

Perhaps most damning about KDVR and other outlets’ reporting is the failure to contextualize Samuel Young’s decision to fire his gun at Faulkison’s Jeep. Statements made by KDVR (“The peaceful protest was interrupted by gunshots as a Jeep [sped] through the crowd”), 9 News (“...police and protesters say somebody in that crowd pulled a gun and started shooting”) and others needlessly obscured Young’s intentions in firing the gun, leading many to incorrectly assume that he was a white supremacist taking the chaos on the highway as an opportunity to fire at protesters.

What’s more, this failure of reporting may have led directly to Young's arrest. Metro Denver Crime Stoppers released a photo of Young alongside a call for information, and the woman who identified him implied that she was motivated to come forward because of an understandable misreading of confused local coverage. “I just saw a post on Instagram, and it had the article with a picture of someone with a CU shirt...and I recognized him from freshman year,” she told CBS4. “I’m very supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement, so it was really upsetting.”

The irony here is nauseating: The person who turned Young in did so because she had been mistakenly led to believe that he was a white supremacist. Meanwhile, Kyle Faulkison and Greg Goodenough, who literally attempted to drive through hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters, walk free.

It doesn’t help that two days later, on July 27, in Eaton, a man was arrested for driving “at a high rate of speed” towards a pro-police rally organized by the Northern Colorado Young Republicans. Although there is no video of the incident, the arrest was swift, with Fox News stating that the driver in question was charged with “attempted first-degree assault, seven counts of felony menacing, and one count of reckless driving.”

In Denver7’s coverage of the story, broadcasters reported that what happened in Eaton was "the latest in a series of similar incidents, including this one, where a driver barrels through a crowd of people protesting racial injustice in Aurora on behalf of Elijah McClain." Denver7 then cuts directly to a shot of a back-the-blue supporter in Eaton, who laments, "We've lost our family values, our biblical principles." No attempt was made by Denver7 — or, to my knowledge, any mainstream Colorado outlet — to contrast police responses to the two incidents.

In the days following the July 25 protest in Aurora, it became clear that Colorado’s journalists and politicians were more interested in discussing property damage at the Municipal Center than the attempted murder of hundreds of protesters on the highway. Although Coffman backed off from calling protesters domestic terrorists, he revised his statement to read: “Make no mistake about it, the ones who remained behind [at the Municipal Center] were not protesters, but simply using the protest as a cover for their violent actions.”

Coffman’s assessment was reported at face value by 9 News, which reported, “We’re talking about smashed windows, a fence torn down. Police say this was a separate group [from the group protesting on the highway]. They call it hijacking the message of the initial protest yesterday...and Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman agrees with that sentiment...that [they] used the cover of the protest to be violent and destructive.”

I can’t help but compare this reporting to my eighth-grade students’ burgeoning attempts to write a lede covering the destruction of the Death Star at the end of A New Hope. It is easy to imagine how these journalists might choose to cover it: Protest against the Empire turns violent as a domestic terrorist resorts to property destruction, hijacking the rebellion’s hopeful message.

Since the Aurora protest, Colorado politicians and journalists have continually attempted to dictate the terms of what does and does not constitute a protest. Following a rally in downtown Denver on August 22, after protesters set fires outside of Denver Police Department headquarters and smashed windows at a Quiznos sandwich shop, 9 News reported, “What started as a call for the end of the Denver Police Department devolved into violence and property destruction.”

Never clarified is the exact moment that the protest “devolved” away from its message to abolish the police, and never is it made clear what acts of “violence” the protesters were responsible for. Our journalists are quick to extoll the virtue of non-violent protesting, but slow to call for non-violent policing, for non-violent legislating. These same journalists would never think to describe DPD’s cruel and inhumane homeless sweeps as “[devolving] into violence and property destruction,” and therein lies so much of the problem.

A little over a week later, on September 1, Kyle Clark of 9News implored the people of Denver to change course. “Look at Kenosha,” he said. “Look at Portland. I don’t think Denver wants to go there...armed clashes in the streets between anarchists and right-wing militias with police either caught in the middle or just clearing out to let the two sides go at it with each other. These armed right-wing groups think that they can intimidate the anarchists off the streets...they just throw more gasoline around for this burn-it-down crowd, and just play into the hands of the rioters.”

Kyle Clark is one of Colorado’s most incisive broadcasters, but his commentary here takes an uncritical, both-sides approach to the protests in Denver and in cities across the country, effectively throwing his hands in the air and asking why activists can’t get along with police officers and proud boys. Arguments like this are an act of erasure: The intent of the demonstrations is minimized, and so, too, are the decades of violent policing and policy decisions that made them necessary in the first place. All that’s left then is a broken window, and without responsible coverage, that’s all most people will see.

It can be easy for those of us who get our news through other outlets to dismiss the impact of Clark and his colleagues, but these local journalists have real influence on our community, and as a result, a real influence on what happens in it. By implicitly and explicitly supporting the police and counter-protesters over activists calling for social justice, our media has contributed to an environment where police departments feel emboldened to, say, dramatically and publicly arrest six of Denver’s highest-profile organizers on trumped-up charges of, among other things, inciting and participating in a riot and obstructing the highway. Dave Young, the 17th District Attorney, attempted to justify the arrests in a press release, saying, “We support the First Amendment right of people to protest peacefully in our community, but there is a difference between a peaceful protest and a riot.” That difference, as it were, has been pontificated upon ad nauseam by our broadcasters, and their shallow read that damaged property is the biggest threat to our community has played a large part in what has brought us here. It’s a widespread failure of journalism, of empathy, of imagination.

And it doesn’t have to be this way. When politicians are faster to speak out in defense of a Quiznos than they are to condemn the murder of a young man, the gassing of a violin vigil or the attempted murder of hundreds of protesters on a highway, it is the job of local reporters to contrast these responses. When a person is arrested for driving through a pro-cop rally, but another is not arrested for driving through a march in support of Black lives, the local press should be the first to analyze this discrepancy. And when protesters burn things down, it is the responsibility of our local outlets to put their actions into context, and to acknowledge the decisions of the state that have brought our community to a place of unrest.

It is, thankfully, not too late for our broadcasters to interrogate the motivation behind why the police found it necessary to arrest six organizers weeks and months after their alleged crimes, why five police cars were necessary to arrest Lillian House, why Joel Northam required a SWAT team.

The impact of our journalists’ coverage of these protests — from Kyle Clark at 9News to KDVR to Denver7 to CBS4 — is a flattening of public perception that makes it easier to turn away when police and far-right extremists strike down on protesters with actual violence and intimidation. Tear-gas and less-than-lethal munitions are more palatable when they are used against “rioters” instead of “protesters,” and it’s a cleaner narrative to condemn property damage when you pretend that the individuals responsible were not just nearly run down on the highway by two men whom the police couldn’t even be bothered to arrest.

This destruction is senseless, these outlets seem to tell us, and the words come out soft, soothing, in the voice of your grandmother, your favorite teacher, your very first lover. The fires and the broken windows have nothing to do with systemic violence against Black lives, they say. Nothing to do with the militarization of the police, nothing to do with homeless sweeps, nothing to do with hunger. The people in the streets are bored and pent-up and angry. Everything is fine, and no one in power is responsible.

Chris Vanjonack is a Denver-based MFA candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a former language arts teacher from Fort Collins. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in One Story, Ninth Letter, The Rumpus and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @chrisvanjonack and read more at chrisvanjonack.com.

Westword frequently publishes essays and op-eds on matters of interest to the Denver community. Have one you'd like to submit? Send it to editorial@westword.com, where you can also respond to this piece.

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