During the peaceful Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests during summer 2020, the excessive response of police forces and the National Guard sent shock waves across the world. Unfortunately, it’s somewhat unsurprising that the violent mop which descended on the Capitol on 6 Jan following the instructions of President Trump, did not provoke the same reaction.
President-elect Biden stated, ‘Nobody could tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesters yesterday, that they wouldn’t have been treated very differently than the mob that stormed the Capitol’. We are all too aware of this truth. But how does language play an important role, not only in the approach of politicians to these events but in the response of the media and the general public?
To begin with, I thought it was essential to take a look at the word ‘protest’ itself. I thought it would be interesting to see whether, with no time to think, people connected the word protest to a positive or negative idea. Although, a few of the people I asked said positive, the majority associated the word with negative connotations, saying it provoked ideas of violence for example. Why does this word, ‘protest’, bring up such negative implications, and why is this their immediate visualisation? Modifying the term slightly however, when I asked for their response to peaceful protest, everyone connected it to positive ideas. Language, and slight adjustments to it, can vastly shape the connotations triggered when describing events.
The word ‘terrorist’ can equally be weaponised, in many cases, functioning to legitimise white supremacy. When 19-year-old white supremacist, Nikolas Cruz, killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, he was unbelievably not defined as a terrorist. The Collins English Dictionary defines a terrorist as ‘a person who uses violence, especially murder and bombing, in order to achieve political aims’. By definition, he is most certainly a terrorist, so why were the media so put off from using the term?
I asked the same people why the word ‘terrorist’ is so uncoupled from white people and terrorism perpetuated by white attackers, they all said the same thing, that they knew it wasn’t true or fair, but the media has long since established that separation. The role of the media was even more highlighted when I posed the same question to my parents, members of a different generation, who said they didn’t associate the word terrorist with race because they’d grown up hearing news about the IRA. These days, when some media outlets are very reluctant to conclude ‘terrorism’ is even possible at the hands of white people at all, the consequences can be severe.
The media’s reluctance to define a white supremacist as a terrorist is frightening, because it provides a legitimate basis for their actions. If Nikolas Cruz was non-white, would the media have been more willing to use the term terrorist? Unfortunately, they probably would.
So, this brings us back to the authorities’ approach to the BLM protests and their parallel approach to the storming of the Capitol. According to The Guardian, when BLM protesters gathered one block from the White House in June, they were charged on by ‘a force made up of Washington police, US park police, over 5,000 national guard troops and federal agencies like the Bureau of Prisons’. When Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol building, many of whom were white supremacists and armed, the police response was nowhere near as severe. The way Trump weaponised his language, in an attempt to re-define the peaceful BLM protests as dangerous and the undemocratic actions of his violent supporters as acceptable can almost certainly partially account for the differing responses.
These events provoke interesting ideas regarding word use. Think for example of the descriptions of protestor and rioter. I immediately associate protestor with peace and rioter with violence. Of course, language cannot always be used to explain in totality why BLM protestors were treated differently. In this case, it is vital to remember that in June, Trump directly ordered the police to use force against the protesters, and he was also the one who outwardly ordered his supporters to storm the Capitol. Trump overtly used hard power, as well as subtle manipulation in his language.
But language is nevertheless important in how events are received and defined, and we must consider the way in which we connect words with events and people. Terrorists and rioters can be white. Politicians, the media and the public must do more to cement this fact, so people learn and change their reductive opinions. But when you’re consistently presented with a certain image, it’s difficult.
– Maggie John
Featured Image Source: Pexels