THE POWER OF FEAR MESSAGING

Philip C. Johnson
June 2, 2020
US Press Agency
Global Next Leadership Institute
www.globalnext.org

The weekend had been rough. The country was rocked with protests and violent riots in response to the death of George Floyd, a black Minnesota man who had been killed by a white police officer in an obvious act of police brutality. I woke up on Monday to find a text including this digital flyer and the words, “Heads Up.”

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The event was scheduled to be held in Frisco, a suburb of Dallas, where I live and where I run my organization, Global Next Leadership Institute. The event was seemingly organized by the activist group, Black Lives Matter – it features their name and their famous logo. The language, “We are tired of Frisco being complacent…” seemed somewhat threatening. Certainly not a call for unity. Throughout the weekend, the media had already covered the carnage that was taking place across so many cities in America and some of the rioters had mentioned that they would take the violence to the suburbs.

The route of the protest was clear. It would start just a mile or so from my home and continue down Eldorado past many shops and businesses. I headed out to interview some of the managers and employees of these stores. The route passes directly in front of a Home Depot, a Target store (a favorite of looters) and numerous restaurants, banks, gas stations and other businesses.

One of the managers of Quick Trip gas station, a Russian immigrant, told me that he was aware of the planned event, and that the police had promised them at least 2 patrol cars. He was nervous. He wasn’t sure this was what he had signed up for when he immigrated to America. A young employee of Mexican heritage asked, “Where do I fit into this? I just want to be left alone.”

When I stopped by Home Depot, I spoke to the assistant manager, who kept saying that their official response was “no comment.” He did venture to tell me that they were learning new information minute by minute and was clearly disturbed. He then brought me to the store manager, BJ, who just kept repeating, “Home Depot is happy to be an essential business helping to keep roofs over people’s heads.” I asked him if the store had an active plan to deter the possibility of people using their hardware and home improvement supplies as weapons. He again told me that “Home Depot was happy to service the community,” and gave me the number for media relations. I congratulated him on having learned his official lines so well.

Target was my next stop. While waiting for the manager, I overheard employees discussing plans on where to place certain barricades. I was wearing my press credentials and they saw me eavesdropping (because I was). They moved away from me. The manager came, told me that he couldn’t talk about the issue and again I was referred to media relations and given a phone number. (To date, neither Home Depot or Target’s media relations have returned my phone calls or emails.)

And hour later, my local Target looked like this:

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I stopped by the UPS shipping store and the manager there told me that they would stay open, but he was concerned. One of his employees immediately said that he wanted to close early. I asked him why and he said, “I want to go and participate.” I responded, “Peaceful participation, right?” To which he replied, “Not necessarily. Maybe it’s time this community, which tends to isolate itself, was woken up and experienced some pain. Maybe it’s time to teach some people a lesson. Maybe that will include some necessary violence.”

Well, that certainly seemed to be the message one could conclude from the flyer that had been circulated on social media. I told him not to be an idiot. We shook hands and I turned to leave. But before I left, the manager told me that they had received a 2nd flyer through social media about the event. This new flyer looked like this:

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The name “Black Lives Matter” was gone as was its logo. The flyer highlighted the peaceful purpose of the protest and clearly identified the purpose of showing unity, including family and eschewing violence. There was no veiled threat that had been widely interpreted as “teaching Frisco a much-needed lesson because of the community’s perceived indifference to racial injustice.  Completely different in tone and message.

The Dallas Morning News proclaimed “Protesters in Frisco Chant ‘I can’t breathe’ as they march through city in peaceful demonstration” The article went on to say that “a flyer on Twitter said the march was held to show unity and support to our black brothers and sisters in the Frisco community.”

WHAT? What happened to the first flyer and the original message? The Dallas Morning News article mentioned that the event was co-organized by Frisco police and Daniel Rentie, the college ministry associate at First Baptist Church in Frisco. The event was held and ended without event. So why the scare tactics of the first flyer? Why stir up the fear level of a community that you’ve judged to be not active enough for your cause? Why force major stores and businesses to shut down, costing them money and taking working hours away from employees – many who don’t even live in Frisco?

So I reached out to Daniel Rentie of First Baptist and asked him to shed some light on the event and what happened with the messaging. He told me that it was a quick, grass-roots event that was communicated to him by a couple of college-age women who wanted to speak up for their community and express their frustration with police brutality and their perception that the community of Frisco didn’t care. They designed the flyer, Daniel posted it and didn’t give it much thought. Not until the local chapter of the NAACP contacted them to suggest that maybe this wasn’t the message that they wanted to get out – and that this wasn’t a sanctioned Black Lives Matter event.

Once Daniel realized that the original flyer wasn’t the message that he – nor the young women wanted to express, Daniel got more involved, connected with the Frisco police (who he says were absolutely fantastic in their help and coordination efforts) and started redirecting the message and tone.

Daniel claims that the event was not in any way connected with the activist and controversial group, Black Lives Matter. He claims that this was not the intention of the young women who started organizing the event. While it is very hard for me to believe that someone could use the BLM name AND logo and NOT be aware of who the organization is, what they stand for and how that could come across – especially from a Christian viewpoint where identity should be firmly rooted in one’s relationship with Christ, not in identity politics, I am taking Daniel at his word. We had a long conversation and his heart for this world, for others, for justice and for non-violent free speech was clear, obvious and touching. As for the designers of the original flyer – I have my doubts about motivation, purpose and intention. I have no doubts about the impact it had on the community, our resources, our law enforcement and businesses – none of which was good.

I dislike that communication tactics were employed (intentionally or not), that brought anxiety to more innocent people and brought additional financial hardship to local businesses. Words and messaging matter – and have real world consequences. And threatening neighborhoods does nothing to bring about unity.

But I am thankful that the event was, indeed, peaceful. As Daniel Rentie said to me, “In the end, love wins, unity wins.” And he’s right at about the importance of love and unity.  But it came at an unnecessary cost – because of the power of fear messaging.

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