5 Right-Wing Media Narratives Attacking the ‘Black Lives Matter’ Movement

About Spencer Sunshine

Black Lives Matter protests have electrified the country—mobilizing a wide and multiracial grassroots movement challenging the killing of often unarmed Black Americans by police and the pervasive, systemic racism that continues to fundamentally shape American society. This marks the first time since the 1992 Los Angeles riots—ignited by the acquittal of four LAPD officers after they were videotaped beating Black motorist Rodney King—that the United States has seen a national movement challenging the most lethal outcropping of the many-headed hydra of structural racism: local police departments.

black lives matter

The Right has responded with its usual bag of tricks, as it tries to ensure that the U.S. racial hierarchy remains intact.

Since August of this year, Ferguson, Missouri’s African-American community has been in a state of upheaval over the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by White officer Darren Wilson—just the latest of numerous killings of unarmed African Americans by the police. But despite the broad media coverage, most protest efforts remained largely localized in Ferguson for several months afterwards.

Yet on November 24, when the grand jury announced its decision not to indict Officer Wilson, a national mass movement broke out almost overnight. The subsequent refusal, announced on December 3, of a New York City grand jury to indict an officer for the murder of another unarmed Black man, Eric Garner—who was choked to death by police while onlookers filmed the whole scene—together resulted in massive marches and demonstrations around the country, from Oakland to Boston, with tens of thousands of people marching in New York City alone on December 13.

But how is the Right responding to this outpouring of opposition to these clear-cut illustrations of structural oppression? The Right’s approaches include:

  1. Trying to make the conversation about anything but race;
  2. blaming the individuals themselves or African Americans as a group;
  3. exploiting racial fears;
  4. denying that systemic racism exists; and
  5. attempting to directly intimidate protesters.

Over the past 30 years, PRA has documented how these techniques are often part of the right-wing toolbox. By using these approaches, the Right props up the current system of profound racial disparities by blaming minority groups for their own oppression, and further fueling resentment against them.

The most popular right-wing response to the Black Lives Matter movement is to try to sidetrack the conversation into discussions of—literally—anything other than race. The most common tactic (and found not just on the Right), is to change the movement’s slogan “Black Lives Matter” into “All Lives Matter.” The change alters the focus from the police killings of African Americans, a pillar of structural racism, into a more general commentary on police brutality. While some argue this will broaden the appeal of the movement, the effect is to once again steer dialogue to “anything but race.”

Other examples include that of the National Review’s Rich Lowry, who took the opportunity in August to criticize the Ferguson police—not for committing horrific acts of state-sanctioned violence, but rather for not doing enough to stop the looting.

On Twitter, Fox News host Todd Starnes attacked President Obama for sending condolences to Michael Brown’s family, and not Darren Wilson’s.

Laurie Higgins, writing for the Illinois Family Institute, lays blame for the unrest on high school teachers, and their inclusion of liberal and left-wing authors such as Howard Zinn and Eric Foner in their curricula.

Conservative doctor and author, infamous racial revisionist, and possible Republican 2016 presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson blamed the killings of African-American men by police on a lack of subservience, which, according to Carson, is a by-product of feminism. Carson cites a lack of father figures, who supposedly teach men to relate to authority properly, and which, in turn, “had to do with the women’s lib movement.”

Conservative talk show host Mark Levin also blamed Brown for his own death. Levin says the national Black Lives Matter movement is the fault of the “reckless liberal media,” “the lawless administration (especially Eric Holder),” “phony civil rights demagogues, race-baiting politicians, and radical hate groups.” Sounding like a cross between Bull Connor and George Wallace, Levin goes on to say that “What we are witnessing now is the left’s war on the civil society. It’s time to speak out in defense of law enforcement and others trying to protect the community and uphold the rule of law.”

In December, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul blamed high cigarette taxes for the death of Eric Garner (who was stopped by police for selling loose cigarettes). This blatant deflection from the issues at hand stands at odds with his past statements about mass incarceration.

Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani also trotted out decades-old racist tropes, including the “the family situation in black neighborhoods,” as the core of the problem. He also cited the lack of respect for police officers, “disproportionate rates of crime in the black community,” and even teachers’ unions—for rejecting the neoliberal charter school system.

