Government Workers and Misinformation
by Morgan LaMere | published Nov. 3rd, 2020
On March 30, 2020, Daniel Prude died after being detained by Rochester police officers. It wouldn’t be until body cams of the officers were released in early September 2020 that protests would begin in earnest in Rochester over the event.
Similar to events sparked across the country, these protests would be mostly nonviolent and centered around government buildings. Protests often included blocking off traffic and access to the city hall, among other activities.
Alex Yudelson is the chief of staff for the Office of the Mayor in Rochester. His role includes helping the mayor with the day-to-day operations of city hall.
“When you’re working in government, you’re paid for by the people, so city hall is the people's house and people have the right to protest and they certainly have the right to be upset from what happened,” Yudelson said.
“When you’re working in government, you’re paid for by the people, so city hall is the people's house and people have the right to protest and they certainly have the right to be upset from what happened."
As someone who is part of senior staff and a government official, he claims they should not be offended or upset at minor inconveniences making it hard to get to or leave work.
“When you work in public service, you are held to a higher standard and that has to be true with not only police officers but also government employees,” Yudelson continued.
Yet there have been reports of more dangerous inconveniences both in and outside of Rochester. According to an anonymous source that works in the city government, they have felt affected or even threatened numerous times mostly by rumors spreading through the department.
“Mainly when they evacuate the whole building, it’s happened a few times. One was [said to be] an anthrax threat, one was a bomb threat, the other was when they [the protestors] surrounded the whole building,” they said.
At least one of the threats was corroborated by News10NBC who reported that Rochester City Hall had been evacuated due to a called-in bomb threat that turned out to be a false alarm. While our anonymous source and others have not been personally threatened, they commented the mayor had primarily been the target of the protestors.
“I understand the concept, I just think [vandalizing] city hall isn’t the most effective way to go about it,” they claimed.
However, these claims have been tested and it is not as straightforward as it seems.
Caught in the Crossfire or Misrepresented?
Yudelson had not experienced or heard of any serious bomb threats or threats of a similar nature when asked.
“Nothing that serious, no, city hall was locked down for a period of time because protestors wouldn’t let anyone in or out of the building,” he said. “But I didn’t feel threatened, none of the protestors were violent or anything.”
Yudelson doesn’t believe those threats to safety or anything like that to be a real issue. Our anonymous source further commented that these claims about bomb and anthrax threats were relayed to them by word of mouth within their department.
“I don’t want to sit here and say it is, that’s just what I was informed,” they said. “There were no official [announcements] or anything like that."
Furthermore, they described their department coworkers as being more on the conservative side, with everyone they work with being against the whole movement.
Outside the city of Rochester, however, there have been confirmed cases of such threats. The Associated Press reported federal buildings being closed after a car bomb threat and Molotov cocktails being thrown at precincts and government buildings.
These differing reports make it difficult to discern where the truth lies, whether serious threats are not being reported or that government workers' views on the movement have influenced their perceptions of what happened.
The Spread of Misinformation
Alternate stories and the spread of misinformation have been a defining theme over the course of the protests. Many officials and media outlets claim that protests are only or mostly peaceful and ignore the violence. Others, however, capitalize on the violence and claim the protests are nothing more than riots, and that law and order should be restored.
Rumors and stories of undercover police officers starting violence in protests have been widespread while others fervently claim it is the protestors themselves. Protestors call for justice reform and fairness while others claim they want violent revolution and destruction of values. Whatever beliefs you hold, there is likely media and a narrative supporting it. This disinformation can be actively harmful as we search for the truth, especially as we are kept home by the pandemic and isolated from outside sources.
Back in May 2020, the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester discussed claims that the protests opened the way for outside groups such as Antifa and primarily white rioters to cause widespread violence in Rochester.
“I know that in Rochester and elsewhere there has been intelligence that some sort of outside agitators may want to damage or set fire to important buildings, but I think a lot of that is sometimes just secondhand hearsay,” Yudelson said.
While the majority of the protests are peaceful, many of the buildings targeted held government workers with no involvement in policy-making who are simply doing their jobs.
When asked if they’d considered leaving their job, the anonymous source said, “There have been thoughts ... I’m just not sure if any job is worth risking your life if you’re not that passionate about it."
It is important to consider the people that could be harmed, both physically and mentally, by violent actions or threats. However, this cannot discredit the non-violent Black Lives Matter protests acting for change; they have a right to protest and be heard.
“They deserve to have a chance to hold you accountable and to express how they are feeling, and that’s a fundamental right in a functioning democracy to the extent that in this country we have a functioning democracy left in this year of 2020,” Yudelson stated.