Monday, October 5, 2009

Word Power

Urban Terrorism.

That catchphrase has been floating around the internet and the mainstream media for a few years now, but it recently gained prominence with the brutal death of Derrion Albert in Chicago last week. I avoided writing about Albert's death partially because I couldn't think of anything profound or worthy to say about this tragedy. I also kept quiet because I felt my opinion on what happened was so far outside of the mainstream opinion that it would only stir up trouble, and I wasn't interested in that path.

But, now I have something to say.

A good friend of mine recently described what happened to Albert as "urban terrorism." In fact, she described most of the black criminals who threaten and harm folks in the hood as terrorists. She said given their actions and the trauma they inflict on their communities she feels perfectly comfortable labeling them as such.

Obviously, we disagree.

First, I want to say that what happened to Albert was a tragedy. He seemed like a young man doing the right thing and trying to make it in a tough situation. It's horrible that his life was cut short. However, I think that the way this incident was categorized, the way the men responsible were labeled and vilified was ridiculous. Yes, they are caught on camera apparently killing Albert. But, this didn't happen in a vacuum, we must consider context.

The beating happened during a massive brawl. I don't know about most of y'all, but I've seen violent brawls with weapons up close, and nobody is really checking to see if the person they are beating is a good kid or a bad kid. Pretty much people are hitting and beating anybody they don't recognize as one of their friends. I'm not saying this is right, just saying it's normal for a brawl.

With that in mind, I'm not surprised that Albert got beaten. I'm not surprised that the men were particularly vicious. I would be surprised if the opposite occurred. This young man stumbled into a very bad situation and he was killed because of that. Not because the men who beat him were soulless humans, but because they viewed him as a potential enemy and threat due to the prevailing circumstances and they responded with force. Unfortunately, they were wrong and an innocent died.

Now, about the terrorism aspect.

I pay attention to words. It's my business and a hobby to understand how people use words and what they convey through their word choice. I have to be familiar with their denotation and connotation. In this case, I'm worried about connotation.

Terrorist and terrorism are loaded terms in today's world. Hell, they've always been loaded terms since mainstream society selectively decides who they get applied to, regardless of actions.

In the Israeli and Palestinian conflict have any of you ever heard of an Israeli group routinely labeled a "terrorist organization?" Hell, for decades the KKK and other groups behaved exactly like so-called "terrorists" but weren't given that label until very recently.

It means something to be called a terrorist. It connotes a certain evilness and unworthiness. There is no nuance to terrorists, they are just people to be feared, then hated and ultimately eliminated.

Is that really what we want the mainstream media calling folks in the hood?

It reminds of how we got such disparate laws regarding crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't some diabolical plot of "The Man." Nope. We got those laws because African Americans lobbied for their creation in response to the crack epidemic that was destroying our communities. That's right, we ASKED the government to treat us unfairly to solve a problem that the government helped to create.


I see the same thing with this urban terrorism issue. Clearly violence is a massive problem in black communities. I see it all the time, I know how bad it is. I also understand that most folks outside the hood ignore the ripple effect of that violence, how it damages the minds of young and old.

It's hard to study for a test when you're worried about a drive-by shooting on your street. It's way too easy to view 21 as "old age" when you can't think of a single man on your block who lived too far past it. It's more than the lives lost to death and prison, there are also lives lost to the conditions that violence creates.

The reason why the term "urban terrorism" was created was because black folks were crying out for some attention and assistance for our crime-ridden neighborhoods. The problems are so massive, so ingrained, that we know it's unlikely we can solve them all alone. Hell, we didn't create them all alone. But, in our rush to get assistance I feel we're inviting a response that will only exacerbate things.

Just like the government has used the crack cocaine laws to finance and populate the for-profit prison system, I can see them using "urban terrorism" to justify all manner of evil in black communities. Like I said, terrorists have no rights and neither do their neighborhoods. We see how our government treats "terrorists" in other countries, do we really think they'd hesitate to do that to black folks?

I think the hood needs help. I think it needs attention. I think it needs a lot. But what I don't think it needs is a new label that only invites trouble.

Remember the power of words.



Deacon Blue said...

Never has that thought occurred to me, and it's something to consider very seriously.

Of course, it's also news to me that Blacks may have helped to spawn the inequitable treatment of crack cocaine folks...something that I had long assumed the governments alone were motivated to do as a result of pressures from outside the Black community.

Big Man said...


Nope, it was a concerted effort by black folks to stem the outrageous violence and destruction in their neighborhoods as a result of crack. They figured the best way to deal with the epidemic was to get those folks responsible for it off the street. Obviously, there were some unintended consequences to those actions. While I don't blame those folks for their attempt, I do think it's important to remember that actions often have unintended consequences. And, if you're a black person you should be careful about how you involve the government in solving problems in your community. Look at the welfare debacle.

T.A.N. Man said...

You're right, in today's world the old "Sticks and Stones" song doesn't ring true, as it once did. Terrorism is a serious word and folk should not throw it around willy nilly. Also, folk in all walks of life should not reach to broadly applied legal measures to solve problems that exist within a concentrated area of society. Though, the drug trade has produced enormous destruction in urban neighborhoods, there is still work that can be done at the community level to curb the effect.

I've seen a couple brawls to, and they consist of chaotic and often senseless violence. But you're right, it did seem like standard "My crew against your crew" procedure.

It's a sad story all around. Hopefully, some good will come out of it.

Tit for Tat said...

The only words that come to mind when I see shit like that, is man are those people ever fucked up. Totally disconnected from each other. I wonder when the community will step up to the plate. As of now no one has stepped forward because of some code of silence. Too messed up for words is right.

Shady_Grady said...

I agree that people should be concerned about the power of words and also unforseen consequences of government actions.

Probably the reason people reach for such words as urban terrorist or the like is to attempt to shock people or draw attention to the fact that the greatest danger for most people isn't some stereotypically crazed Middle Eastern or South Asian person so much as it is a criminally minded person that probably looks like them.

Big Man said...

Shady Grady

I think that's the exact reason why they use those words. The shock value is amazing.

But people don't make good decisions when they are shocked.

Raving Black Lunatic