Author: Mary Emmerling
At times like these, with protests erupting in major cities throughout the US, while under the thumb of a viral pandemic that has ravaged communities across the globe, the words we use might seem low on our list of priorities. Maybe it’s just my shiny new English degree sitting on my bedside table, or maybe it’s the hundreds of tweets and social media graphics posted every hour by news outlets, political officials, and community members over the past weeks, but I’ve been thinking extra about the words we use in situations such as these and to describe those who are involved. The way we speak—more specifically, how the powerful speak about the oppressed—has a profound impact on the representations of the power dynamics within oppressive institutions and re-frames the dialogue to continually center and empower the powerful over the oppressed.
On May 25, George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was arrested and detained by Minneapolis Police. While he was handcuffed, Officer Derek Chauvin used a method of restraint that many police officers and enforcement experts have since powerfully condemned: Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes. As a result of this deeply irresponsible and absolutely unnecessary physical restraint, George Floyd died in police custody. On May 26, a video of this incident surfaced on the internet, and communities around the United States—and later, other parts of the globe—were palpably and intensely enraged. Protests began in Minneapolis and other major US cities, and the news coverage and official statements from government officials followed shortly after.
On May 28, President Trump addressed the protests directly, in a tweet so virulent that Twitter deemed it “glorifying violence” and blocked it from users unless they specifically chose to view it:
The President’s use of the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” hearkens back to 1967 when the Miami police Chief Walter Headley, notoriously bigoted against the Black community, coined the phrase in response to crime in the city. Though the President claimed to be unaware of the controversial history behind the phrase, his use of it imitates the powerful racist rhetoric of authoritative figures during the Civil Rights Era and stoked a raging fire in Black communities across the nation.
The phrase, while overtly aggressive and racially charged, also employs a rhetorical strategy that has been a key factor in American responses to foreign adversaries and war-time declarations for decades: personifying the enemy to motivate democratic retribution. First, let’s dissect the phrase itself: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The cause-and-effect structure of the phrase initially places the active blame on whoever starts looting and not whoever starts shooting; as the phrase suggests, the shooting will not start before the looting does, and so the shooting must be a direct response to the looting.
Furthermore, the analogous silhouette of the phrase itself (i.e. A is to B as C is to D) implies that the “looting” and the “shooting” are, if not fully equivalent to each other, at least comparable to each other. Therefore, the violence enforced by the shooting must be in equal or comparative nature to the violence of the looting, and thus, the shooting cannot be deemed more violent than the looting.
Finally, there are no agents in the phrase. Who begins the looting? Who begins the shooting? Although the subtext implies who Trump refers to when he mentions the “looters” (the protestors) and the “shooters” (the police/military), the clause itself mentions no agents who are directly responsible for the actions of looting and shooting. If Headley and Trump had been more lyrically talented, they might have chosen a phrase that rhymed, instead, like “When they loot, we shoot.” But, this potential other phrase, though much catchier (if I do say so myself) would be much less rhetorically effective. Incorporating agents as subjects—“they” and “we”—allows blame on both groups for their actions. If they loot, we can blame them for looting. If we shoot, they can blame us for shooting. In the original phrase, however, no agent is available upon which to pin direct blame, and so while the looters can’t be held responsible for their actions, it is even more noteworthy that the shooters can’t, either. By passively describing both parties as aggressive and causal, this phrase protects the oppressive party (in this case, the shooters) from public blame.
President Trump continued to emphasize this passive protection of the oppressors in a subsequent tweet sent on May 29:
Here, Trump reiterates the causal and analogous heart of the original phrase—“Looting leads to shooting”—and continues to speak in the passive voice about those shooting—“…a man was shot and killed…”. The main difference in this tweet though, and the difference that inches closer to the typical American personification of enemies in war-time, is that Trump names the ones who were shot, but not the ones who shot them. Given Trump’s emphasis on the causal relationship between looting and shooting, we can assume that the man who “was shot and killed” and the other “7 people shot” in Louisville were one and the same as those who looted. This personification does two things: first, it blames those who were shot for getting shot in the first place. Second, it villainizes the looters far more powerfully than it does the shooters, and thus drives the American public toward condemning the looters and not the shooters.
