One can always count on Charles Blow to distill a handful of hitherto inchoate silliness into column form, and this morning he did not disappoint. Picking up each and every one of the witless tropes that have been circulating since the travesty at Waco, Blow set about to establish that a grave linguistic injustice had been done to America’s rioters. Since Sunday’s gang fight, Blow averred, both the media and the public have demonstrated a set of pernicious double standards, and thereby exposed the racial inequalities that underpin the American criminal-justice system. Rather than calling the motorcycle gangs “thugs,” he complained, the press has taken to calling them “motorcycle gangs.” Rather than asking if the fight was the product of a race-based “pathology,” commentators have been happy to treat it as a one-off. And rather than asking serious questions about America’s culture, onlookers have merely shrugged their shoulders — or possibly even applauded. These dissimilarities, Blow concluded, represent not the natural semantic differences that arise in reporting on asymmetrical situations, but a “societal and media issue about the imbalances in characterization, which is itself a proxy for the very value we place on different people simply because of their inherent identities and their personal presentation.” The bottom line to the piece? The bikers have been treated more nicely than the rioters were because they were white.
This theory is presumably highly appealing to the New York Times’ more socially conscious readers. On Twitter, too, it has been all the rage. And yet on closer inspection it does not have a great deal to recommend it. Insofar as it is true at all, Blow’s complaint is the product not of a uniquely perspicacious and bravely critical eye, but of a steadfast unwillingness to acknowledge a) that we have differing expectations of everyday American citizens than we do of self-professed gangs, and b) that our reactions to their respective wrongdoing will therefore diverge. There is, Blow submits, “something about black violence that makes some people leap to a racialized conclusion that the violence is about our fraying culture — that it’s not simply about people behaving violently, but about the entirety of the environment from which they sprang.” This, I’d venture, is incorrect. It was not because the violence in Baltimore and beyond was black that we questioned the “environment from which” its practitioners “sprang”; it was that, by changing upon the instant from law-abiding citizens to public nuisances, the rioters tended to surprise us. And when we are surprised, we proceed differently from when we are not. (Look, by way of example, at the sky-is-falling manner in which Americans reacted to violent unrest from students in the 1960s and 1970s.)
When a career criminal is convicted of a rape or a murder, we do not spend a great deal of time trying to work out how it was that he found himself in the dock. When the ostensibly nice kid from down the street executes a handful of his classmates, by contrast, we all throw up our hands. “Was he crazy?” “Was he evil?” “Are his parents to blame?” “Is there something in the culture — video games or pornography, perhaps — that provoked his spree?” “What do you think it was that made him snap?” All in all, there is a pretty simple answer to the question, “Why didn’t Americans rack their brains upon hearing the news that a motorcycle gang had shot up another motorcycle gang?” That answer: Because that’s what motorcycle gangs do.
The Waco incident invited no controversy and the #BlackLivesMatter protests did.
Ultimately, Blow appears to be mistaking the harmony that has come with the universal condemnation of the bikers for the quiet that might come with universal apathy. “The tone and tenor of the rhetoric the media used to describe” the shooting in Waco, he proposes, stood “in stark contrast to the language used to describe the protests over the killings of black men by the police.” Indeed it did. Again, though, this is not because there was a double standard at play, but because the Waco incident invited no controversy and the #BlackLivesMatter protests did. In the United States, the type of rioting that we have seen in Baltimore and in Ferguson will always provoke heated and worthwhile political debate. Why? Well, because rioting in America is not always seen as a social ill. This is a country, remember, whose character was forged in a violent revolution; a country that hosted an unspeakable bloody civil war; a country that for years accommodated a white-supremacist tyranny that was eventually done away with by a combination of individual resistance and collective moral clarity. In consequence, when angry Americans take to the streets, they can expect a good number of the observers to ask in earnest, “Well, do they have a point?” Naturally, this was not the case with the biker gangs. By universal consensus they were held to be a menace. Of course we talked about them differently.
