More on the Messaging of Baltimore

“Riot? Rebellion? Or “Unrest?” And Why it Matters.



There is so much to say about Baltimore, one week later. But this blog is about media and the power of messaging. So I confined myself, since last Monday, to writing on the power of language to divide or unite.

My last post focused on the use of the word “thug,” even before President Obama chose that unfortunate word to describe those who took to the streets of Baltimore in violence. (Obama, or not, I still contend that, “thug” is not useful in this context and should be avoided, especially by the media.)

Now, to the larger and more difficult question of what to call the events themselves: Civil disturbances? Protests? Uprisings? Riots?

This is not the first time I’ve faced this dilemma. Far from it.

Flashback. Los Angeles. 1992.

After an all-white jury acquitted four white officers of Assault and Use of Excessive Force for their role in the videotaped beating African American motorist Rodney King, all Hell broke loose. But what to call that Hell?

I was not a journalist then. Still, as an African American attorney, I had to make important choices about language: The Los Angeles Riots? The Rodney King Riots? The South Central Riots? The Los Angeles Civil Disturbance? Los Angeles Civil Unrest? The Los Angeles Uprising?

What?

At first I went with “civil disturbance.” For a while.

“Civil disturbance” is the broadest, safest term of all. It connotes a disruption of the social order and that certainly was what was happening. While many African Americans had experienced police brutality first-hand, in 1992 the videotape of Rodney King’s beating was stunning revelatory evidence to support the feeling that the justice system was letting us down. Thousands of Angelenos were angry enough to dislodge the dominant social paradigm.

Of course civil disturbance is what happens when an oppressed group acts out to gain attention for perceived injustice; but that term started to feel too broad — linguistically lazy, as we watched the devastating events unfold over a six day period. After all, riots, rebellions and uprisings are all forms of civil disturbance. Ultimately, to call what was happening in Los Angeles a “civil disturbance” felt too easy, too obvious. I was making no choice at all.

I was a lawyer, after all. And not just any kind of lawyer — a criminal defense attorney. I knew exactly what was going on:

California Criminal Code:

404.  (a) Any use of force or violence, disturbing the public peace, or any threat to use force or violence, if accompanied by immediate power of execution, by two or more persons acting together, and without authority of law, is a riot.

. . .
404.6.  (a) Every person who with the intent to cause a riot does an act or engages in conduct that urges a riot, or urges others to
commit acts of force or violence, or the burning or destroying of
property, and at a time and place and under circumstances that
produce a clear and present and immediate danger of acts of force or violence or the burning or destroying of property, is guilty of
incitement to riot.

So, I went with “The L.A. Riots.” It was, quite simply, correct.

And these were riots worthy of the term. The L.A. Riots were the among the largest in United States history, the biggest since the riots that followed the assassination in 1968 of Martin Luther King, Jr. They were the worst in terms of death toll only after the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. Fifty-three people died, including 10 who were shot dead by police/military forces; 2,000 people were injured; approximately 3,600 fires were set, including 1,000 buildings set on fire; according to most estimates, property damage approached $1 billion.

Of course, we haven’t seen anything close in Baltimore or Ferguson, before that. All the same, we reprise the thorny question: What to call the events: “Riots,” “uprisings,” “unrest,” or “civil disturbance?” That’s because people use different terms in different contexts — for different reasons.

Twenty years after my youthful and legalistic characterization of Los Angeles 1992, the term “riot” has come to connote an unruly mob engaged in violence and mayhem. Think: Ferguson and Baltimore. Simply put, “riot” means poor black people.

If you think I’m being hyperbolic consider our linguistic history: When oppressed white folks rise up to demand their right in a democracy, we call that an “rebellion.” Think: Whiskey Rebellion.

Thomas Jefferson, no stranger to rebellion, famously said,

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Less well known is his reference to Shay’s Rebellion, a revolt of poor white farmers, embittered by the newly formed U.S. government’s tax policy. (Jefferson repealed that policy when he took office as our third president.)

Who will be labeled a thug rather than a patriot, what will be called a riot rather than a rebellion, depends less upon the actors or their actions than it does upon the color of their skin.

Of course riot and rebellion are not the same. Rebellion, like revolution is meaningful, organized, controlled. It requires leadership and planned, considered resistance to authority. Riot (as suggested by the legalese above) disturbs the peace (including peaceful protest) in a random, frantic fashion. Riot can be an expression of power, but it is disorganized, disordered and angry.

No one understood this distinction better than MLK, who frowned upon all violence but empathized,

“A riot is the language of the unheard.”

In his brilliance, but without condoning it, Dr. King recognized riot as the desperate cry of the voiceless and powerless in frustration and violence.

He understood riot. He recognized riot. He acknowledged riot. He never condoned riot.

Like Dr. King, journalists must choose our words carefully in these potentially transformative moments. The words we use to describe what is happening in places like Baltimore is critical to whether the public understands the actions of those on the ground as legitimate, or not. By describing unfolding events as a “riot,” we implicitly assume guilt before arrest, prosecution and conviction. We assume lawlessness rather than patriotic expression. We presume to know more than we possible can know in an instant, hour or even week on the ground.

Of course, a great deal of rioting did occur in Los Angeles in 1992. People who were pulled from their cars and beaten, (most notably truck driver Reginald Denny, infamously beaten on live television) would bear this out. But the way we cover pockets of criminal riot drown out a larger social justice movement based upon the legitimate grievances. When we do that, we unwittingly characterize everyone in the oppressed group as out-of-control “thugs.”

It is our responsibility if we choose to cover these stories not to simply exploit the violence — to keep our cameras and microphones balanced . We know and we must help the American people to know that the vast majority of people are involved in peaceful protest with the intention of challenging the injustice they see in the system. They are organized with clear goals for change. They are working to reshape the social order, rather than blowing off steam fueled by anger. Many of these change agents see their actions as part of a larger rebellion that aims to create substantive policy change.

Until the violence breaks out.

Of course when it does, we have to cover it. But not exclusively, and with language that lives between the presumptuous “riot” and the catch-all “disturbance.”

“Uprising,” splits the difference. I’m going with that.