An Outbreak of Euphemisms on the Eve of Riot Season

With the jury in the trial of police officer Derek Chauvin preparing to render its verdict, the city of Minneapolis is preparing for the worst.

As the New York Times reported, small business owners like Samir Patel are in an impossible situation. After Patel’s friend, a dentist, heard gunshots near his office, he called Patel to say “the contractors who were rebuilding the office he lost in last year’s unrest had fled. He was boarding up, and he told Mr. Patel he should move quickly to protect his own business, a dry-cleaning shop.” The Times noted that Patel “suffered half a million dollars in damage in last year’s civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd. He had to deplete his savings and retirement accounts just to get his business open again.”

There are many citizens like Patel, whose stories the Times largely avoided telling at the time. But the paper’s continued insistence on using euphemisms like “unrest” for the rioting, looting, theft, and arson that transpired last year, and which protestors are threatening again if a “not guilty” verdict is handed down, should end. In its story, the Times used the words “unrest” and “protest” nine times but used “riot” and “looting” only once each. Likewise, the passive voice is used to describe the Third Precinct police station, “which burned.”

This time, if rioting and violence and looting occurs, let’s call it by its name: criminal behavior. And let’s not allow the mainstream media to pretend that it is fine to label protests that devastate local communities and lead to death as “mostly peaceful” or largely harmless because “they have insurance.”

Elected officials in cities across the country aren’t pretending they’re unaware of what might be coming should Chauvin be found anything other than maximally guilty.

In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser requested National Guard support, and D.C. police officers are all prepared to work 12-hour shifts in the days to come. Similar plans for additional law enforcement support are in place in cities like New York. Protests have been going on already in some cities. As the Washington Post reported, “There were protests against police shootings in several U.S. cities over the weekend, including in Portland, Ore.; Chicago; Oakland, Calif.; and D.C., where four people were arrested in clashes with police as a march was wrapping up.”

Other elected leaders, by contrast, are eager to fan the flames. Rep. Maxine Waters put on her best Riot Grrrl act over the weekend in Minnesota, breaking the city’s mandated curfew to tell protesters, “We’re looking for a guilty verdict. We’re looking for a guilty verdict. And we’re looking to see if all of this [inaudible] that took place and has been taking place after they saw what happened to George Floyd.” Waters continued: “And we’ve got to get more active. [We’ve] got to get more confrontational,” she said. “[We’ve] got to make sure that they know we mean business.”

Waters said these words before demonstrators who had already become violent during the past week, looting and destroying businesses and repeatedly clashing with police.

National Guard troops stationed in Minneapolis were shot at in a drive-by incident over the weekend. A pig’s head was thrown and pig’s blood smeared on the former home of an expert witness who testified for the defense in the Chauvin trial. Schools in Minneapolis are reverting to all-virtual classes so children don’t have to risk going out on the street amid protests.

This isn’t the first time that Waters, who lives in a multimillion-dollar home in California and was named one of the “most corrupt” elected officials in the nation by watchdog groups, has encouraged people to attack their political opponents. In 2018, she urged people to confront Trump administration officials: “You think we’re rallying now? You ain’t seen nothing yet . . . Already you have members of your Cabinet that are being booed out of restaurants . . . protesters taking up at their house saying, ‘no peace, no sleep.”  She continued: “If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”

Cedric Richmond, who was at the time a House member and Congressional Black Caucus leader, defended Waters at the time. Now, as a senior adviser to President Biden and director of this administration’s Office of Public Engagement, will Richmond do so again?

It’s likely he will. Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki already gave a canned response rather than a firm “no” when asked if the president agrees with Waters’ calls for people to become more “confrontational.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also defended her fellow congressional Democrat: When asked if Waters should apologize for her remarks, Pelosi said, “Absolutely not.”

If, as many of Trump’s political opponents claimed correctly for the past four years, words matter, aren’t Waters’ inflammatory remarks included in that assessment? And if not, why not?

If words matter, let’s not use euphemisms to describe the behavior of activists, politicians, and protestors in the buildup to the Chauvin verdict: threats of violence and destruction that have turned Minneapolis into something resembling a war zone, and promises of more to come if the jury does not decide things the way the mob would like.

We should not accept as normal or natural either the rhetoric or the criminal behavior we’ve seen during the past year, behavior that is often deliberately ignored or rationalized away by the mainstream media. The First Amendment protects the “right of the people peaceably to assemble,” not to engage in rioting and looting and violence. Protesting is every American’s right; attempting to undermine the rule of law with threats of violence, actual violence, and destruction, is not.

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