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Swerving around riots

July 11, 2007

In 1967, Newark erupted in gunfire, looting, and arson, killing 23 people and injuring 700. But 40 years later, the New York Times still is not certain that this event should properly be called a “riot.” In a news article marking the anniversary, the Times reminds us that “frightened white residents” of the 1960s opted for the word “riot,” while “black activists” of the period called it a “rebellion.”

In a bracing slap at readers who unthinkingly might refer to several days of riotous behavior as a “riot,” the Times quotes the president of the New Jersey Historical Society, Linda Epps, who says: “there is not one truth, and your view depends on your race, your age and where you lived.” So what would fair-minded neutral people call it today? No need to wonder. The Times tells us: “Those seeking neutrality have come to embrace the word ‘disturbance.'” I can sympathize. Unaware that they may be giving offense, many Americans and Europeans still blithely talk about “World War II,” with its aggressive and wounding reference to armed conflict. On the other hand, many German activists of the period preferred the term “unjustified trampling of the Third Reich’s perfectly legitimate lebensraum and population control policies.” Surely it is time for a non-provocative name for this troublesome six-year disturbance. How about “the multiple disagreements and tragic misunderstandings of 1939-1945?” Or perhaps “World Woe II,” so we can retain the established initials.

In 1990, I first noticed the Newspaper of Record stopping an article in its tracks to propose a gentle term for a riot-like event. Protesters from ACT-UP had just invaded St. Patrick’s Cathedral, racing through the building and screaming to disrupt mass.

A Times news article began this way: “To many parishioners, the recent invasion of St. Patrick’s Cathedral by dozens of angry AIDS protesters was an act of desecration. But to Christopher Hennelly … it was a prayer for self-preservation. ‘The strongest prayer I’ve ever made in my life was on the floor of St. Patrick’s,'” he said.

This may have been the first time that any major newspaper described a church invasion and the stomping of a consecrated communion host as a form of prayer.

Swerving around the “r” word is sometimes just plain hard work. In 1991, the Times described an ugly racial upheaval in Cincinnati as “sporadic protests and vandalism.” This did not quite catch the flavor of bricks being heaved through windshields at the heads of motorists, a woman dragged from her car and beaten, and more than a hundred homes and shops set on fire. The Times mentioned that one police officer was “reported grazed” by a bullet. In fact, a sniper shot him in the stomach but the bullet deflected off his belt buckle, saving his life.

The Times doesn’t always suppress “riots,” but it much prefers to report on uprisings, melees, protests, and “clashes,” the paper’s preferred term for the horrendous Crown Heights events of 1991.

Last year a group of Hasids went berserk after police handcuffed a motorist sitting harmlessly in his double-parked car outside his family shop in Brooklyn. The crowd lit bonfires, threw garbage, smashed a car’s windows, and torched a police car.

This raised the journalistic issue of whether white people were allowed to riot in the Times. Not this time. The Times story began: “A routine traffic stop of a 75-year-old Hasidic driver escalated into a protest last night …” Escalated into a protest? Sounds grim. Thank heavens it didn’t explode into a disagreement.

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