According to Dr. Jeffrey Engel’s paper “The Personification of Evil,” 1 when American policymakers attempt to justify war and motivate the American public to support war-time efforts, they have historically used a specific rhetoric in which “[they] almost always describe their enemies as unrepresentative tyrants while claiming affiliation with their oppressed peoples.” For example, in 2003, George Bush stated, “The danger posed by Saddam Hussein and his weapons cannot be ignored or wished away. The danger must be confronted.” Later in this speech, Bush claimed, “The first to benefit from a free Iraq would be the Iraqi people, themselves.” Bush’s linguistic tactics in these statements strictly villainize Saddam Hussein while establishing the US as the “protector” of the Iraqi people. By naming Hussein specifically, Bush absolves the US from any responsibility for the war by asserting its “necessity.” Additionally, the separation of Hussein from his people allows Americans to posit that such war efforts will be beneficial to both the American people and the Iraqi people.
While these examples exist firmly in a foreign war context, Trump’s personification of the “man [who] was shot” in his follow-up tweet functions in a similar way: singles out the looters and, as a result, blames them for the shooting, thus attempting to justify the use of police force. The tweet suggests that shooting is beneficial for both the police force and the other protesters because it is enforcing a standard that protects all American citizens from the violent looting at these protests. The domestic use of this rhetorical form, then, mirrors American policymakers’ tendencies to villainize foreign individuals in wartime and places the protests occurring on American soil in a much more contentious context. Protestors protest because the system is not serving them and/or actively harming them, and when police assert physical force, they attempt to aggressively control and suppress the protestors. These aggressive suppression tactics emerge directly from systemic forms of racism that view Black and Brown pain as illegitimate and damaging to the American reputation as a “free country.” Therefore, when governmental officials rhetorically treat American protestors as if they are of a similar caliber as foreign aggressors, they optically subvert the power dynamics that fuel the protests and present the oppressed groups as direct threats to the systems that cradle the privileged American public. Ultimately, this personified war rhetoric, when used in domestic contexts, is actively dangerous and incendiary towards the oppressed peoples rioting against the oppressive systems.
President Trump’s use of this kind of rhetorical pattern to blame police aggression on the protestors’ behavior was used by prominent news sources covering the protests, as well. On May 30, The New York Times tweeted an article about a reporter who was shot by police during the protests with a caption that strictly followed the passive-active-passive structure of President Trump’s tweets:
First, the Times mentions that in Minneapolis, a photographer “was shot” in the eye. The passive grammatical structure of this claim obscures whoever shot the photographer, and thus protects the shooter from public blame. Next, in Washington D.C., “protesters struck a journalist...”. The structure of this statement is distinctly active—the protesters actively struck the journalist, and thus can be overtly blamed. Lastly, in Louisville, “A reporter was hit by a pepper ball…by an officer who appeared to be aiming at her.” This final statement returns to their initial passive voice, absolving the officer of blame by not making the officer the active subject of the sentence, although the officer seemed to be deliberately perpetrating an act of violence on this reporter. Even though the Times ultimately identified the officer as the source of the pepper ball, their initial reporting and headlining of the event in such a way perpetuates the passive treatment of aggressive police officers in the context of domestic revolution.
In the time of rebellion, the President of the United States invokes a violently racist phrase to villainize the protesters and absolve the police force and The New York Times, a reputable news source, does the same. So, why should we care? In these cases, and in all cases of systemic oppression and revolt, the way we speak matters. Presenting protestors as active aggressors and police forces and militarized institutions as passive responders re-centralizes the oppressors as the protagonists (and ultimately, the victors) and dangerously villainizes the oppressed. These protests are fiery expressions of rebellion and impending change, and they are the strategic and powerful responses of communities that have been actively silenced. These protests are powered by the agency and autonomy of communities that have been oppressed for centuries. Speak about them as such.
1 Jeffrey Engel, "The Personification of Evil." (unpublished manuscript, 2003), typescript.
Below is the press release regarding WPJC's nomination for the U.S. Peace Prize. The link to find WPJC's listing in the US Peace Memorial Foundation's Peace Registry can be found here.
Author: Devan Gunther, WPJC Intern
More than 4 out of 5 Indigenous women have experienced violence, with 1 out of 2 having experienced sexual assault. In 2016, almost six thousand missing Indigenous women and girls were reported. Only 116 of them were logged in the United States’ federal missing person database.
Violence against Native American women——and Native Americans as a whole—is not anything new. The data shows a governmental indifference——if not malice——towards the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).
