LAPD Brings Back The Racially-Loaded Word 'Wilding' Just In Time For The Trayvon Martin Protests
The timing couldn't be worse for the Los Angeles Police Department to revive a 20-year-old, racially charged word invented to stoke fear of minority teens' supposed criminal tendencies. But that's exactly what's happened.
After a Florida jury decided that George Zimmerman wasn't guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, protests have cropped up around the country. Ironically, the LAPD chose last week, after four nights of demonstrations here, to dust off the phrase "wilding."
The word originally sprang from the "Central Park jogger" case of 1989. A white, female investment banker on a run in Central Park was brutally assaulted, raped and left for dead. Four black teens and one Latino who were rounded up as suspects were subjected to hours of grueling interrogations before they confessed. They were tried, convicted and served their full sentences before the actual rapist stepped forward in 2002.
To say the coverage of the case was sensational and racially loaded would be an understatement. Papers like The New York Daily News, New York Newsday and The New York Post had a field day, using phrases like "teen wolfpack," "beasts," and "savage" to describe the teens. The victim was referred to as "prey." The boys admitted to mugging and assaulting other people in Central Park that evening, and the term "wilding" was coined to describe and follow-up reports described this phenomenon as if it were a pastime for teens. Sensational media reports painted "wilding" minority teens as the source of the New York City's ills at a time when the crime rate and crack epidemic were peaking.
Last week, the LAPD resurrected the word "wilding" to describe what happened on Tuesday night, when a group of teens ran through the streets of Hollywood on a crime spree, grabbing purses, iPhones and whatever they could from pedestrians and stores. Local reporters and outlets repeated the phrase in tweets, on the air and even in in headlines.
LAPD warned of more "wilding" when it heard that there would be a Trayvon protest in Westwood on Thursday night. The police response that evening was overwhelming. Ironically, the organizers said they were holding the protest in response to the "sensationally racist media narrative" that "employs racist dog-whistles like 'mob and 'wilding' in order to trigger white panic." The Twitter account @OLAASM has been mercilessly calling out news organizations that use the word "wilding" uncritically—often along with a link to a clip to the PBS documentary "Central Park Five" above.
The word "wilding" had never faded away completely. Just this spring, The New York Daily News wrote about a "wilding" trend striking Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. But we hadn't heard the word in Los Angeles until now.
It's disheartening to read and hear the word "wilding" parroted uncritically by local news outlets. More than 40 years after the Watts Riots, 20 years after Rodney King riots and 6 years after the Macarthur Park May Day melee, local press outlets are still allowing law enforcement brass to shape our coverage—right down to the words we use—of civil disobedience movements.