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What Do You Call White Rioters? Anything But Thugs

06/16/2015 09:06 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

The day after the first night of the Baltimore uprising following the death of Freddie Gray, ABC News used the word "thug" almost 800 times.

It was no rare occasion. "Thug" was thrown around in the media after the demonstrations in Ferguson and New York. Practically every person of color who has protested the killing of young black men by law enforcement -- seemingly no matter how peaceful their demonstration -- has been labeled a "thug."

As NFL star Richard Sherman so memorably noted, and as the black activists on the ground in Ferguson and Baltimore so often remind us, the word "thug" has become little more than a socially acceptable version of the rightly outlawed n-word.

When white students at the Keene State College Pumpkin Festival threw rocks, glass, bottles, and even skateboards at police, set multiple fires, and forced police to respond with riot gear, rubber bullets, and tear gas, they were never declared "thugs." When white people riot because their baseball team won, no one throws around the word "thugs." But when black people respond to physical violence with protests against inanimate objects, that word is all you hear.

This blatant hypocrisy is the creative spark behind White Riots, a new short film from Brave New Films. Starting with the absurd reporting from ABC News the day after the Baltimore uprising began, White Riots explores the biased language so often employed by media to describe black Americans exercising their first amendment rights. And contrasts it with the kiddie-gloves treatment of everything from violent students to biker gang shootouts.

Just look at the language around Keene State "students," "youthful debauchery," "kids." Then compare to the language of Ferguson and Baltimore: "thugs," "criminals," "offenders." Or take the word, "gang." Black people wearing the blue of their sorority, Zeta Phi Beta, were reported to be in a gang. Groups of white men can wear matching jackets and murder nine people and injure 18 more in broad daylight, and the media will still describe them as a "social club." (This actually happened.)

We could go on. Dr. King called riots "the language of the unheard." When young, prosperous university students -- who have a voice in our society -- riot, some media outlets will actually deem those riots a "form of protest." But when the actual unheard raise their voices in anger, even if there is no violence, the black community is condemned. When property damage occurs, the sins of the few are laid at the feet of the broader community and blamed on a "lack of leadership" in the "black community." But in contrast, when was the last time you saw 72 hours of breathless criticism of university students "wasting taxpayer dollars" with "destruction of public property," even though universities actually do have clear leadership?

The problem here is that biased media coverage and racialized language shape dangerous stereotypes. Those stereotypes, in turn, are used to justify discriminatory policing, violence against people of color, and a mass incarceration system that is so racist that one author calls it the "new Jim Crow."

Young white people are seen as "kids," prone to make mistakes, well into their twenties. But a 12-year-old black kid is seen as a dangerous criminal once he is old enough to play alone in the park -- so inherently dangerous that police are considered to be justified even when shooting unarmed children in "self defense." Law enforcement will even target African-American neighborhoods on drug sweeps or through programs like "stop and frisk," based in large part of the perception of black criminality pushed on us by the biased, fear-mongering media. If we force unbiased reporting, we can chip away at the foundations of the injustice within our criminal justice system.

The media drumbeat shapes our opinions, and our opinions in turn shape the destiny of a generation of young people. If we allow media to speak of students protesting the firing of a coach in understanding terms, while heaping scorn upon those protesting soul-crushing levels of poverty, violence, and forgotten neighborhoods, our nation will end up poorer for it.

Brave New Films wants to change the language the media uses. The newest release "White Riots" is a startling look on how deep the problem runs. It is a call to conscience for journalists across the nation to no longer use racially charged terminology to describe black protestors and civil unrest. We can change the biased narrative -- one word at a time.

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