It looks like an American Spring. People are protesting in the midst of a pandemic, risking disease for civil rights. However, we have to be careful of using this term though, since Occupy Wall Street was seen like that as well. In my mind, this is a continuation of long-standing frustrations, and crisis, that the pandemic brought into sharp relief. While overtly the protests are about police brutality, it’s slowly expanding its focus into other issues. After all, police brutality is a symptom of a much larger story. This story includes deep inequality and access to medical care,
It is also clear that the early days of these protests saw plenty of disorder and what looked like police violence. This left editors, reporters, and media outlets with a choice. Should we use the word riot? What about the word thug? Both are replete with both mental frames and troubled history. Both have been used, without a second thought, for many decades, so not surprisingly most media used them in some form or another. However, most editors, and reporters, rarely question words we use. We in the media, whether it’s large or small, rarely ask about our own blind spots and biases. This is why we need to be conscious of both the words we use and the images we run.
While the nation is having conversations about defunding the police, reforming the police, structural racism, and other issues, it’s time we have a conversation about language. Why? Language fundamentally is part of the structures of society, and it is used to enforce how society works. It is not conscious most of the time, why we need to develop an ability for introspection.
Why should we question the use of the words THUG and Riot? Both have a long history, and they are used to bring out certain mental frames in the readers’ minds. Why writers need to be familiar, in passing, with neurolinguistics, which is defined as follows: “the branch of linguistics dealing with the relationship between language and the structure and functioning of the brain.”. This is a relatively new field. It explores how language brings ideas and concepts to mind. Some are positive, some are neutral and some are very negative. How we use language matters, and it is not just a matter of just choosing words.
First, let’s explore the word RIOT.
It’s been used in newspaper reporting for over a hundred years, if not more. It is descriptive of social disorder, and wanton destruction, why it is so handy. However, it has a history and it’s gone through a linguistic shift and framing over time. In other words, it started describing one thing, but these days it is used, almost exclusively for another. This is not unusual for language since it does evolve over time, and how we use it shifts.
In the early part of the 20th century, riot described mostly white violence on blacks. It came together with the lynchings and burnings of property. For example, the 1921 Tulsa riots were described as a white race riot. The disaster burned out successful African Americans who built themselves a nice middle-class life in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The success of this black community, however, caused some white people in Tulsa to become envious and angry, according to Mechelle Brown, director of programs at the Greenwood Cultural Center.
They commented, “‘How dare these negroes have a grand piano in their house, and I don’t have a piano in my house’,” Brown told CNN’s Sara Sidner in 2016.
This disaster for the community came from a chance encounter in an elevator between white and black persons, who found themselves alone for a few moments. This is 1921, and some of the ideas of the age were that black men would rape white women given the opportunity. The elevator operator, who was white, screamed and claimed she was assaulted. Yet, she never filed charges. In the end, 1200 homes burned, and over 300 black people were killed.
The Tulsa Race Riot quickly disappeared from white mainstream history, but the memory of this remained with the black community. Historians have preserved it in some ways as well, and today it’s known as a massacre. The fact that President Donald Trump chose to restart his rallies in Tulsa on Junteeth is very significant and pregnant with symbolism and not the right kind of symbolism. He moved it to the next day, he says out of respect, however, Trump does nothing out of respect. There is interest behind this move. It was a way to take over a moment in time that is very problematic in American history. The signal was sent regardless.
Until the 1960s riot was connected with white explosions of violence and rage on successful black communities. But in the 1960s we had race riots once again, which mostly involved black Americans and less so Mexican Americans. These explosions, like happened in Detroit, and Los Angeles, frightened middle-class whites and became a core part of the law and order campaign that brought Richard Nixon to the White House in 1968. This is the moment when the term race riot shifted from describing white violence on black bodies, to black violence on society, The uprisings were seen a national security threat supported by Communists and socialists, not unlike the way Antifa and Anarchists are used today, This is exactly how the law and order campaign portrayed them. Since, we do not use the term to describe wanton destruction by whites, after their sports team loses a championship, it has become racialized.
