Rioting, Looting, and Other Coded Language

A tragic thing happened last summer in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, when a police officer shot an unarmed Black youth. Michael Brown’s death at the end of Darren Wilson’s gun barrel sparked discussion around the world, along with sustained protests in Ferguson itself. First, people protested the injustice of yet another Black life lost. Then, they protested the decision on the part of the grand jury seated to indict Wilson to decline to indict. They protested Wilson’s racism and hateful public statements. They protested the media treatment of their community. They organised support networks and their own media outlets and so much more to document their protests, create solidarity, and make their public and organised speech sustainable.

The media reported their protests as ‘riots.’ Riots were happening in Ferguson. Ferguson rioting was spreading to other parts of the country. Rioters were ‘looting’ local businesses, they were ‘trashing’ their community, they were setting fire to dumpsters and cop cars. It’s a media narrative that the police and governor cultivated and reinforced, using it as justification to amp up police presence, to bring in the National Guard, to create a situation in Ferguson that was akin to a powderkeg, making it functionally impossible for the Black community to prevail; no matter what they said or did, no matter how they expressed their opinions, they’d be written off as ‘rioters.’

On the ground, many people noted that the bulk of the ‘rioters’ didn’t look familiar, with some even proudly reporting that they came to Ferguson from other communities; and that some of these self-same were white, just looking to ‘fuck shit up,’ enjoying the cover of a hurting and angry Black community. Others noted that police cars and other equipment were rather ‘conveniently’ stationed, as though officials were almost hoping that they’d be set upon by nefarious hooligans for the purpose of making a dramatic picture for the media. The possibility of outside agitators wasn’t completely out of the question either, not in a landscape where it was very, very clear that officials were inciting the Black community. They taunted the community, they made vague, racist statements, they held up the grand jury deliberations, notably releasing the decision during Thanksgiving week in the hopes of blunting the protests in response.

It was all an elaborate media game, but it took advantage of a larger media narrative. By and large, when white people, or a majority white group, protest — taking to the street to express political views, including engaging in activities like unpermitted marches, displaying signs, and so forth — their political speech is just called a ‘protest.’ In the event that some protestors behave in ways deemed antisocial — breaking windows, threatening cops, and so forth — they’re treated as outliers. Thus you have a ‘mostly peaceful anti-war protest.’ That changes, though, when the crowd is heavily balanced with people of colour. Suddenly the same event is a riot, and the people who are peaceful become the minority; think, for example, of the widely-circulated image of young Black men guarding a store in the summer Ferguson protests, likely from outsiders who wanted to use the protests in Ferguson as an excuse to destroy the community. After all, they didn’t have to live there. They didn’t have to clean up, like the community members photographed collecting garbage from the streets did.

White people=protest with violent outliers. People of colour=riot, with peaceful outliers. It’s such transparently coded language that it’s astounding to see the media, and the public, fall for it every time. Yet, it’s not really astounding, or all that surprising. We clearly, and regrettably, live in an era in which people aren’t good at examining racialised codewords, dogwhistles, and tactics, and critical evaluation of the media isn’t a skill that’s widely taught. Many people take things at face value, and this doesn’t have to do with assigning traits like ‘stupidity,’ but everything to do with how people experience society in the US, and the things of things that are valued in schools. Many schools do not want to teach pupils to think differently, or to reevaluate situations.

There’s another classic example of violently contrasting coded language, found in a meme that circulated widely in the wake of Katrina. As hurricane survivors struggled to survive in a landscape that was extremely dangerous, many foraged for food and supplies. Promised equipment from the government hadn’t arrived, they couldn’t get out, and they were trapped in an incredibly perilous landscape. So people of all races hit grocery stores, convenience stores, and more to pick up bottled water, food, wood, and other supplies. Whites were ‘finding,’ through some miracle, what they needed to survive. People of colour were ‘looting,’ even when they were carrying the exact same objects.

In protests spearheaded by people of colour, they’re always ‘rioting’ and often ‘looting,’ with no examination of the wider circumstances or the aspects of the situation that are, to say the least, suspicious. The chain of events followed in protests is too similar and suspicious to be a coincidence; outsiders frequently descend upon communities like Ferguson, law enforcement are known to have racist stances on the communities they police, public officials like to have clear excuses for acts of violence committed against civilians. In that landscape, one is led to wonder how much of this ‘rioting’ and ‘looting’ actually originated among community members protesting injustice and issues confronted by their communities, and how much comes from other sources.

Yet, the media keeps using these codewords, and by and large, we let it pass without comment. It circulates through a handful of communities, crops up in a few memes, and subsides. What if we forced a change in AP style, obliging the media to report accurately on protests? What if we challenged the origins of ‘looting’ behaviours and asked for more detail about its origins and who performed it?

Photo: Police, Oakland Riots, Thomas Hawk, Flickr