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Keywords in Black Protest: A(n Anti-)Vocabulary

The authors critique four keywords used to describe events to create a new vocabulary of Black protest.

Protesters in Seattle march in solidarity with Ferguson protesters on December 6, 2014. (Photo: Scottlum)

How do [Black writers] write in a world dominated by and informed by their relationship to a white culture? – Toni Morrison

“By trying to alter language, simply to free it up, not to repress it or confine it, but to open it up. Tease it. Blast its racist straitjacket.” – Paris Review

“Power is the ability to define phenomena and make it act in a desired manner.” – Huey P. Newton

Baltimore is a narrative project. In addition to the massive material loses and vulnerabilities faced by those who take to the streets for justice, hashtags, speeches, interviews and indictments organize that place in the national imaginary.

The terminology used to describe the current protests has a seductive power, and repetition gives it a certain unshakable truth. In recognition of the material impact of discourse, we want to initiate a challenge to the words written and spoken of Baltimore and other sites of Black political action by privileged, mainstream media outlets and pundits.

Our goal is to destabilize the contextualized veracity of four of these words, which are keywords at the core of conversations pertaining to the events of the past few months. Framing our discussion around language, we look at Baltimore, Ferguson, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Black spaces of unrest across the United States as discursive creations. It is a keywords experiment that is meant to be built upon and expanded in order to collectively (re)create a new vocabulary – and practice – of Black protest.

Thug: The so-called “criminals and thugs” described by President Barack Obama in his response to the events of 2015 Baltimore are, in the century of the US prison, a racialized group. Despite arguments to the contrary, “thug” is not a universally or equally applied term, making it the reserve of a select few. As Seattle Seahawks Cornerback Richard Sherman and Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes separately argued, “thug” is now a proxy for “nigger,” exhibiting a kinder, gentler racism that is no less consequential for its target.

When delivered by the nation’s first Black president or the Black female mayor of Baltimore, the word thug is not divorced from this racial code but rather fortified by its incorporation into the US “multiculturalist white supremacy,” in which people of color – like the president and Baltimore mayor – become spokespeople and executors for further dispossession and violence. Our task is to refashion the reception and use of the thug through adoption of its fugitive qualities in order to refuse, as Dylan Rodríguez argues, contemporary labors “to domesticate, discipline and contain a politics of radical opposition to a US nation-building project that now insists on the diversity of the American “we,” while leaving so many for dead.” Instead of running from the thug, we might imagine them instead as the model we’ve been searching for.

Leader: We’ve been trained to believe that we need “leaders” to save us. Leaders are the iconic figures who stand-in for collective struggle, who receive the shine for the sacrifices and suffering of others, who speak for the rest of us when the media or state come calling. They are advertised to inspire movement participation even as they also become the singular fall person punished for the actions of the collective. At the center of the leader’s profile is charisma, which Erica Edwards describes as “an animating fiction of contemporary black politics” that carries with it “three forms of violence”:

1. The historical or historiographical violence of reducing a heterogeneous Black freedom struggle to a top-down narrative of Great Man leadership;

2. The social violence of performing social change in the form of a fundamentally undemocratic form of authority;

3. The epistemological violence of structuring knowledge of Black political subjectivity and movement within a gendered hierarchy of political value that grants uninterrogated power to normative masculinity.

Cisgender, heterosexual, singularly divine men remain at the forefront of our understandings and representations of Black struggle. That Martin Luther King, Jr. is regularly reanimated to debate Black political struggle – as we’ve seen in Ferguson and Baltimore alike – is but one indication of this. The respectability politics and gendered dimensions of contemporary political struggle are also evident in the recurrent disappearance of Black cis* and trans* women in (inter)national “I am…” campaigns and uprisings, as well as the elision of those same bodies and perspectives in/on “authenticating” and instructional fora, including magazine covers, television media, town halls, rally daises and classrooms.

As Hazel Carby argues, the “conceptual and political failure of imagination” by our generation’s race men will compromise our liberation futures, making it necessary to labor for leaderless, improvisational Black rebellion.

