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.
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