Pivotal events tend to have popularly accepted names. Sometimes these are generated by media outlets (Snowpocalypse), and sometimes they’re official jargon adopted into the vernacular (D-Day). Often times, though, a name emerges organically as society grapples to assign language to an event decidedly more complex than any single word or phrase. Think 9/11.
Since April 27, 2015, we have been struggling to pin down language that adequately describes events here in West Baltimore preceding and immediately following the arrest and death of Freddie Gray. I hear three words used most often:
Most news outlets and regular (non-activist) folks prefer the term unrest. It’s the most neutral of the three and has the advantage of being descriptive but not judgmental. The problem, though, is it’s disempowering, implying no volition — that the events of those days just sort of happened. Also, even a relatively neutral term like unrest has a negative connotation. It suggests that “rest” is what Baltimore seeks or needs. It’s been said that religion exists to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” In many ways, though, the convulsions of this historic moment are a response to the complacency of the past. Unrest, it would seem, is exactly what Baltimore needs.
The more negative term we hear a lot is riots. I’m one who believes this term is accurate to a point. There were riots on April 27. People were injured. Millions of dollars in property was damaged. And while it is a blessing that no one was killed that day, we should be careful not to retreat too far into euphemism. However, the rioting was and is only a small part of the story. First, there’s the context: Freddie Gray’s untimely and inexcusable death, the killings of unarmed black men like Michael Brown, Tyrone West, Eric Garner and the subsequent and tragic loss of Sandra Bland. But even the events of those days in April and early May were so much more (more nuanced, more productive, more positive) than the term riots implies. It quickly dismisses the vast majority of the city who behaved peacefully and followed the law. It undervalues the good work that was done by so many who not only cleaned up after but who are currently (and have been for years) working for the betterment of their communities. But worse, saying riots (full stop) does more violence to the city than the violence of April 27 ever could, because it allows us to discount the systemic underpinnings of these tragedies. One doesn’t have to make extreme statements like those who cavalierly chastise “those people for destroying their own neighborhoods.” The more insidious effect is to confuse what’s right with what’s understandable, to assign culpability without context.
Which brings me to the term most preferred by protestors, advocates and organizers. Uprising is empowering to be sure; it honors the indignation of those who are rightfully and righteously fed up with the status quo. It also acknowledges a sense of agency of people of color who endure overt and structural oppression beyond what most white Americans can truly comprehend. But uprising also falls short for two reasons: First, It doesn’t distinguish between the violence/vandalism and the widespread non-violent, lawful protests. Second, for onlookers and consumers of mass media, the term evokes images of political coups or violent revolutions around the world and throughout history, revolutions that have often given way to regimes equally despotic and oppressive to those they were intended to replace. The oft-offered chant, “no justice, no peace” creates similar confusion. Most people, I think, mean this descriptively: without justice there cannot be peace. But most observers perceive it as a threat. Indeed, I think many protestors do mean to threaten, but not with physical violence. They mean to disrupt as effective protests often do — disrupt traffic, upend the status quo, draw attention away from our many mindless distractions and toward the issues that our communities must confront if we are to truly move forward. But since the term only resonates with those who use it, it undermines efforts to communicate the situation to the broader population. It provides easy cover for those who don’t want to care or don’t know how to care, and makes it possible for them to convince themselves their concern isn’t needed. “We got this,” they hear and go back to watching Games of Thrones.
So what’s a better term? There isn’t a perfect one, but I find myself using the Hebrew word matzav. It literally means “situation,” but Israelis use it to describe the overall state of Israeli and Palestinian society. Terrorism: matzav. Warfare: matzav. Bigotry, racism, antisemitism, political corruption or facile leadership when urgency and political courage is needed: matzav. It’s neutral but not toothless like “unrest.” When I say matzav I feel at once powerful and impotent, optimistic and despairing in equal proportions. I think of Rabbi Tarfon who said, “It is not your task to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” It’s real, and a strong dose of reality is what we need right now.