After police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last year, those in the streets demonstrating — however violently — were usually “protesters,” not “rioters.” But after Baltimore erupted in the past few days, those trying to call attention to Freddie Gray’s death in police custody were overshadowed by those setting fires and looting stores.
The Guardian: “Baltimore protests turn into riots as mayor declares state of emergency.”
The Baltimore Sun: “Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake … drew a distinction between peaceful protesters and ‘thugs’ she said engaged in rioting Monday intent on ‘destroying our city.'”
Breitbart: “Racial protests supposed to be peaceful quickly turned into violent riots on Saturday evening, closing down the city of Baltimore for some time.”
President Obama: “There is no excuse for the kind of violence we saw yesterday. It is counterproductive. … They’re not protesting. They’re not making a statement. They are stealing.”
Perhaps most significantly in a news event so extensively debated about and reported on social media, “#baltimoreriots” was the Twitter hashtag of choice. It seemed that, whether or not they deserved it, those filling Baltimore’s streets would never be afforded the dignity of the word “protester” — a word, as always, associated with Martin Luther King Jr.
“Would be nice if we could get #BaltimoreUprising trending instead of ‘riots,’ ” one user wrote.
Then, it happened: Tuesday night on Twitter, “#baltimoreriots” became “#baltimoreuprising.” Perhaps because Charm City remained relatively calm on Tuesday, those speaking out against police brutality were afforded the dignity of Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela despite Monday’s rioting.
Many were skeptical. “Part of this is an affectation to give political meaning to behavior that may not have political content,” David J. Garrow, a civil rights historian at the University of Pittsburgh, told the New York Times. “We’ve got observers perhaps trying to give greater meaning to the behavior than the people involved may intend.”
“Sophisticated thinkers want you to understand that the mayhem unfolding in Baltimore is not a riot,” the conservative Daily Caller wrote, criticizing a controversial Atlantic piece by Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates called “Nonviolence is Compliance.” “It is an uprising, an intifada, a revolution, whichever hashtag works best for you,” the conservative Web site wrote.
Yet, Wednesday morning, the new hashtag seemed to be sticking.
CNN: “After riots, protesters and police ensure peace.”
In this case, a protest by any other name, it seems, does not smell as sweet. As the folks at Anonymous reminded the world, “naming is a political act.”