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.
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.