Fox News senior correspondent Geraldo Rivera agreed that “too many young black men are being killed unnecessarily in encounters with police”—but then engaged in a bait-and-switch by claiming the real problem was “family dysfunction” among people of color. He attacked LeBron James for wearing a shirt with the words “I Can’t Breathe” and said that, instead, the slogan should be “We’re The Problem.”

For years, right-wing conspiracist Alex Jones has claimed that Obama has purposefully sought social disruptions as a pretext to seize privately held weapons and instigate a dictatorship. Jones is now peddling a particularly noxious variant of his conspiracy theory, saying the protests will lead to “the attempted takedown of the Republic” and an “attempt to start a civil war, playing the people off against the police and people off against each other racially.” Crooks and Liars’ David Neiwert says Jones and company “have whipped themselves into a frenzy over the prospect of a nationwide ‘race war,’ though it is difficult to tell whether they fear such a prospect or are actively hoping for it.”

The Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky wrote a classic right-wing response. He simply denied that there is any racism in the justice system; attacked Obama for refusing to acknowledge this; claimed “the anger on the street in Ferguson was being fueled by false stories that had no real basis in fact”; blamed Brown for his own death; and, finally, blamed Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder for damaging the justice system and deepening racial divisions.

In an interview with the National Urban League’s president Marc Morial, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly covered similar territory. Kelly first claimed that the grand jury results were the product of media attention, then repeatedly asserted that there was no evidence of racism in any of the recent police shootings of African Americans, and ended by saying the focus of attention should be on so-called “Black-on-Black” crime.

There have also been multiple attempts to intimidate those speaking out against the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Ferguson’s Flood Christian Church, where Michael Brown Sr. attended, was burned down in November. The pastor—who was active in calling for justice in Brown’s killing—said he received 71 death threats before the arson.

The Oath Keepers also came to Ferguson. The group recruits current and former members of the military and law enforcement who swear to defend the Constitution by disobeying federal orders which they believe violate it, and are awash in right-wing conspiracy theories. Their leaders claimed to be there to protect businesses from looting. What their presence showed, however, was that a majority-White paramilitary group was able to brandish high-powered guns at protesters. Ferguson police initially forced them out as an unlicensed security company, but they returned the next day after arguing they were not operating in a commercial capacity. Having previously appeared at Occupy LA and the Bundy Ranch standoff, coming to Ferguson shows not only the Oath Keepers continuing penchant for publicity stunts, but marks another stage in their transformation into what is looking like a full-blown paramilitary.

Similar to Jones’s conspiracy theory, Oath Keeper founder Stewart Rhodes said the government intentionally refused to suppress looting in Ferguson as part of a larger attempt “to justify a ratcheting up of police state power, and it will not end until all of our children have the boot of a totalitarian police state on the back of their necks.”

The NAACP held a seven-day march, starting in late November, from Ferguson to Jefferson City, Missouri; but in the town of Rosebud, the marchers were met by a crowd of 200. “A display of fried chicken, a melon, and a beer bottle had been placed in the street. A Confederate flag flew. Counter-protesters shouted racial epithets.” Even more ominous, the back window of one of the NAACP’s buses was shot out.

Last, in three different cities, cars plowed into the demonstrations. In Minneapolis, a teenager was taken to the hospital; in St. Louis, a driver also pulled a gun; and in Portland, Oregon, the police did not charge the driver—but did issue a ticket to the protestor whose foot was run over!

As various sectors of the U.S. Right continue their desperate attempts to convince White America that there is no racial divide in the country—and furthermore that the massive protests across the country are little more than the work of race-baiters deceiving local Black communities— it is critical that all social justice-minded individuals counter these damaging messages.

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Spencer Sunshine, Ph.D. (associate fellow) is a researcher and activist. His research interests include U.S. white nationalism, post-war fascism (particularly Third Position and European New Right politics), left/right crossover movements, and left-wing antisemitism. As an activist he has worked on issues regarding anti-fascism, police misconduct, prisoner rights, global trade agreements, environmental issues, and bisexual and queer politics. Follow him on Twitter at @transform6789.