When is a Riot a Riot?

    by Dori J. Maynard
    January 12, 2009

    By now almost everyone knows that a group of demonstrators protesting against the killing of a young father by a transit officer splintered off and began a wave of destruction in downtown Oakland.

    Mainstream media outlets called it everything from a riot to a violent protest. Some bloggers referred to it as a civil unrest, rebellion or both a riot and civil unrest.

    Like is true with many issues, our perception of what happened is often shaped by our fault lines of race, class, gender, generation and geography. Perhaps because I live in Oakland and spent some years in Detroit, the home of one of the worst riots of the last century or maybe because the riots of the 1960s were the backdrop of my childhood, but to me a riot is a greater event than what happened in Oakland last week.


    To me a riot is a city come to a standstill. It’s big and it’s terrifying, not only to the people who are there, but to most of the people who live in the city, if not the rest of the country. It’s five days, 43 dead. It’s almost 1,200 injured and more than 700 arrested, in the case of the 1967 Detroit riot that forever changed the face of that city. Or it’s six days, 54 dead, almost 2,400 injured, 12,111 arrested and $1 billion in damage in the case of the riot that swept through Los Angeles after the acquittal of the police officers who were seen on tape beating Rodney King.

    It’s something that collectively changes the way we think about that city, the country, ourselves.

    This is not to minimize what happened in Oakland. Breaking storefront windows, burning cars and scaring local merchants are outside the bounds of tolerable behavior.
    But it is to say that I think we need to pick our words carefully so that we are comparing oranges to oranges.


    As we attempt to find a common language that will bridge the multi-cultural communities that make up this country, perhaps we need to be even more precise in our language. If we deem everything a riot, what words do we use to distinguish between what happened in Oakland and what happened in Detroit? Don’t we owe it to our audience to find words that will help them understand the scale of the events we are reporting?

    As I discussed this with journalists around the country, it was clear there was no agreed upon definition of a riot, or even if a riot should be called a riot or a rebellion.
    In one email exchange, a journalist asked “The question here is: Do we challenge the existing definition of a riot to something more nuanced to embrace what people have become accustomed to think of as BEING a riot.”

    For instance, after the Rodney King verdict many called what happened in Southern Cal a “riot.” 
However, coming from another perspective, many also called it a “rebellion” or an “uprising.”

    Where you sat in relation to those verdicts has a lot to do with how you view what happened afterward — meaning, if you’re a person of color who has been harassed, or even beaten by a cop in your lifetime, you might have viewed what happened as an uprising. If you’re a person who has had innocuous interactions with the police and justice system, it might be crystal clear to you: “That was a riot.”

    Another member of the email exchange shot back defending the use of the word riot and resoundingly rejecting the notion of an uprising, arguing that it doesn’t matter if some of the people involved in the violence felt it was justified.

    After the 1992 Los Angeles riot, a columnist asked what do you do when you’ve marched and you’ve sung and you’ve staged sit-ins and non-violent protests and still you’re told you don’t count? I don’t think he or anybody who uses the words rebellion, uprising or civil unrest was attempting to justify the massive destruction that devastated portions of the city. I think he was trying to lay bare the sense of hopelessness and frustration that can trigger a level of anger that has sent otherwise sane people into the streets.

    It’s not a point of view that comes naturally to some segments of our society, just as it’s hard for some segments to have faith in a fair police investigation into the shooting of an unarmed African American man.

    For journalists, I don’t think it’s as important for us to agree or disagree with these opinions. I think it’s important that we continually evaluate the words we use and constantly ask ourselves if we saw the same thing members of our community saw.
    Help us as we try to sort through these questions. What did you see and how do you think we should describe public acts of violence? Are we being too soft by refusing to call something a riot? Is there ever a reason to refer to any act of violence as a rebellion or uprising?

    Please give us your thoughts in the comments below, and it would be great if you could include your fault lines background when you give your interpretation of what happened in Oakland.

    Tagged: african american men detroit oakland police brutality protests rodney king

    10 responses to “When is a Riot a Riot?”

    1. Hi, Dori —

      I agree with you about the fact that “riot” is a loaded term with political implications. I wrote a number of posts, one here on IdeaLab and a couple more back at Placeblogger.com, about how independent local sites in Oakland responded to the situation and I avoided the term for this very reason.

