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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.

dark streetsAs 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.”


***Ferris State University: Jim Crow Museum

© Mike Wall

4 Responses

  1. Patrick says:

    Excellent. The term ‘thug’ is often thrown around by these pundits and most of them don’t know what it means. I some times have this conversation with Josie. I can’t speak for rappers and the hip-hop movement in the 21st century, simply because I don’t listen to that garbage. I can, though, tell you what I think this word means based on one of the biggest influences of my life. Here is his definition of ‘thug’ and what I know I think it means.

    “And yes, I am gonna say that I’m a thug, that’s because I came from the gutter and I’m still here. I’m not saying I’m a thug because I wanna rob you or rape people and things. I’m a business man, I mean you know I’m a business man because you find me at my places of business.”

    These videos dive into it more if you have an extra 5 minutes:



  2. Bob says:

    Thug, because he wanted to act hard and rough up a little white cop. Thug because he taunted said white cop after roughing up said white cop. Thug, because he died like one.

  3. Patrick says:

    ^ Bob doesn’t get out much. I also suggest something other than Fox “News.”

  4. Patrick says:

    And that “little white cop” is 6’4″ 240 pounds, taller and heavier than me.

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