Just before his death Michael Brown acted badly. He strong arms a much smaller Indian clerk while stealing cigarillos. The raw video of this assault is ugly. It inspires a visceral anger in the viewer. Photos abound of him flashing the finger at the camera and of his unsmiling expressions. These images are wrapped into the use of “Thug”* to describe him, “a violent person, a gangster, a criminal.”** Its synonyms include goon, gorilla, gangster, gangbanger, assassin. For people like Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee and Joe Scarborough and all of Fox News “thug” has become the term of choice to describe Michael Brown.
As with all nouns, “thug” is an associative word. It gathers images to itself as, for example, the absurd posturings of some wealthy rappers, advertising themselves as Thugs, posing bare chested and tatted, the better to drive sales of their music. The term also calls forth the sense of an unreasoning, conscience-less threat, an animal, a “brute … innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal — deserving punishment, maybe death. This brute is a fiend, a sociopath, an anti-social menace,”*** and as such is undeserving of the fair exercise of the law for he is beyond the reach of civilization. He is predatory nature incarnate, the beast come to the city.
By his very temperament a “thug” may be dismissed; he is undeserving of respect. Once killed, his body may be left to lie in the sun. The commentators who use the word want to sound like street-wise, swaggering realists, tough guys themselves, and thus a part of the force standing on the wall that protects all that is worthy of safety and mercy from the others out there in the darkness.
The use of “thug” justifies street justice, the quick bullet before the monster can attack again, and this time Michael Brown was the wild thing, the charging “demon” from the ghetto, the territory outside the wall. Maybe the hard g sound is part of the appeal of the word, the same g sound as in gun, the same g sound as in the double g word these commentators dare not use now but which they mean, really. When they use “thug,” they decree that Michael Brown deserved to die. No trial is necessary. No deeper examination of the circumstances of his death is necessary. He was a “thug.” Statement of fact. End of discussion. When they use “thug,” they tell us that they have seen the truth — “thugs” deserve no mercy for they have no value. They are less than human.
Let us at least tell the truth about the word. Let those who use this name for Michael Brown and other black men not be granted the moral high ground they seem to covet. When they say “thug,” they know exactly what they want.
*An ancient word that derives from the Sanskrit, the original Thugs [Thuggees]* “strangled their victims, usually innocent travelers.”