      I think that “riot” is often used as a way to deligitimize protest movements, and to make people in protest movements seem scary and irresponsible, and it’s often used in a way that doesn’t add any real information for a reader about what, specifically, is happening on the ground in any given situation.

    2. Last week, there’s no question we watched abuse of the “R” word – and this sensationalism was a draw used by local TV news, which showed a few clips over and over.

      Perhaps journalists and bloggers could have remained more clinical. To me, a riot means rampant and near-total destruction of a city section. The after-effects look like a war zone, and it takes years for restoration.

      Here’s the best ”on the street” video that I could find – and it’s simply not a riot but an incident.

      You see people walking down the street, a banner or two. Then things pick up as folks attack that one police car and set the dumpster contents on fire.

      From this perspective, the flare up almost looks like a some movie shoot. Here is the YouTube link for reference:

      However, I wonder whether observers might think “riot” if the video showed the hoodlums who destroyed 45 storefronts. While underway, it’s likely difficult to judge the scale of destruction.

      There’s some kind of tipping point that is harder to define or describe, except if you experienced a full riot or witnessed the aftermath. Yet these are hardly commonplace experiences.

      There must be some way to capture the short-term energy. It’s not as contentious to say flare-up or protest-turned-violent. Well, English she is a difficult tongue.

    3. Michael J says:

      Great point. It’s a perfect example of the power of word to frame a discussion. Since the MSM is based on the notion that any word or action will “draw an audience” it makes perfect sense that is the word they will use. Consider the kind of discourse on FOX or MSNBC. Rachel Madow and Jon Stewart are trying a different approach to “draw a mass market audience. NPR and Charlie Rose have different approaches, but even with 22 million listeners for NPR, and lots of cred for Charlie Rose it still doesn’t go mainstream.

      Back in the olden days, there was Omnibus. Hopefully this new journalism will be able to recreate the quiet discourse that can go mainstream

    4. Tim says:

      While decent points have been made about the media’s use of the word “riot,” in their defense, they are using the literal definition relating to the California Penal Code. It reads as follows: “Riot – 404 PC, Any use of force or violence, disturbing the public peace, or any threat to use force or violence, if accompanied by immediate power of execution, by two or more persons acting together, and without authority of law, is a riot.”

      In this sense, a “riot” is exactly what happened in Oakland.

    5. Michael J says:

      So I’m thinking the MSM didn’t consult the legal code. My take is that they used because they still live under “If it bleeds, it leads.” Good for their short term goals. Bad for what it does both to the public discourse, and our citizen’s understanding of reality.

    6. Nancy says:

      I agree completely with your comments on the use of words and how when chosen they can infuse the writing with a one sided point of view. I had a hard time coming up with a apt description of what had happened on that night in Oakland and how to communicate the feelings that sparked the events.
      Thank you for your post. I read it first in the Oakland Tribune and came here to thank you.

    7. Penny Williams says:

      Flare up or protest turned violent is, for me, the only accurate way to describe what happened in Oakland. A heinous act was committed by BART police- an act without cause or reason, unjustified and indefensible and people were objecting to it.

      To describe it any other way takes the event out of context which is the most fatal flaw in American journalism.

    8. Penny Williams says:

      I change my mind. While discussing use of the term ‘riot’ is useful and has been going on for years, what we should be discussing is an accurate way to describe the mental illness that allowed the BART officer to shoot an innocent, young Black man.

    9. Reghan says:

      I like your points about loaded language and how words can frame content. However, words are socially constructed and only hold the meaning you give them. A riot for one may not be a riot for another. The word can have cultural, political, religious, or even social implications tied to it that the reader themselves are unable to see. I do agree that there needs to be a consistency with words, in order to bridge communication gaps in journalism. But as a citizen journalist, is it really that important to write for the masses?

    10. Reghan says:

      I like your points about loaded language and how words can frame content. However, words are socially constructed and only hold the meaning you give them. A riot for one may not be a riot for another. The word can have cultural, political, religious, or even social implications tied to it that the reader themselves are unable to see. I do agree that there needs to be a consistency with words, in order to bridge communication gaps in journalism. But as a citizen journalist, is it really that important to write for the masses?

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