The word riot is now reserved for uprisings in urban cores, which is where minorities live. Whether this is in Los Angeles, after the Rodney King verdict, or the last two weeks, the word has attached to people of color like a limpet mine, threatening to explode at any moment. However, we did see something interesting this time around. We read, though the New York Times, the term police riot, which is far more descriptive to what is happening on American streets right at The moment. The people were mostly peacefully assembling and addressing their government. Police responded with force and fury. Partly it was their way to enforce the law as they saw it. It’s backfired, the same way dogs and fire hoses did in the 1960s.
Let’s be clear. This is not to say that there were no problems with some civilians in the streets. There was some and we have evidence that the demonstrations were infiltrated by right-wing elements, and that criminal gangs took advantage, especially after dark. But none of what happened at night justified the reaction from law enforcement in the daytime. We saw it in San Diego. Peaceful marches were met with officers in riot gear, who were there to raise the temperature. When they could not, they used their training and equipment to disperse peaceful assemblies by force, even when there was no curfew.
As to the right infiltrating these marches, we saw it with at least one Boogaloo Boy and Proud Boys at another protest, Both are right-wing groups, and one in particular desires a civil war.
The Boogaloo Boys want a civil war Both groups believe that there is a white genocide underway, and the Proud Boys were present at the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville. They were among the most violent of the groups present there. However, most media tends to ignore these groups in coverage. Partly, they do not fit the narrative of a thug in modern-day parlance or rioters. In the modern imagination, both words are limited to blacks.
Which brings me to thugs. The word comes from an Indian root, the Thugees. They were people who were “a member of a religious organization of robbers and assassins in India. Devotees of the goddess Kali, the Thugs waylaid, and strangled their victims, usually travelers, in a ritually prescribed manner. They were suppressed by the British in the 1830s.”
The modern connotation of the term according to the dictionary is “a violent person, especially a criminal:” This definition is correct, but the word and frame that it brings up in the popular imagination are inner-city African American youth. Why? The term has been used this way for decades in media reporting. Whether it was during the war on drugs in the 1990s, or when connected to riots. The terms reinforced each other in the public imagination. Earlier on it was also used to describe mobsters and other criminals. The word thug is descriptive, but it is used with African American youth, less so with Hispanics. You will be pressed to find it describing white gangs, and they do exist.
The language selection, and how stories are written, are textbook examples of implicit bias.
While research into implicit bias is still developing, what we know now has important implications for journalism. A commitment to grappling with implicit bias could become an effective way to help the industry produce news coverage that more accurately depicts an increasingly diverse world, transform audience engagement and increase trust, and identify and overcome unspoken and unrealized internal divisions that negatively affect relationships within newsrooms.
Implicit bias refers to an automatic or unconscious tendency to associate particular characteristics with particular groups. It is not malicious but could lead to disparate treatment of individuals and groups.
Journalism has not been immune to the phenomenon, with research showing that female politicians are treated differently in news stories, and by voters, from male politicians, while black families are overly associated with crime and Muslims with terrorism by media outlets convinced they treat every group fairly. Studies such as one in Political Research Quarterly have found that stories in which the candidates running are only women, the focus is more often about character traits and less often about issues. Researchers at the University of Alabama found that terror attacks committed by Muslims received 357 percent more coverage than attacks committed by others.
What is happening in the streets demands that not only the police change. It requires that the rest of us do some self-reflection and stop using some words. This includes those of us who report on this and use language on a regular basis. Thug and riot are two of those words that may have to go from the repertoire. So what could we use instead? Well, one word that comes, ironically, from broken windows policing is descriptive. Outside of law enforcement, it does not have too much of a connotation, negative, or positive. The word disorder is ready-made for the situation, whether it is the current spat of limited violence, or mostly white college students going to town after their team loses the championship. For the moment it is not that laden with problems. It can acquire them, but only if we are not careful in how we use it.
Remember, the media no longer uses “illegal aliens” either in news reporting. And there are good reasons for that as well. It may describe a group of people, but it was correctly deemed racist.