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

“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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