Riot: We say “rebellion”; they say “riot.” We say “uprising”; they say, yet again, “riot.” The narrative power of this difference is steeped in historical precedent. A wave of uprisings in the 1960s that erupted in response to Jim Crow segregation, expanding war and Black assassination are logged in historical memory and scholarship as riots; the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion is more than 20 years old now, but the language of “riot” remains indelibly attached to that event and location, encouraging even the most attentive of us to sometimes slip. This is evidence of the media monopoly on language, but also a reflection of a deep desire and need to construct and enforce a common sense that defines publicly defiant Black collectives as criminal.

The long history of assault to Black assemblage dates back centuries and includes South Carolina’s 1740 Negro Act, which was a response to the Stono Rebellion and made it “illegal for slaves to move abroad, assemble in groups, raise food, earn money, and learn to read English. Owners are permitted to kill rebellious slaves if necessary.”

Black assembly is here punishable by death, a consequence not far from the thoughts of contemporary Black activists. Since the turn of the 20th century, “rebellion” has been disarticulated from popular discussion of Black dissent, undoubtedly in part due to its pairing with the institution of slavery – an institution from which this country still labors to maintain distance. The structure that produced this inhuman condition is, however, not past/passed; as Saidiya Hartman has theorized, the “afterlife of slavery” against which we now rebel includes “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.” These are the conditions to which protestors in Baltimore, Ferguson, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Los Angele, and numerous other cities are responding.

These historical scenes are related – one an extension of the other – and our vocabulary should reflect this relation, must reflect this relation. The juridico-structural turn to riot post-Emancipation has entrapped Black dissent inside of state and federal punishment taxonomies, such that a riot conviction in Baltimore now carries a possible life sentence. Adjusting this language not only adjusts the terms of the debate, but also the terms one serves.

Gang: Since the late 20th century, the term “gang” has come to connote a manufactured fear of rogue Black collectives representative of all that is wrong with the United States of America. Born from a treacherous coalition of public policy and visual media propaganda, the current invocation of gang is a loaded slur weighted by the erasure of lived experience. The invocation of “gang” is easily found in the archives of gentrification policies that have become all too prevalent in cities across the country. For example, the Gang Enhancement Law in California, which defines a gang as “three or more persons,” has been used to sweep city streets from East Palo Alto to Downtown Los Angeles in preparation for the glorious coming of a technocrat managerial class and designer lofts.

Buttressed by an ever-inhabitable need to reinforce the racial villain, the popular imagination of gangs has been informed by a litany of asinine television programming and more decrepit renderings via online platforms. The ease with which gangs are equated with the US military, police, or corporate executives elides the much more insidious impact of gang terminology and rhetoric, which is an erasure of Black communal organizing in the face of racial terror. So-called gang members are living in conditions that were wiped clean via removal of social infrastructure (i.e. the elimination of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act in the 1980s), the targets of the largest dispossession of wealth during the subprime crises of 2008 and the residents of communities that endured the evisceration of health care from the mid 1990s through the current time period. Yet, we’ve developed and implemented coded language that places the burden of poverty back onto the very population who were forced into destitute conditions. The reality of the situation is much more complex than that popularly rendered.

Though many argue that gangs embody an evil to be stamped out, the reality of the situation is that despite multiple forms of state violence enacted against Black communities, Black people organized themselves through a profound sense of love and community. Such an act in the face of extreme hate was then met with even more disdain that was reinforced with the overuse of the racially charged moniker of “gang.” Such organizing strategies are embedded within a politics of resistance and renewal that consistently make radical demands upon the state.

As Joao Costa Vargas beautifully described, the 1992 truce in Los Angeles was about much more than violence; there also was a written manifesto presented to the civic leaders with a list of demands in the wake of the ’92 Rebellion. Such simple characterizations (i.e. the labeling of gangs) of highly complex organizations are dismissive of the truths that reveal the wretched conditions of police violence, housing discrimination and elimination of basic forms of health care that Black people have been forced to endure as well as the brilliance of Black organizing that has developed in its wake.

Words have power, but we have the power to define and (re)imagine how to deploy words that will ensure the transition to a radically democratic society. This struggle requires vigilance on every level. Our narratives and practices of protest and justice will always be multiplicitous – as they should be – but the construction and adoption of a common tongue allows for alternative communication strategies and new agency over the ways our histories, presents and futures are told and experienced.

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