Witnessing ‘white supremacy unchecked’

The words we use to describe violence

Gabrielle Funk

Months before the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to North America, I walked through an exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Every gallery in this now-closed museum focused on journalism, storytelling and First Amendment rights, but one dedicated to the 9/11 terrorist attacks gripped me. 

From floor to remarkably high ceiling, the exhibit displayed newspaper covers in different languages and from countries around the world, all detailing what happened that day in September 2001. After dutifully locating every Canadian newspaper they archived, I remember comparing the headlines and images each major outlet used. 

I did something similar after a violent mob stormed the United States Capitol on Jan. 6. The rioters, spurred on by then-president Donald Trump and armed with weapons, zip ties and American flags, attempted to halt Congress’ confirmation of the 2020 election results. 

The New York Times called the attack a “rampage.” The Winnipeg Free Press referenced “chaos at the Capitol.” A handful chose the term “insurrection” in bold letters. Far-right media outlets like Fox News, Breitbart and One America News Network opted for the phrases “supporters of President Trump” and “protestors” to describe the rioters and “vandalized” to depict the havoc these people wreaked. 

Words matter. Roxane Gay, an author and New York Times contributor, didn’t mince hers when, a day after the attack, she wrote that “the world bore witness to white supremacy unchecked.”

On Jan. 6, the US Congress was, in Gay’s words, “set to conduct a largely ceremonial count of the electoral votes. There were rumblings that a few ambitious, craven politicians planned to object to the votes in several states.” Instead, the country and world looked on as “radical, nearly all white protestors (stormed) the Capitol as if it were the Bastille” at the “explicit invitation of the president.”

The next week, James Poniewozik wrote that this “insurrection was one of the rare live-TV atrocities that grew only more sickening, more terrifying, more infuriating as more days passed.” 

Poniewozik, a New York Times TV critic, describes how people tend to remember the initial moments of horrific events, especially if they’re broadcast live. “What we remember of the 9/11 attacks, for instance, is largely what we saw in the first few hours: the planes hitting, the towers collapsing, the pedestrians fleeing.”

What happened on Jan. 6, he notes, “seemed to last for days. New smartphone videos of violence came out one by one. The horror came in waves, the attack revealed with every image as more bloodthirsty and deplorable.” And with each new video, discovery and arrest, media outlets had more material to cover. 

But despite everything I learned since, it’s still hard to shake that initial image, which Poniewozik describes as “a sea of attackers seeping up the steps and through the entryways” of the Capitol. It’s also difficult to clear my mind of the words I read immediately after the attack. 

Rep. Cori Bush quickly named the rioters who stormed the Capitol as “domestic terrorists” in tweets I rushed to share on my personal accounts. I couldn’t let go of that label when reading and watching the news. I not-so-silently judged public figures and reporters who couldn’t seem to utter the word “terrorist.” 

I can’t speak for the many politicians who, in Gay’s words, “shared the same platitudes about America that they always do when something in this country goes gravely wrong,” but I’m all too familiar with the ethical dilemmas most journalists face. 

The Canadian Association of Journalists ethics guide reads: “We serve the public interest, and put the needs of our audience – readers, listeners or viewers – at the forefront of our newsgathering decisions.”

That includes using words that accurately reflect what’s happening but don’t cause readers, listeners or viewers undue harm. It’s dangerous to conflate a violent, armed mob and peaceful protestors. However, while some people feel that terms like “domestic terrorism” more appropriately describe the attack, these charged phrases also deserve scrutiny. 

Instagram account @vigilantlove uses “arts, healing and activism to organize against Islamophobia” and shared a series of text slides explaining why they avoid the phrase “domestic terrorists” when discussing the white supremacists who stormed the Capitol. 

“Calling white supremacists ‘terrorists’ fuels the Islamophobic and racist war-on-terror apparatus,” one slide reads. “The war on terror disproportionately harms Muslim, Black and Brown communities … and thrives on surveillance, criminalization, incarceration and deportation. Using language that has been weaponized to harm these communities is neither radical nor helpful in the fight to protect the very communities that white supremacists and white supremacy (harm).”

The Instagram account @antiracismdaily posted about their decision to stop calling the Capitol rioters “domestic terrorists” in a recent post: “referring to terrorism, although well-intentioned, can have a negative impact on Communities of Color.” 

As difficult as it might be to both accurately and responsibly describe this siege and its fallout, coverage is crucial. That’s why it initially annoyed me when podcaster Ryan McMahon directed this tweet to Canadian media outlets: 

“We don’t need a week’s worth of your takes on what happened in the US yesterday. Today, pivot directly towards the organizations, the politicians, lobbyists and corporate shills that are pushing these same ideologies here in Canada. Tell us about that.”

Canadians absolutely need takes from local media, but McMahon has a point: where’s the widespread coverage, disdain and outrage for horrific attacks that happen within our borders? 

When commercial fishers in Nova Scotia threatened Mi’kmaq lobstermen, dumped their catches and raided their property, a Times correspondent called the targeted violence “the latest flash point in a series of abuses of Indigenous people in Canada.” 

The Washington Post described how “angry mobs ransacked two lobster pounds holding the Indigenous fishers’ catch, pelting the buildings with rocks, barricading some fishers inside and dumping their lobster. One of the pounds was later burned to the ground in a fire that police deemed ‘suspicious.’”

In Canada, media outlets seemed to tiptoe around the issue. Using language eerily similar to how right-wing American news outlets described the Capitol attack, CTV News referred to the “Mi’kmaq lobster dispute,” while CBC used the phrase “skirmish” to describe what the federal Indigenous services minister labelled “unacceptable acts of violence.”

Watered-down versions of events may seem more palatable, but, just like sensational news headlines, they can do more harm than good. More than ever, journalists need to operate somewhere between these two poles. Here’s hoping we can strike a balance. 

Danielle Doiron is a writer, editor and marketer who splits her time between Winnipeg and Philadelphia. She’s spending the pandemic reading, practising yoga and cursing out the governments in both cities she calls home.

Published in Volume 75, Number 15 of The Uniter (January 21, 2021)

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