As all but the most out-to-lunch area residents know, ex-BART cop Johannes Mehserle on Friday received a two-year sentence for shooting unarmed passenger Oscar Grant dead. With the 292 days served Mehserle already has credit for and his presumably good behavior, he could be out in seven months.
Not surprisingly, a large number of people demonstrated in Downtown Oakland. Also not surprisingly, a smaller number chose to take advantage of the situation and vandalize swaths of the city. In written and televised reports of the aftermath of the Mehserle sentencing, both peaceful participants and opportunistic criminals are referred to identically as "protesters" or "demonstrators."
This is unfortunate and should end.
France is a country that sees more than its share of massive protests. It is not unusual for half a million people to hit the streets to demonstrate against, say, a change in the nation's hiring laws. Unlike American protests, these French demonstrations often actually result in laws and policies being changed; in a much more central governmental system that gives the chief executive far greater ability to autocratically make changes, street demonstrations are very nearly a branch of government.
In any event, when 500,000 people hit the streets, it's unavoidable that some will simply be out for the opportunity to smash property, steal things, or hurl detritus at cops with impunity. In France, however, these people are not referred to as "protesters" or "demonstrators" but les casseurs. This translates as "breakers."
That exact term wouldn't work here -- in America, this is a breaker. It's a semantic challenge, but this is about more than just words. Using the tragic death of a man you really couldn't give a damn about to justify wanton lawlessness doesn't deserve to be placed in the same category as actual concern with social justice. It diminishes whatever is accomplished by real protesters -- and it slanders the memory of Oscar Grant.
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