Friday, May 01, 2015

The Definition of "Thug"

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines thug as "a violent criminal." The word has been used for centuries in India, England, America and other cultures to describe really bad people who do really bad things. Its use is prevalent among law enforcement officials, mobsters, Hollywood, the press and politicians. It's also been used to describe terrorists and foreign enemies. During the War on Terror, President George W. Bush referred to insurgents in Iraq as "thugs and assassins."

Until the late rapper Tupac Shakur popularized the phrase "thug life" in 1994 with an album of the same name, the word's definition, and those who fit its profile, was crystal clear. But over the past twenty years "thug" has become part of the new Urban-American lexicon with, as many contend, an entirely new meaning.

Michael Jeffries writes in Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop that "the concept of the thug underwent a...transformation, from signifying disgust, rebellion, and nihilism to evoking coolness and power...The label was attached to black and brown people, impoverished people, living in urban communities, regardless of their behavior. They adopted the word for subversive and oppositional reasons, and it found its way into the music."

As such, in the past week, "thug" has been thrust squarely into the middle of one of the nation's most incendiary controversies following the death in Baltimore of Freddie Gray, 25, who, after receiving serious injuries while in police custody April 12th, immediately went into a coma and died a week later. His death has ignited cries of police brutality and spawned both peaceful protests and devastating riots.

Monday evening Baltimore erupted with vandalism, looting, raging fires and violence. In response, several elected officials, including Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (black), the state's Governor Larry Hogan (white) as well as President Obama (black and white) described the rioters as "thugs."

By Tuesday, Rawlings-Blake dialed back her comments: "I wanted to say something that was on my heart ... We don't have thugs in Baltimore. Sometimes my little anger interpreter gets the best of me," she said, pointing to her head. "We have a lot of kids that are acting out, a lot of people in our community that are acting out."

Seriously? These are just "kids acting out?" There are no "thugs" in Baltimore? Those who threw garbage cans through storefronts, looted and then set these businesses on fire are not the very definition of "thug?" What about throwing rocks, bricks, bottles and other dangerous materials at cops and destroying police vehicles? Or destroying senior centers? Or attacking and terrifying innocent bystanders? Why can't we call these violent criminals thugs? Why does Baltimore's mayor have to back-peddle and declare that her city is thug-free? Her retraction seems to be taking racial/political correctness and pandering to embarrassing levels. 

To be sure, there are many people who reject the hypothesis that it's a racist, ad hominem attack to refer to someone breaking the law as a thug...or that it's code for the n-word. Just because the word was adopted and repackaged by the hip hop/rap community, does that mean the rest of society can't use that word in its truest and original form without being labeled a racist?

With all due respect to the late Tupac Shakur  (full disclosure: I'm a 55-year-old white guy with "California Love" blasting in my earbuds at least once a day), I've been using the word "thug" long before rappers have. And I'm not going to be shamed into not using it anymore. To the contrary, I think it's shameful for a mayor of a major American city to kowtow to violent criminals and their apologists. And I think it's a greater offense to be more concerned with what we call these rioters rather than the unconscionable destruction they're causing.

We can't solve society's problems by condoning and enabling violent criminal behavior simply because the underlying issue is just. It's ok for us to condemn police brutality and racial injustice at the same time we call violent criminals thugs. Why must the two be mutually exclusive? Black lives do indeed matter. But so do cops' lives. And police, personal and business property. And personal safety and security. To borrow from popular culture which has become so hashtag-driven, #allofitfuckingmatters.

It should be noted that much public praise (including the accolade #motheroftheyear on Twitter) has been heaped on Toya Graham, the Baltimore mother who was captured on video slapping her son and calling him "motherfucker" as she dragged him from the riots (probably not the first time she's take her hands and fists to him). Look what America is becoming: a place where a mother who beats and verbally abuses her child is a hero, and the criminals who rampage through our cities' streets violently attacking innocent people and destroying property aren't thugs.