Many people have pointed out how the label “terrorist” becomes a useful tool for some to demonize an opposing group, so it should not be a surprise that a few have tried to label the Black Lives Matter movement as terrorist. While the label “terrorist” carries significant emotive weight in contemporary society, other terms and labels that may be less obvious also can be strategic tools for authorizing and deauthorizing groups. We need to be equally alert to those less obvious authorizing and deauthorizing moves, even when individuals and groups with whom we sympathize employ them.
This issue came to my mind when reading a commentary (“Civil Rights Activists, Not Terrorists”) that describes an encounter with a police officer who initially dismissed a complaint about a stolen Black Lives Matter banner with the suggestion that the movement had been labeled terrorist. While the frustration at such a use of the label is significant (notably, the officer backtracked when he could not demonstrate that it is actually on any list of terrorist organizations, making me wonder if someone is suggesting this equation to police officers), the commentary from the minister of the church whose banner was stolen engaged in mounds of authorizing labels.
Someone trespassed onto our consecrated church grounds in Mt. Vernon, Ohio and desecrated the banner hanging on our fence by stealing it.
The orange banner had these Godly words in white lettering: “All lives matter and are equal in the eyes of God. All lives should matter and be treated equally in our society. We live in a society that does not provide equal treatment to people of color. So we publicly affirm that Black Lives Matter.” In the middle of those words in bigger black lettering the Godly words “Black Lives Matter” were repeated.
We were victims of a crime (or crimes), not terrorists. We were being — and are– non-violent civil rights advocates, the very opposite of terrorists. . . .
While I am grateful for the police department and the officer who responded, we need to pray and have work to do so that law enforcement agencies do not suggest that our God-soaked civil rights efforts to ensure Black Lives Matter are connected to terrorism. That’s just plain wrong. (emphasis added)
To be clear, I am not suggesting that these word choices are equivalent to calling BLM a terrorist movement, but it is easy to accept such terms when we have greater affinity for a person’s position. “Consecrated,” “desecrated,” “Godly,” and “God-soaked civil rights” are powerful terms that distinguish this group and its principles and property from the actions and property of others.
The language of “non-violence” as an authorizing term about an incident particularly caught my attention. Its use when someone turns to law enforcement to redress the loss of their community property is particularly intriguing. When police follow appropriate procedures (as most law enforcement do), they still cannot be considered a nonviolent force. Arresting someone for theft involves force (handcuffs, locked cells, imprisonment), all in the interest of protecting private property. While I have great affinity for pacifism and non-violence, I will turn to law enforcement to protect what is mine and my family’s, but that willingness reveals limits to my non-violence and challenges an assertion of being non-violent. Similarly, the language of desecration and being the opposite of terrorists also work to deauthorize an other (the thief, those rightfully designated terrorist).
It is vitally important to point out the ways various groups apply the label “terrorist” to deauthorize another group. Yet, pointing out the obvious is not sufficient if we fail to recognize more generally the ways individual and social groups of all persuasions employ terms strategically to authorize themselves and their fellow travelers and deauthorize those whom they identify as their opponents.