This being so, Charles Blow’s contention that the gangs have been in some way let off the hook — or even romanticized – is an utterly perplexing one. “President Obama and the mayor of Baltimore,” Blow complains, “were quick to use the loaded label ‘thugs’ for the violent rioters there,” and yet “the authorities have not used that word to describe the far worse violence in Waco.” In a dull sense, this is true. But it is also somewhat beside the point. When we are discussing what happened at Waco, “biker club,” “gangs,” and “outlaw motorcycle gangs” are considerably more accurate descriptions of the offenders than the vague and unusually multi-purpose pejorative, “thug.” Really, the only way that one could infer a preference from the use of the term “outlaw motorcycle gang” is if one believed it to be a term of endearment. Surely Blow does not believe that?
Charles Blow’s contention that the gangs have been in some way let off the hook — or even romanticized — is an utterly perplexing one.
Well, actually . . . he does. “The words ‘outlaw’ and ‘biker’ while pejorative to some,” Blow argues, “still evoke a certain romanticism in the American ethos.” Indeed, he suggests, “they conjure an image of individualism, adventure and virility.” Really, one has to wonder where the evidence for this assertion is. Thus far, I have heard not a single person justify or express admiration for the gangs’ behavior. I have heard no talk whatsoever of mitigating factors, of poverty, or of understandable dissatisfaction. I have seen nobody propose that the shooters were merely trying “to communicate.” America’s complex history — often blamed for its modern ills — has not been recruited as a rationalization. There have been no GoFundMe pages set up to pay for the perpetrators’ legal defense, nor have there been any songs or poems or obsequious essays penned in their honor. Twitter has hosted no sympathetic memes. No politicians have jumped to their defense or favorably hijacked their activities to make a broader point. Hollywood is not haggling over the movie rights. There has, in sum, been no glamorization at all. Instead, there has been condemnation without caveat, and nothing else besides.
In Texas, the authorities have been equally uniform in their denunciations. It has been said in the aftermath of the shootout that the gangs benefited from “white privilege.” One has to ask, “how?” Certainly, the police did not give the groups a pass because they were mostly white. Rather, terrified that they were likely to kick off at any moment, they had been tracking them for months. When things did eventually blow up, the cops were on hand to return fire, and they did so without mercy. By CNN’s unofficial count, police shooters killed four of the suspects and arrested 170 — almost all of whom have had their bail set at a considerable $1 million each. Now that the shooting has stopped, the state intends to stick around for a while. In order to ensure that there is no further violence, the Waco Tribune reports, locals have seen “a very significant increase in law enforcement in McLennan County,” with “local, county, state and federal agencies . . . involved in investigations” into the gangs. There hasn’t been this big a police presence in Waco since the Branch Davidians had their white privilege affirmed back in 1993.
Human beings tend to grasp instinctively that not all criminals are alike. In one corner, we have the Charles Mansons and the Jeffrey Dahmers — the people, that is, who have no sense of what is good and what is evil and who must be treated as little more than cancers to be rooted out. In another, there are the professional criminals — the mafia, the motorcycle gangs, the Crips, the Bloods, and so on. And then, in pockets up and down the country, there are the people who surprise us. These are the sometime-rioters, the overzealous dissenters, and the desperate petty-crooks, and their behavior can be reasonably attributed to overexcitement, to the animating adrenalin of injustice or of passion, and to the wider cultural trends that are the subject of our broader socio-political debates. In order to distinguish between these phenomena, civilized societies have developed a set of linguistic habits: The mafia is the mafia, the gangs are the gangs, the serial killer is the serial killer, and the guy who smashes up a CVS because he is angry is . . . well, what is he? Evidently, we do not know, and in not knowing we argue so that we might find out. In the process of doing so, we throw words around with abandon: some say “thug”; some say “protester”; others are not sure what to say at all. We must not allow a misplaced desire for uniformity to intrude upon our deliberations.