A Mob, Protestors, or a Mob of Protestors at Capitol Hill?
In media coverage and interviews immediately following the 6 January 2021 protests on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, most media pundits, including the BBC, and politicians referred to the Trump supporters who surrounded or breached the building as a ‘mob’. The Guardian as a ‘pro-Trump mob’. That is a reasonably accurate choice of terminology in that the OED defines a mob as ‘a large disorderly crowd of people’, which clearly applies to this case.
However, in a strikingly analogous event, when protestors breached the Hong Kong Parliament in 2019, they were more consistently referred to as protestors, or pro-democracy protestors. For example, the BBC noted that: “Protesters have been removed from Hong Kong’s parliament after an hours-long siege.” The same coverage referred to those occupying the parliament as demonstrators. (I doubt this was true in the case of coverage in the Chinese media, but I have not confirmed this.)
Likewise, the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, saw a great deal of protest-related violence which also interrupted US democratic election processes. For example, one BBC account 50 years after the event referred to protestors, anti-war protestors, Vietnam War protestors, or demonstrators. In this case, as all of my contemporaries will remember from watching these protests, that the protestors were not characterized as a mob. I searched online for “mob” in the context of the Chicago convention and nearly all the results noted that the text was missing the word ‘mob’, referring instead to ‘protestors’ or ‘Vietnam War protestors.’
Clearly, there is a more or less intentional politics of language at play here, where a mob is far less legitimate than protestors. Maybe a mob is less purposeful, or more chaotic? Another OED accepted definition of mob is ‘the common people, the rabble’. Perhaps this is what is being implied about Trump protestors.
To be fair, if one wished to be fair, it might be better to avoid either term by referring to ‘a mob of protestors.’ That might fit all of these situations and be more acceptable to all of the actors involved. What term would you suggest?
I have not done a comprehensive or systematic comparison of all media coverage of these and other similar events. It is too tangential to my work. That said, it seems blindingly obvious that we all indirectly legitimize or de-legitimize people and political actions by our choice of terms. It might be better to describe a mob of protestors in more neutral terms and then describe what they did – their actions. It may be a cliché, but let their actions speak for themselves without being prejudiced by framing them in a glorified or tainted way through a politically charged label, unless that is exactly what you wish to do. The contemporary term of this communicative act might be virtue signaling – making sure readers or listeners know that you are on the morally correct side?
As I write, I fully realize I will be judged as morally incorrect by many for asking for more neutrality. I was on the ‘peace patrol’ during Vietnam War (the American War) protests at SUNY Buffalo, and that put me in a similar position – that time between protestors and the police, but a riskier position. In a way, I want to plea for a peace patrol now as well. As President-elect Joe Biden said, he wants to “be President for all Americans.”These protests have created a pretty angry place from which to move ahead on that mission.
The day after I posted this blog, the Financial Times (8 January 2021: 1) quoted several politicians and others using even more dramatic and more exaggerated characterizations of the mob of protesters, such as domestic terrorists. Joe Biden was quoted as saying: “Don’t dare call them protesters. They were a riotous mob, insurrectionists.” I understand that the President-elect and other politicians have been shocked and frightened if not panicked by what happened on the 6th, but there should be some – surely in academia – who can step back and look analytically and empirically at the complex interaction of multiple choices by multiple actors that led to this debacle. The presence of persons preaching insurrection does not make everyone present an insurrectionist.
Capitol Hill on 6 January was a disaster. There is a real need to dig into the details of this disaster to ensure that it is not over-simplified to fit political narratives. It was what I would call a ‘democratic disaster’ and like all disasters I’ve studied, they are the result of multiple problems. Rather than being resolved by one simple explanation, they are most often the result of multiple actors making multiple mistakes that interact in ways that lead to an unanticipated disaster.
I guess a problem is that politicians and the media are pressed to jump to conclusions too quickly. Not to do so risks being labelled as weak or indecisive or on the wrong side. We need individuals or teams that have the resources to dig into the specifics, however complex or simple, and avoid drawing ill-informed lessons that could undermine freedom of expression and assembly, including lawful protests, that are central to the dynamics of democratic politics.
William H. Dutton, Donald MacKenzie, Stuart Shapiro and Malcolm Peltu (1995), ‘Computer Power and Human Limits: Learning from IT and Telecommunications Disasters’. PICT Policy Research Paper No. 33 (Uxbridge: Programme on Information and Communication Technologies, Economic and Social Research Council. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3103433