Words Matter: How the Language Used to Describe the Unrest in Baltimore Supports White Supremacy

Human Rights

As the unrest has grown in Baltimore, the word “thug” has been freely slung around by political leaders and the media. President Barack Obama referred to young people in the streets causing property damage as “thugs” and “criminals.” Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called them “thugs who only want to incite violence.” The city’s council president Bernard Young also used the word thugs in a press conference Monday.

Donald Trump, the mega-rich troll of the black community, tweeted Tuesday, “Our great African American President hasn't exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore!”

Days after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died after sustaining fatal injuries during his arrest on April 12, hundreds of people took to the streets of downtown Baltimore demanding that the officers who took Gray into custody be charged in his death. The mostly calm protests soon turned into unrest Saturday as hundreds of young people overcome with years of deprivation and despair responded with anger that left significant damage to local businesses and police vehicles. Most media outlets described what is happening in Baltimore as “riots,” while some people prefer the term “uprising.”

Even on Twitter, the hashtag #BaltimoreRiots stopped trending Tuesday and has been replaced with #BaltimoreUprising. So far, the hashtag hasn’t lost steam.

The use of the word “uprising” isn’t merely semantic. The characterization of protesters as thugs criminalizes young people who are responding to what they understandably regard as a hostile and murderous law enforcement system. 

Several local Baltimore politicians have pushed back against news reporters who seem to want to talk about property damage as opposed to the abusive police behavior that precipitated the unrest. When Fox News reporter Leland Vittert asked Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby about the “rioting” and “looting,” the politician made clear that he did not approve of it and then focused on why young people were engaging in destructive behavior.

"What it is is young folks of this community showing decades-old anger, frustration, for a system that's failed them,” he said. “I mean, this is bigger than Freddie Gray. This is about the socio-economics of poor, urban America. These young guys are frustrated, they're upset, and unfortunately, they're displaying it in a very destructive manner. When folks are undereducated, unfortunately, they don't have the same intellectual voice to explain it the way other people are doing it and that's what we see through the violence today.”

After realizing that Vittert had no interest in discussing the larger socio-economic issues underlying the unrest, Mosby ended the interview.

Maryland state Sen. Majority Leader Catherine Pugh was captured on video hugging a protester. During an interview with Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera, she told him the media is making the situation worse.

“No, they don’t want trouble,” she said. “We want our people to go home, but we also need the media to move back, because this is just inciting people.”

Pugh has taken a drubbing on social media for hugging the protester, but her actions and words were an important narrative shift because they mirror the efforts of other politicians and activists to decriminalize young people whom white society and the police seem to automatically criminalize.

Abdul Salaam, a 36-year-old mental health executive and activist from Baltimore, told AlterNet he has sat in meetings with Baltimore officials who referred to protesters as thugs and convinced them that their characterizations were harmful.

“Wording is very important, particularly when you're talking about people who cannot identify with disenfranchised and marginalized individuals, so such language disenfranchises them even more,” Salaam, who claims he was beaten by Baltimore police officers in front of his child in 2013, said in a phone interview.

Council president Young and Mayor Rawlings-Blake have apologized for their use of the word thug.

AlterNet compiled a list of staggering statistics illustrating the plight of black Baltimore that the mainstream media has all but ignored. Among the issues addressed in the list is the fact that the city of Baltimore has paid more than $5.7 million since 2011 in response to lawsuits alleging police brutality. Yet none of the officers involved have been called thugs. Aren’t they?

Ninety-two percent of people cuffed in marijuana arrests in Baltimore were black Americans, according to a 2013 ACLA report. Yet there is no evidence that black people use weed more than white people. At some point, people get fed up with a legal system that inherently views them as criminals while ignoring the abuse they endure.

Some of these points were at the heart of activist DeRay McKesson's remarks during his live interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Tuesday afternoon. When Blitzer tried to get McKesson to focus on the property damage by declaring there was no excuse for it, the Ferguson veteran sharply reframed the conversation:

McKesson: There’s no excuse for the seven people that the Baltimore Police Department has killed in the last year either, right?

Blitzer: We’re not making comparisons, obviously. I just want to hear you say there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests, in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King.

McKesson: You are making a comparison. You are suggesting this idea that broken windows are worse than broken spines, right?…Freddie Gray will never be back. Those windows will.

McKessson’s shifting of the language was an effective tactic that forced the anchor—or at least his viewers—to consider a narrative that does not focus exclusively on burning buildings and people throwing blunt objects at law enforcement.

Within the mainstream media context, describing the unrest in Baltimore as “riots” is intellectually lazy. It allows reporters to criminalize people for broken windows instead of focusing on Gray, the young man whose spine was severed in the custody of law enforcement officials.

For now, at least 235 people have been arrested in connection with the unrest in Baltimore. Because many have not been formally charged, it is impossible to know if they are being accused of damaging property or engaging in violent behavior, as the prevailing media narrative suggests.

Most, if not all of these jailed people are likely behind bars because they were out on the streets protesting the death of a young black man who died as a result of injuries sustained in police custody. Mass arrests, property damage and everything that is happening in Baltimore is exactly what happens when disenfranchised people rise up against police brutality. 

Most people who are affected by that brutality would call this an uprising.

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