Riot of Color

When is a protest not a protest? When the demonstrators are black.

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Angry people poured into the streets of two North American cities last month: first in Cincinnati, then in Quebec City.

The protests in Cincinnati were sparked by the police shooting of a 19-year-old African-American man, the fourth such killing in six months. As peaceful demonstrations turned violent in some spots, the mayor declared a state of emergency while police took to the streets in riot gear and shot at protesters with high-powered rifles loaded with beanbags. Pundits and reporters called the uprising a “riot.”

Meanwhile another group of social activists took to the streets of Quebec City as the free-trade Summit of the Americas got underway. As in Cincinnati, there was plenty of violence: Quebec police fired rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons at protesters. The “Black Bloc” of anarchists made headlines with its campaign of property destruction and violence. Yet the chaos, which left an estimated 34 police and 45 demonstrators injured, was almost universally referred to in the press as a “protest.”

So what was the difference between Cincinnati and Quebec City? The color of the protesters’ skin, and the touchy subject of racial injustice. As a matter of fact, the use of the word “riot” has been the source of some careful policymaking in some newsrooms: The New York Times style guide, for instance, cautions against its casual use. The paper’s coverage of Cincinnati referred to the chaos as “racial protests” instead.

Critics have assailed such redefinitions: In, a Web site dedicated to finding fault with the Gray Lady, editor Ira Stoll says: “Not every ‘racial protest’ involves looting and violence, and to refer to a riot as a mere ‘racial protest’ erodes a meaningful distinction.” Stoll’s equation goes like this: protest + race + violence + theft = riot. But violence and looting are fairly regular parts of big anti-globalization protests as well, so Stoll’s calculation of what sets a riot apart still boils down to race.

The same ingredients came together in Seattle in March, when a Mardi Gras melee left a 20-year-old white man dead. The local media were excoriated for not characterizing the incident as a “race riot,” and the controversy has continued to flicker. A letter to the editor of the Seattle Times read: “The instigators of these violent acts were black gang-bangers out to hurt white people. Surely had a gang of white guys beaten up on a bunch of blacks and killed one … the coverage would have been focused on race.”

In both Cincinnati and Seattle, the argument in favor of the use of the word “riot” came down do one key factor: white fear. The New York Times reported that, in Cincinnati, “groups of young blacks had raided stores, set fires and alarmed whites.” Were black families somehow not alarmed by the violence?

Similarly, the president of Cincinnati’s Fraternal Order of Police told reporters that “If we give one inch to [the protesters] in the form of negotiations, then we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves when we turn into another Detroit or Washington DC.” As Alternet’s Tim Wise notes, Fangman could have evoked the names of any number of places — like Boulder, Colorado, East Lansing, Michigan, or Tucson, Arizona, all sites of rioting by drunk, and mostly white, college students in recent years. “But he didn’t,” Wise writes. “He picked Detroit and DC — two places that haven’t had any riots lately, but which both have a lot of black people.”

As a black church leader in Seattle pointed out, white fear is quickly generalized: “[Whenever] white society is subjected to any rage from blacks, they move very quickly from the individual to the group.” Such generalized fear can be, and often is, summed up in four letters: “riot.”

The dictionary definition of the term — “a public act of violence by an unruly mob,” or “archaic, profligate behavior: debauchery” and “unrestrained revelry” — connotes base or animal instincts, wildness, a lack of civilization. Our greater ease in assigning the word to blacks may just be the modern-day, post-PC equivalent of calling them savages.

Bits and Pieces

When the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved medical benefits to cover sex-change operations for city employees last week, the decision was hailed as ground-breaking. Not so. The British military has revealed that it is paying medical costs associated with gender reassignment of five of its soldiers. The defense ministry also divulged that 10 service members had received liposuction and four had been given breast implants on the public dime.

The Vagina Monologues is designed to provoke, and it’s working in Utah. In Moab, some residents are calling a local production of the play “trashy” and “vulgar.” That prompted one letter writer in the Moab Times Independent to proclaim: “I have a vagina. Half of the people in Moab have vaginas. And let us not forget that each and every one of us passed through one on the way into the world. Yes, boys and girls … even Jesus!”

In related news, the Idaho legislature recently mulled the word “squaw,” which graces many a housing development, park, and street sign. Place names containing the derogatory term, which some believe derives from a word for “vagina,” have been a target of Native American protests nationwide. But Idaho Republicans said removing the word from place names is too costly and too politically correct, and killed the measure.


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