With a red handprint over the mouth and the mantra “no more stolen sisters,” people have sought to bring national attention to this issue. However, apathy and a lack of attention towards this violence——often due to anti-Indigenous racism——disregards these preventable tragedies. The cases get lost due to institutional mismanagement and negligence. The women fall through the cracks, often victims to addiction, domestic violence, and sex trafficking. The women and girls continue to go missing, and the ones that return often go missing again because of insufficient follow-up or support. Too often, they don’t come back.
The vanishing and murders of Native Americans has a legacy that goes back hundreds of years to one of the most fatal events in history. Though, often it’s not ever referred to by its true name: genocide.
There’s significance in language, in how one describes both the past and the present. The term “ethnic cleansing” was used in the Bosnian Genocide to avoid calling it what it was, to give a loophole so that other states didn’t have to intervene per the UN Genocide Convention—--so they wouldn’t face the consequences of their crimes. Russia still denies that the Holodomor—--the intentional famine of Ukrainians—--was a genocide. The People’s Republic of China denies the current genocide of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In the same way, the United States denies the genocide of the Native Americans by European colonizers and the current genocidal discrimination against them today.
According to Genocide Watch, there are ten stages of genocide, with the final stage being “denial”. Denial is said to last throughout the genocide itself and tends to follow it, leading in the coverup of evidence as well as systematic oppression of the traumatized survivors. The United States’ own denial of the past only furthers this, cementing the dismissal of their present day massacres.
Genocidal acts do not have to just be about the killing of the physical body——they are also of the culture, the religion, the identity. The United Nations defines genocide as
"[...] any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
Genocides are not exceptional. There have been dozens (if not more) in history and many remain unnamed or mislabeled. Most claims of “misuse” of the label genocide come from people who either don’t know the definition or are in denial of these atrocious acts. Not every genocide is the same and not every genocide is condemned.
In bringing attention to the missing and murdered Indigenous people, we must refer to the past and present with a label that reflects the truth——it was and is an ongoing genocide. We must emphasize how that past has caused the issues of apathy and denial today. European colonizers had the intent to destroy Native Americans and that intent is still here, that genocide is still with us. The destruction of Indigenous people in America still continues to this day with the pipelines through native land, with revoking reservation status from tribes, with ignoring the pleas for help amidst the pandemic outbreak in these areas, with ignoring the ever growing list of missing and murdered Indigenous women...
With every death or disappearance is another victim added to this legacy of genocide, another sister stolen. Another cultural practice lost, another unjust incarceration of an Indigenous man, another sacred site desecrated for racial capitalism...The United States continues to deny the Native American genocide and will continue to do so unless widespread attention is brought to this issue. To ignore what is occurring is to be complicit. We cannot continue to deny the truth of what is occurring any longer. The colonization of the Americas involved a genocide of the Indigenous people and that genocide never truly stopped——people must speak out and lift Indigenous voices, must call the mass execution by its true name——genocide——and we must start on structural reforms and reparations for Indigenous people.
Please consider donating to one of the following organizations, clans, or nations:
Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women (CSVANWW)
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA’s (MMIW USA)
National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center
Author: Carmen Ferran
Late last night [5/28] in response to the protests and riots in cities across the country over the failure to prosecute the police officers responsible for the murder of George Floyd, President Donald Trump tweeted:
“…These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Waltz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”
He then called in the National Guard.
Even though these events are not surprising, are never surprising, I simply cannot get over that phrase: When the looting starts, the shooting starts.
When the looting starts, the shooting starts.
When the looting starts, the shooting starts.
Not since White House economic advisor Kevin Hassett stated “our human capital stock is ready to get back to work” has a U.S. leader so blatantly revealed their ideology. The cards are on the table.
When the looting starts, the shooting starts.
When “thugs” steal, the police will hunt them down, because
We, the people who own the police, value private property over Black lives.
We will mourn a Target over a Black man, because
Our property is more important than he is.
Our property is more important than you are.
When the looting starts, the shooting starts.
When you disrupt our means of profit, we will shoot you
with military grade weaponry, because
your purpose for existing is to make us money.
When the looting starts, the shooting starts.
If you challenge us, we will try
To kill you.
