Baltimore -- Riot v. Rebellion

05/01/2015 01:15 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2016

I typically write about international issues. In particular, Iran and Syria. But watching the events unfold in Baltimore and as racial tensions continue to boil over in this country, as a speaker on race relations, diversity, and interfaith topics, I can no longer stand silent. I am struck by the different lenses through which identical events unfold and the challenges involved in unification.

Take, for example, a single word: "riot." Every major network and newspaper covering the unrest in Baltimore has used this word - repeatedly. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a RIOT is defined as:

1 archaic
a: profligate behavior: debauchery
b: unrestrained revelry
c: noise, uproar, or disturbance made by revelers
a: public violence, tumult, or disorder
b: a violent public disorder; specifically: a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with a common intent

When the agitators (small minority compared to peaceful demonstrators) themselves are questioned about their motives, however, what you hear in their words is universal frustration, fear, and a desire for equality.

For many in America, it is difficult to reconcile those motives with the violent actions they see and read about. I hear questions like these:

  • "How will you achieve freedom by burning that police car?"
  • "How is destroying that CVS which serves your community going to advance your civil rights?"
  • "How is your riotous violence going to decrease police brutality?"

Most of those asking these condemn what happened to Freddie Gray. They are horrified by the idea that a man's spine was severed and larynx crushed by the police before he died. But they see image after image of the same store burning, the need for military intervention and a curfew on their television sets. Every once in a while they see an image of the majority-peaceful protestors, but let's face it, that's just not good television.

Good old Webster gives us examples of riots:

1. The news about the election caused a riot in the city.
2. A lot of property was damaged in the recent riots.

Headlines appearing on the first page of Google read:

  • Riots in Baltimore over man's death in police custody - Yahoo News
  • Baltimore riots highlight city's deprivation - Financial Times
  • Riots rattle Baltimore homeowners, merchants key to urban revitalization - Fox News

The rioting is dangerous and counter-productive, is it not? Should we not consider whether Baltimore police violence, albeit tragic in this instance, is over-all necessary?

Comments like this: "No wonder police are more vicious towards your community - you are clearly a violent community that needs to be controlled by weapons and punches and kicks" are not at all infrequently uttered.

Now I ask you all to imagine the following.

Imagine that networks and newspapers never used the word "riot" to describe the violent protestors. Push that word out of your head and do not return to it.

Imagine that, instead, we used the word "rebellion."

Just this one change.

Webster's Dictionary defines the word REBELLION as:

1: opposition to one in authority or dominance
a: open, armed, and usually unsuccessful defiance of or resistance to an established government
b: an instance of such defiance or resistance

Where does this change get us? It certainly in no way justifies the violence of the agitators. Nor does it go very far in convincing the readers/consumers that the rebellion is "productive" in the sense of decreasing police brutality or increasing racial stability.

What it does, this little change, is tell a different story.

Back to Webster's which gives us examples of rebellions:

1. The king's army suppressed the rebellion.
2. The unfair tax laws sparked a rebellion.
3. The peasants rose in rebellion.
4. She's the head of a rebellion against the leaders of the party.
5. Recent election losses have led to open rebellion among some party members, who are calling for a complete change of leadership.

If "riot" is replaced with "rebellion," news headlines would read:

  • Rebellion in Baltimore over man's death in police custody - Yahoo News
  • Baltimore Rebellion highlights city's deprivation - Financial Times
  • Rebellion rattles Baltimore homeowners, merchants key to urban revitalization - Fox News

You hear the word "rebellion" and your mind does not immediately jump to a justification of police violence. You hear that word, and you begin to understand the cause, without an understanding of which finding a cure is impossible.

You read the word "rebellion" and you may now ask yourself questions like these:

  • "What is really at the root of the frustration?"
  • "What is so important to them that they are willing to risk their own and their community's safety?"
  • "How far are people pushed until at least a handful of them lose control?

You use the word "rebellion," and you are one step closer to reconciliation.

By Shermin Kruse
Author of Butterfly Stitching

Many thanks for your "likes", "shares," "tweets", and thoughtful commentary. Dynamic and respectful conversation is welcomed and appreciated. Yours, Shermin