U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards
U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards (Pamela Wood / Baltimore Sun)

Maryland Senate candidate Donna Edwards took aim at the media on Monday for what she described as a willingness to label the rioters in Baltimore as "thugs" but the anti-government ranchers who have taken over a federal building in Oregon as "occupiers."

"I am deeply troubled by the media portrayal of the events in Oregon and the armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge," the Prince George's County congresswoman said in a rare, 300-word statement issued by her campaign that was redistributed by national progressive groups.

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"Since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, activists protesting the deaths of an unarmed 18-year-old on a city street or the tragic death of a 25-year-old in the back of a police van, have been referred to variously as 'thugs,' 'criminals,' and 'drug users,'" the statement said.

"But in Oregon, a group of armed men illegally occupying a federal building have been referred to as an 'armed militia,' or simply 'occupiers,' as though that behavior is acceptable in a nation of laws," she said.

"Our nation's press has a long history of shining a light on tough truths and asking tough questions," she continued. "At this moment, the media have a responsibility to avoid language that paints these armed militants in a positive light. They are breaking the law."

The words used to describe those who took to the streets in April following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray have been controversial before. For the most part, though, that controversy centered on elected officials such as President Barack Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake -- neither of whom are mentioned in Edwards' statement.

"My understanding is, is you've got some of the same organizers now going back into these communities to try to clean up in the aftermath of a handful of criminals and thugs who tore up the place," Obama said during a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on April 28.

Obama repeatedly drew a distinction between peaceful protesters and those who were looting or setting fire to buildings. But Obama faced criticism for the word, and White House press secretary Josh Earnest answered questions (from the media) for days about whether it was offensive.

"Yesterday, it surprised plenty of people I think when the president used the words 'thugs and criminals' to describe some of the people in Baltimore," a reporter said during the White House briefing a day after the press conference.

"Whether it's arson or the looting of a liquor store, those were thuggish acts," Earnest said at the time. "And I think the president felt it was important, and continues to think it's important, to draw a clear distinction between those actions and the efforts of the vast majority of people in that community to draw attention to the legitimate concerns that they have."

A day earlier, as the riots were breaking out, it was Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake who called some of those involved "thugs."

"Too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs who, in a very senseless way, are trying to tear down what so many have fought for, tearing down businesses, tearing down or destroying property," Rawlings-Blake said. "It's idiotic to think that by destroying your city, you're going to make life better for anybody."

Rawlings-Blake later "clarified" her statement, saying she didn't mean to use the word.

The media also faced some criticism for its use of "thug" in the weeks after the unrest in Baltimore. CNN host Erin Burnett, for instance, came under fire for pressing Baltimore city Councilman Carl Stokes in an interview on why "thugs" wasn't the right to word to use.

Asked for examples of the media applying the term, Edwards' campaign pointed to a study by a marketing and media firm that found the word employed 168 times per day on television in the weeks following the riots. But the study doesn't distinguish between the media using the term to describe rioters and the coverage of politicians like Obama and Rawlings-Blake using it.

And the same study found the words "peaceful protest" mentioned in the news nearly 300 times more than the word "thug."

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The word appeared in The Baltimore Sun dozens of times this year -- but in virtually every case it was either in a quote from an official, or was included in a story about the controversy of the word itself.

Edwards is running against Rep. Chris Van Hollen for retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's seat. She has frequently noted the historic significance her election would have -- she would be only the second black woman to serve in the Senate -- and has discussed the importance of having minority voices at the table in Washington.

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