If there is one blessing in all this harm, it is the affirmation that I am not the only one who is outraged. I am grateful to see the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #PeopleOverProperty across my social media feeds. I am lucky that a friend of mine put together a resource document of petitions to sign, organizations to donate to, and numbers to text & call to support the Minneapolis protesters. I am glad to see solidarity in action as Minneapolis bus drivers refuse to transport protesters to jail, and as veterans call on officers in the National Guard to stand down. And because of the direct action of the protesters (and only because of their direct action) Derek Chavin has been charged with 3rd degree murder and manslaughter.
There is still lots of work to do. The remaining 3 officers who were fired over Floyd’s death have yet to be charged. The family of Breonna Taylor, who was shot 8 times by officers in her own home in March, is still calling for the Louisville Police Department to be held accountable. If you want to take action in #JusticeforBreonnaTaylor, The Misidentified 4 have created the website https://justiceforbreonna.org/.
If you are like me – angry, upset, driven to work towards actual, substantial social change – there are two terms that you need to know (which, if you’ve read my other posts, you will have some familiarity with already): Racial capitalism and antimilitarism.
Racial capitalism is a term coined by Cedric Robinson in his book Black Marxism as a means of representing that the evolution of capitalism occurred alongside the development of racism, and that the two are fundamentally linked. In other words, capitalism has always depended on “slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide”. It needs the racial other, and that primary other has always been, and always will be, Black people.
Antimilitarism refers to the social movements throughout history that have advocated against militarism and the structuring of society to exist for the military, and by extension, to exist for war. An antimilitarist analysis of the riots that have occurred over the past few days would point out that the police responded to what were originally peaceful, unarmed protests in military gear before the riots broke out, and that the Minneapolis police department was trained not in deescalation but in “warrior style” response tactics. They are not trying to protect people when a building is set on fire, but are standing in front of untouched malls with guns at the ready. They are not throwing tear gas at, shooting rubber bullets at, and arresting the actual murderers, but the protesters, because the police do not exist to prevent harm. Rather, they exist to cause it in the protection of private property.
When the looting starts,
the shooting starts.
I believe that it is crucial to understand both terms if we want to do anti-racist work, to make the demands to “defund the police” and “invest in community” to become a reality. To learn more about racial capitalism, I highly recommend this article by Robin D.G. Kelley, as well as any of Cedric Robinsons works. To learn more about antimilitarism, I recommend this transcript of my interview with Brittany DeBarros, Organizing Director of About Face: Veterans Against the War, on May 11. If you are near the sites of protest, stay safe, and keep fighting the good fight. We are with you.
Edit 6/1/2020: https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/# is a site with detailed lists of where you can donate as well as other resources in multiple languages. It is extremely comprehensive and regularly updated by the admin.
Edit 6/15/2020, by WPJC: Since this piece was written, the other three officers involved in the murder of George Floyd have been charged. Lane, 37, Kueng, 26, and Thao, 34, are now charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.
Authors: Aisha Mansour, Marii Herlinger (WPJC Interns)
On Sunday May 31st, WWU’s Shred the Contract (STC) organized a community caravan which was co-hosted by Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER), and the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center (WPJC). The goal of this caravan was to take direct action to show up for people at the Whatcom Jail and to demand that WWU’s administration stand on the side of justice and shred its contract with Aramark. The decision whether to renew Aramark’s contract with Western is two months overdue. In order to hold the university accountable, STC demanded a response from WWU President Sabah Randhawa within a week from the action.
The caravan commenced at the Whatcom Jail. Students and community members sang songs of protest in solidarity with incarcerated folx, many of whom showed their support for the action by drumming on the windows. The caravan then continued on to President Sabah’s mansion. This is where activists chanted from their cars to demand a response regarding the decision to renew the contract with Aramark. Sabah emerged from his home to watch the protest take place and students communicated clearly with him what STC’s demands were. The caravan then concluded at Western Washington University, in order to make a statement about how the university profits off of a direct flow of resources from the prison industrial complex. Representatives from SUPER and YDSA gave speeches at this location, and, in an unplanned moment, a survivor of sexual violence spoke up to draw attention to an immediate injustice that had just occurred in Bellingham. The speaker announced that a community organizer and trans woman named Nadelyn had been illegally arrested after police invaded her home. Although this arrest took place during the time of the caravan, it was unrelated to the student-led direct action. Nonetheless, student organizers and community members realized the intimate relationship between the abolitionist caravan and Nadelyn’s violent detainment, so they quickly mobilized everyone to the jail while simultaneously starting a GoFundMe for Nadelyn’s bail and legal fees.
