A year after the death in police custody of Freddie Gray, Professor Colin Starger took part in a WBAL News Radio program devoted to talking about how to talk about the events that followed Gray’s death.
Also interviewed was Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead, a professor of communications and African-American studies at Loyola University of Maryland.
WBAL’s Anne Kramer asked Starger and Wise Whitehead what nouns they would use to describe the events of late April 2015: Riots? The uprising? Civil unrest?
“It was a very complex phenomenon and there’s not one single word that could capture every aspect,” Starger said. “But if you choose to use only one word then ‘uprising’ is the word I would use.”
Starger, co-director of UB’s Pretrial Justice Clinic, which will begin work in the fall, put the April 2015 events in context:
“Look back to 2005, when we have over 100,000 arrests in a single year in a city that has only 640,000 people – of course there’s a lot of justifiable and pent-up anger that’s going to express itself in lots of different ways.
“None of that is to excuse or to look through rose-colored glasses at some of the things that happened [in April 2015] that actually were violent.”
He continued: “But at the end of the day this wasn’t a riot in the sense that [the word] is sometimes used. It’s important to remember that nobody was very seriously injured; certainly nobody was killed.”
Asked by Kramer if he was trying to minimize the extent of the violence following Gray’s death, Starger said he sought to make a “sharp distinction” between property destruction and violence directed at people: “[T]he word ‘riot’ is often used when there’s a lot of bloodshed and, thankfully, that’s not what we had last year.”
Starger said it can be difficult, and sometimes impossible, to find a common vocabulary to describe a charged situation.
“You want to have a word that suggests you’re not taking sides in a dispute even if your heart is on one side of the dispute,” he said. “Unfortunately, it is very difficult to remain neutral.”
To illustrate his point, Starger recounted his experience as a law student working in Northern Ireland.
“There’s a town in Northern Ireland that is called either Londonderry or Derry,” he said. “And if you call it Londonderry you are marked as a Protestant. If you call it Derry you are marked as a Catholic. You are automatically seen as taking sides in that conflict. There’s no word for that town that you can use that doesn’t come off as partisan.”
In Baltimore, Starger said, people who use the word “riot” are seen as partisan in favor of the police, while people who refer to “the uprising” are seen as partisan on the side of the protesters – and those who use “civil unrest” are trying to find a middle ground.
Given Baltimore’s history, Starger doesn’t think the middle ground is the place to be.
“I think that when you’re in a situation that is as urgent as it is, when you are faced with inequality as urgent as we are faced with, then a lot of people think it’s irresponsible not to side with the oppressed, not to side with the folks that are really suffering,” he said. “That’s why I said if there was one word that I had to use I would use ‘uprising.’”