The Language of Protest in Oklahoma City
With the recent protests following the unjust death of George Floyd, a lot is being discussed about protesting, riots, and racism in this country. As a graduate student studying rhetoric, it is easy to see how language is weaponized to either lift the protests up or try to tear it down.
Many people have been sharing this comparison of tweets by the president describing a group of white protestors as “good people,” and the George Floyd protestors as “Thugs.” This is a perfect example of the way those in power use language to paint groups of people as either good or bad for their own benefit. You must look beyond politics and see how language is weaponized. I don’t care if you support Trump or hate him, there is a very clear contradiction of language between these two statements. I have seen this narrative trickle down into the language used by those I know, calling the protestors “thugs” who deserve to be knocked around by the police. This is dangerous because people are much less likely to support a group of “thugs,” and will use this as a way to ignore the very real problems happening to our African American community.
Where did you get the language from that you use? How do you find yourself describing the people involved in different protests? I have never seen a group of white protestors be referred to as thugs. These protestors are real people who are scared, sad, traumatized, angry, strong, and so many more things beyond the word “thug.”
Sign set up in Oklahoma City following the death of George Floyd. Image from https://blackchronicle.com/oklahoma-city-mayor-david-holt-comments-on-protest-in-oklahoma-city/
Language matters. Period. It matters a lot. When you only consume one narrative from one type of source, you are engaging with only one type of discourse. A discourse is made up of the stories and language that contributes to it. Truth (at least what we accept as truth) is both made from discourse and contributing to discourse at the same time. If you only engage with one type of discourse, you are not open to hearing and accepting other people's truths and experiences. When you only hear protestors being described as thugs, it’s easier to discount those involved and distance yourself from something that matters. Ask yourself, who is benefiting from the stories being told to you?
Passage below from https://www.koco.com/article/protesters-rally-in-okc-for-second-day-of-demonstrations-in-response-to-george-floyds-death/32723204# :
"Update, 12:30 a.m. Monday: Law enforcement officers deployed ore tear gas during the early hours of Monday morning near Northwest Sixth Street and Shartel Avenue after a protester threw something at them. The crowd of protesters quickly fled the scene while the officers discharged nonlethal weapons."
When looking closely at this article, there are many subtle uses of language to position the police in a reactive way. Many witnesses from the protests report on social media that the police instigated much of the violence in Oklahoma City and around the nation. It is well known in modern protests that police aim to find excuses to start violence, or become violent toward even the most peaceful protestors without cause. This article describes the weapons as "nonlethal," yet this is untrue. Less-lethal does not mean nonlethal and there is plenty of research to show how dangerous tear gas and rubber bullets can be. It is especially lethal and cruel to release this type of weapon during a virus which affects the respiratory system.
Articles regarding these weapons:
Facing Protests Over Use of Force, Police Respond With More
Tear gas has been banned in warfare. Why do police still use it?
How can Oklahoma have such troubling statistics and still have people acting like there isn’t a problem with racism and police brutality? The African American community in Oklahoma City is facing alarming issues regarding police brutality, food deserts, gentrification, and residential segregation.
Yet, when they protested the last two nights, I hear several people saying, “It’s tragic what happened, but, there is no excuse for violence. That is not what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached about.”
First off, Martin Luther King Jr. was pro-riot. He called it the language of the unheard. This is another example of white-washing history to fit African American history into a narrative that serves those in power and white supremacy.
This is also occurring with African America history in the Deep Deuce district. The businesses, residential living, and tourism industries use white-washed versions of the community’s history to attract affluent, white residents and tourists by emphasizing parts of its history that serve them while leaving out any mention of segregation or racial tensions of the past. Racism bleeds into every part of the American structure, and to ignore how language is weaponized to further racism is be ignorant of America's reality. This is why it is not enough to claim you're not racist just because you haven't joined the Klan or committed a hate crime.
I’m a white girl raised in a conservative Christian family and community, in Edmond, a white suburb of Oklahoma City. I know what it means to live in a bubble. I can tell you from experience that when you’re in this bubble, it’s extremely easy to ignore the narratives and voices outside of it and feel like you're not part of the problem because you choose not to fully understand what the actual problem is in the first place. That’s what I find so scary about Oklahoma sometimes. The ability to so easily ignore the voices of Black Oklahoman’s IS THE PROBLEM. Again, language is everything. It has so much value. As I’ve worked over the past few years to crawl out of this bubble, I’ve started to see how the language and stories white Oklahomans tell themselves is used as a way to never listen to, or validate, the experiences and narratives of people of color. This allows them to share stories that serve them and never have to contribute to fixing the problems in the communities around them.
There are several kinds of peoples with different motives and stories at these protests. You need to ask yourself, who is organizing these protests? What is their purpose? Who is instigating the violence? Is it the police? The protestors? White people craving chaos that have no connection to the real protestors? Protests can get messy, but the actions of some do not represent the motives of all.
You don’t have to be pro-violence, but you do need to understand the discourse of those protesting, looting, and rioting. There is more complexity to these situations than “looting is bad, therefore these protests are bad, have no value and I should ignore them.” People in power, such as the news and the government, are crafting narratives that lack complexity. I have seen several examples of news stations editing videos out of context to make protestors look bad. What are your sources not telling you?
Allow complexity to exist. Allow there to be multiple narratives and pay attention to how language is used to serve those telling them. Listen to the people actually attending the protests, and question those in power. Fact check everything. Research why destruction and looting has value in these situations and learn to separate the real movements from opportunists seeking destruction for selfish reasons. Most of all though, learn how to listen to people of color, and in this situation, the African American community. There are many voices with different opinions and perspectives in the local African American community, and they all need to be heard and respected.
The Oklahoma City African American community has a long and rich history of activism. You need to take the time to research this history that the dominant discourse has long ignored and remained silent about.
Learn More about Oklahoma History from Local Sources:
Civil Rights Movement: https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=CI010
Civil Rights Movement: http://www.hollandhall.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/OK-Today_Civil-Rights.pdf
6 Notable Black Oklahomans: https://oklahoman.com/article/5392318/6-notable-black-oklahomans-you-should-know-about
Sit-in for Integration: https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/oklahoma-city-african-americans-sit-integration-1958-64
Clara Luper: https://okdemocrats.org/oklahoma-black-history-heroes-clara-luper/
"Where You Live Matters" statistics: https://mappingpoliceviolence.org