The community gathered at the jail in support of Nadelyn and her family, in a spontaneous solidarity vigil. The GoFundMe campaign exceeded its goal of $5,000. Nadelyn was released at 6 p.m. after a few hours’ delay, despite her bail having been paid earlier that afternoon.
Although the organizers had not planned for the caravan to end at the Whatcom Jail, especially under such circumstances, Nadelyn’s detainment was strong and immediate evidence of the way in which the carceral system punishes folks with marginalized identities. The organizers of the caravan recognized that fighting for prison abolition at a macro-level requires also showing up for individuals and community members impacted by incarceration at the local level. During one of the biggest uprisings of many of our lives as young organizers, this connection must be at the forefront of our efforts while we fight for racial justice.
Author: Marii Herlinger, WPJC Intern
Too often, the topic of war is framed as either a thing of the past or as a primal activity only afflicting “underdeveloped” countries in places far away. Both of these assumptions are inaccurate. Worse, they perpetuate dangerous illusions of “safety” and “security” at home, while deflecting accountability from superpowers—like the United States—responsible for waging war on so many places. It is no accident how many people think of the military as a distinct and separate entity from their everyday lives. This veil we are under is a result of a grossly manipulated narrative(1) about what America needs defense against—and it has grave consequences.
In 2014, police in Watertown, Connecticut purchased a mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle with a retail price of $733,000 at the meager cost of $2,800. My sister bought her first used car at that price. And yet, a landmine has never been found in Watertown.(2)
Police forces in every state have the ability to procure such items through the 1033 program—or what the government so dreamily calls the Pentagon's Law Enforcement Support Office.(3) The 1033 program enables the Pentagon to distribute military equipment to local police departments per request. Items procured through the 1033 program are not released to the public, nor are the names of the agencies requesting them.
The 1033 program is far from the only example of at-home militarism. Police departments have long prioritized military veterans in their hiring processes, a practice which the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program of the Department of Justice openly permits.(4) Programs like COPS are bolstered by the guise that the military is our “great protector.” They assume that ordinary citizens will not think to challenge the notion of military training as helpful or necessary in law enforcement. The questions we need to be asking are: what kind of threats does the government foresee needing combat-trained officers for? What many atrocities could result from hiring officers with war PTSD? How can we address veteran unemployment without creating a funnel from the military to law enforcement? Programs like COPS fuel the narrative that a militaristic approach proves useful in domestic conflicts. As we are reminded from the long list of lives stolen and communities broken from police brutality, violence is never the solution.
Other examples of militarism at home: the construction of military bases often dislocates entire communities(5), forcing them to leave the land where they once lived, danced, cooked, made homes, raised their babies, and laid their heads at night. Prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, federal agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other structures of state violence perpetuate America’s long legacy of family separation and xenophobia. Bureaucratic complexities and high exposure criteria still bar so many downwinders (a term for those who live downwind of nuclear test sites and are thus subject to radioactive fallout) from receiving compensation. And, in the middle of a pandemic which has exposed the inadequacy of the American healthcare system, the Pentagon chooses to “honor” healthcare workers by authorizing expensive military flyovers. Meanwhile, the shortage of PPE in healthcare facilities is such that some hospitals have prohibited their workers from bringing their own masks since they cannot be guaranteed for everyone.(6) This is a serious misplacement of priorities.
How about honoring healthcare workers by supplying PPE and tests? How about replacing prisons and jails with life-affirming institutions? How about not creating populations of downwinders in the first place? How about severing the flow of equipment from the military to police agencies? How about creating a system of restorative justice that centers the needs of survivors of harm and prioritizes the health of the human body and spirit?
When I refer to “the militarization of our lives,” I’m talking about how photographs of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, could be mistaken for war zones. I’m talking about the reality that in far too many neighborhoods across America, kids can look out their windows and see tanks rolling down the street. I’m talking about the fact that the police can acquire MRAPs, combat gear, and military-grade equipment as if they are on sale at the mall.
We need a narrative shift and we need it now. The antiwar movement must include the constant acknowledgment that war abroad is inherently linked to war at home. Without active resistance to both, violence will continue to inform government responses to conflict across the globe and in our very backyards.
Here are some upcoming actions steps you can take to help fight militarism at home!
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