Protest Periphrasis: How the words used to describe the actions of police hide their violence

Over the past week, in news coverage of the nationwide protests against police brutality, breezy, anodyne words like deploy, disperse, and engage have served as a gloss on state-licensed aggression, papering over municipal forces’ and National Guardsmen’s frequently appalling crowd-control tactics. Conversely, protesters—or “rioters”—are said to have hurled or thrown or fired objects at police: bottles of water, rocks, whatever is close at hand. When the authorities retaliate, making happy use of the heavier tools they brought to play with (rubber bullets, explosive paint canisters, tear gas), they are treated to extenuating phrasing, merely returning fire or defending themselves, even though it has not always been the case that they had anything to defend against or were retaliating at all. In some cities it has been abundantly clear, from eyewitness cellphone videos if not from local outlets’ coverage, that the cops were the instigators; not for nothing did Slate headline an article “Police Erupt in Violence Nationwide.”

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But Slate ain’t everyone, and thus we wound up with a post early Wednesday morning on the website of KRMG, a Tulsa news-and-talk station, offering that local police had “used tear gas and pepper balls to disperse crowds.” Even in liberal Oakland, KCBS Radio began a May 30 dispatch: “Amid protests, demonstrators blocked Interstate 880, set fires, and trashed much of the downtown area before police dispersed them with tear gas and rubber bullets.” A chyron on CNN over the weekend read protesters launch objects as police release tear gas in minneapolis. And a recent New York Times tweet had it that, also in Minneapolis, “a photographer was shot in the eye,” while in DC “protesters struck a journalist with his own microphone.” 

There is a linguistic war being waged within these formulations, with battle lines drawn across a couple of fronts. For starters, you have the issue of voice: When protesters perpetrated an act of violence, the Times, by dint of active construction, let you know precisely who had been targeted and who was to blame. In the case of the photographer, on the other hand, the passive voice obscured (as it always does) the party responsible for the act. Readers might well arrive at their own easy conclusion—but why accord this sort of rhetorical cover to the one side and not the other?

And then there is the matter of the words themselves, where the fault line extends back practically to time immemorial. English is a famously mongrel tongue, born of violence and bloodshed, invasion and conquest. Its modern form has come to comprise—very roughly speaking—one-quarter words of older, Germanic origin and three-quarters Latin, French, Greek, or “other.” The Latinate loans that passed into English tend to be multisyllabic, with accented and unstressed beats, and fall weightless on the ear, mellifluously benign, prettily dispassionate. Our Saxonic alternatives, by contrast, hit like a gut-punch: stern, short, sharp, harsh. 

Now, returning to those earlier examples, you can see how the cops are often afforded the gentler idiom, the protesters subjected to all the lexical Sturm und Drang. On the police side of the ledger we have deploy (from Old French), engage (Anglo-French), disperse (Latin), return (Anglo-French), defend, and sweet release (both Latin by way of Anglo-French). Crossing over to the protesters, we’ve got hurl (likely from Low German), throw (Old English, and akin to a word from Old High German), and fire (ditto); block (Middle Dutch originating from Old High German), set (Old English via Old High German), and trash (likely Scandinavian, Old Norse passing into Old English); and strike (bedfellows OE and OHG, once again).

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Why is this happening? I don’t mean to suggest that American journalists are consciously electing for the gussied-up French or Latin options as a means of tamping down on police brutality—rather that they’re merely repeating, unthinkingly, what’s been osmotically resorbed from years upon years’ worth of exposure to press-release English. Writers are incorrigible mimics, after all: we read a lot and sponge up and then rehash common collocations, (stale) turns of phrase, lumps of (lumpen) verbiage. Press releases traffic in smooth unobtrusive Latinate English, in passive voice; reporters inhale the releases, regurgitate them, and replicate literatim these public-relations-approved edge-sandings. (For more on the whys and wherefores of journalists’ overreliance on smoothed-over police-department PR argot, see my colleague Alexandria Neason’s “ ‘Officials Say…’ ” which tells the story of how the police-furnished narrative of a white Chicago cop’s slaying of a twenty-five-year-old Black man became the version repeated ad nauseam in papers of record.) But when it comes to the protesters, lacking such cached memory of all that calculated diction, we revert to what are, in fact, better instincts: active voice, dynamic verbs, headlines that (to crib from an old New York Post ad on the subway) “punch you in the eyeballs.”

That’s the kind of treatment that ought to be extended to descriptions of what the police are doing, right now, in virtually every major American city. They are not releasing or deploying tear gas, nor utilizing (pure French, note) rubber bullets, to disperse protesters; they are teargassing protesters, shooting protesters (and journalists), forcing restive elements from the streets. If the overriding maxim in journalism is to amplify unheard voices, with the secondary precept being to “tell it like it is,” we are failing to live up to either promise even at the level of our most basic tool: the words we use.

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Mike Laws is a freelance copy editor, for CJR among others, who pursues this sort of labor of love all over the greater New York area.