Thug or Not?

In the painful protesting that is going on in Baltimore resulting in the destruction of property and looting of merchandise, more than one person, including Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, President Obama and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the mayor of Baltimore, has used the name “thug” to describe those who were involved in the melee.

Rawlings-Blake apologized for using the term after receiving stiff criticism. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer wondered aloud why the mayor found it necessary to apologize for her use of the word.

Before I offer an opinion on all of this, I beg us to ask the questions: When white kids burn cars and destroy property during spring break or after a football or basketball game, do we call them thugs? When Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) threatened to throw a reporter off a balcony, was he called a thug? I don’t remember that happening …

But when Seattle Seahawks team member Richard Sherman, an African-American, got a little agitated after a Super Bowl, in comments made about a colleague on the opposing team, he was called …a thug. It was Sherman whom I first heard say that the word thug had become racialized, that it was the new way of saying “nigger.”

Our modern-day word “thug” derives from a Hindi word which means swindler, deceiver, or cheat. There were groups who lived in India called Thugs who robbed and killed travelers. They apparently had a long shelf life, terrorizing travelers and other citizens in India from the 14th into the 19th centuries. (http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/04/thug/391682/)  The way they operated was they would meet travelers, make friends with them, and then turn on them, often strangling them or killing them some other way, and stealing their belongings.

When the War on Terror began, the word “thug” was heard again, this time used by President George W. Bush, as “thugs and assassins.”  It was a term which was said with passion and deep emotion; one who was a thug, we came to understand, was a pretty bad person.

Some kind of way, the term “thug” began to be used to describe African-Americans. I asked a friend what his definition of “thug” was, and he said it means bully, pushy, uncouth, brash, someone who tries to take advantage of another. That’s fair. But why is it that, these days, the only people who seem to be called thugs are African-American?

I would agree that those who looted and started fires in Baltimore this week were breaking the law. They were and are criminals. And it is clear that President Obama and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake were referring to those who participated in the lawlessness.

But it feels different when news people or law officers or government officials say the term. There has been a fair amount of mixing of the terms protesters and thugs. It feels like many who describe the protests going on are meaning that those protesting are thugs as well. Because they are disrupting the status-quo, because they are making noise about injustice, because they are refusing to be silent and accept the injustice which is so rampant, many people in power seem more than ready to call them …thugs.

Hip-hop, say some, has helped create an association of the word with certain behavior. According to an article in Newsweek, “Hip-hop culture  adopted the word…Tupac Shakur popularized the phrase “thug life” in the early 1990s,” The Newsweek article says Michael Jeffries wrote,  in Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop, “the concept of the thug underwent a…transformation, from signifying disgust, rebellion, and nihilism to evoking coolness and power.” (http://www.newsweek.com/brief-history-word-thug-326595)

Are the protesters trying to be cool? If Jeffries is right, the meaning of the word for the hi-hop generation moved away from being indicative of a person who was being a brute to a person who was being cool and using his or her power.

Is that what people are saying and feeling when they call the protesters “thugs?”

Name-calling never works; name-calling in a time as fractious and incendiary as this is a very dangerous thing to do. Black people are saying that they feel unloved, unseen, unheard and not valued. To be called a “thug” only adds salt to the wounds…

Lee Atwater, who was Richard Nixon’s campaign manager years ago, said that it was no longer possible to use the word “nigger.” He said that people had to use code words and people would understand what was being said. When one said “affirmative action” or “welfare” or “busing,” people belonging to the base that Nixon wanted and needed in order to win the presidency knew exactly what was being said. The belief was that only black people were recipients of affirmative action and welfare, and black people’s desire for quality education had resulted in busing. To use those words, and others, alerted “the base” that the candidate was aware of the base’s feeling about black people.

Is that the case now? Are news people and politicians trying to express a sense of indignation that black people are tired of injustice meted out by law enforcement? Yes, I know that there are people amongst the ranks of the demonstrators who are throwing rocks and attacking police, although it is believed that many of the people doing that are not a part of the demonstrators at all but are outsiders who are taking advantage of the situation in order to play out their own agendas. But are those watching and reporting unable and/or unwilling to make the distinction and are they trying to say that they are outraged that people would take to the streets and dare to cast doubt on the fairness and rightness of policing in this nation? Are they angry that black people have decided that they can no longer be silent, and are they saying that black people are “thugs” because they are in the streets, chanting, yelling, marching?

The protesters are not thugs. They are Americans, in the truest sense of the word. America came into being because people were angry at a perceived injustice being meted out by the British government. Rather than pay what they felt was an unjust tax, these protesters refused to pay it AND threw tea into Boston Harbor. America was founded because people dared to demonstrate.

I would venture that members of the status quo called the protesters back then a few choice names, things like traitor or maybe insurgent.

But thug?

The people who looted and started fires and destroyed property in Baltimore broke the law. They were and are criminals. But the people who are protesting, who are fighting for their right to be treated with dignity are …Americans. Kids – black or white – who get rowdy during spring break or after a game …are lawbreakers, not thugs, no matter their color.  A black man who offers energetic and passionate verbiage on a subject, even if it is unacceptable to those who hear it…is a person who has perhaps gotten a little too excited for a few moments. But a thug?

No.

We need to rethink the term and use it a lot less, especially now. Name-calling does not work, ever, and will be a death knell to the quest for justice and peace as the people of Baltimore (and of this nation) work to deal with their grief, pain and anger.

A candid observation …

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