Last night, I met up with a friend who was born in Baltimore and asked him what he thought of the current situation—which some observers are calling a "riot" and others, like political commentator and Morehouse professor Marc Lamont Hill, are calling an "uprising." (It was a deft move by prosecutors to announce the charges against police on the morning of May Day and before the weekend.)
My friend talked about the deeply entrenched racism of Maryland; the lack of diversity in Baltimore ("New York is a diverse city," he said, "Baltimore is just black over here and white over there and that's about it"); and the thought he has every time he sees populations of color smashing up poorer neighborhoods, from LA in 1992 to Baltimore in 2015: "March north."
Of course, he recognized that passionate crowds heading toward wealthier neighborhoods to smash things up would change the stakes for demonstrators—and police—in a very severe way. And that itself might be symptomatic of the problem.
But it brought up the question: When is a demonstration a rally, when is it a riot, and when is it a rebellion?
Over at NPR, Karen Grigsby Bates has a small but worthwhile article on the subject, and how reporters and historians tend to characterize them:
Jack Schneider, an assistant professor in the education department at the College of the Holy Cross, noted at the Huffington Post last year that throughout American history, white citizens were lauded when they rose up against perceived tyranny. Actions that came to be known as Shay's Rebellion and Bacon's Rebellion were called rebellions; participants were considered patriots. "When blacks become involved, however," Schneider wrote, an uprising isn't a rebellion. It's a riot. Harlem, Watts, Chicago, or more recently, Ferguson."
These have been characterized as "resistance to authority or control," Schneider added. The assumption by those in power is those instances of civil unrest were hooliganism, not "simmering resentment and honest anger" to oppressive conditions.
The Stonewall "riots," for example, were—and had the effect of—a rebellion. But most of America didn't realize that at the time.
Bates also cites a Pittsburgh paper's reporting on a thousands-strong demonstration resulting in broken windows and flipped cars back in 2011:
More than 10,000 students rallied Wednesday night in anger after Penn State University trustees announced that longtime football coach Joe Paterno had been fired.
Would any reporters in Seattle have described May Day 2012—the May Day that put May Day on the map for 21st-century Seattle—as a "rally"? (To be fair to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the headline did include the word "riot.")
As longtime Slog readers might remember, on May 2, 2012, I had an extended argument with my respected colleagues—and our esteemed commenters—about the language used to describe targeted property destruction. I won't rehash the argument here, except to say that vandalism and violence aren't synonymous (unless you think people and property are morally equivalent), and not all window-smashers are "know-nothings" and "thugs" (as Slog's dearly departed Paul Constant initially described them).
And I can't resist recounting this bit from the post, as I walked home from the demonstrations and saw workers on overtime covering all the downtown business windows with plywood: "I asked one of the workers if every business would be boarding up for the night. 'Yes,' he said. 'Windows are expensive and we are not.'"
Happy May Day, everyone.