At first, the word "thug" was so consistently used by city, state and even national leaders to describe the Baltimore rioters — many of them teen-agers — that it seemed a deliberate, coordinated effort to send a message. Gov. Larry Hogan, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young all decried the "thugs" hurling rocks at police, looting stores and setting fires throughout the city. But Tuesday, on the same day President Barack Obama joined in the refrain condemning the "handful of criminals and thugs who tore up the place," both Ms. Rawlings-Blake and Mr. Young backed away from the term.
The fact is, we do have thugs in Baltimore according to the dictionary definition of the word, given by Merriam-Webster as "a brutal ruffian or assassin, gangster, tough." (It could be argued that some of them were standing alongside Mr. Young and other council members at City Hall on Tuesday: the self-described Crips and Bloods gang members calling for an end to violence in the city.) But whether it's a term that should be used as shorthand for the young people who angrily rioted — or even the looting opportunists — is a different matter.
There are reasons for anger in Baltimore: racism, poverty, targeted policing, poor education, few recreational opportunities, drug-ravaged neighborhoods. None of them justify the violence, though, and we suspect — or at least hope — some of those caught up in the fervor Monday night woke up with regret and shame the next morning. They did something deplorable, but was that because they are inherently and inexorably bad, or was it because they were caught up in a mob mentality? To brand them thugs is to dismiss them based on circumstance without any context — much like police are accused of doing to Freddie Gray, who died in their custody, sparking the unrest.
City leaders appeared to recognize that Tuesday and attempted to steer the conversation back to the larger issues underlying the demonstrations. "There are no thugs in Baltimore, there are abused children, who are being abused by the cutbacks in education, cutbacks in housing. Abused people become abusers," Rev. Frank Reid III of Bethel AME church said at a press conference, inspiring the mayor to agree.
The word thug, which is frequently used to describe young black males, is also viewed as racially charged by some. In a heated exchange with Erin Burnett on CNN Tuesday night, City Councilman Carl Stokes said you might as well "just call them [n-words]" if you're going to call the city's youth 'thugs."
"We don't have to call them names such as that," he said.
Historically, the term "thug" referred to members of a band of robbers and murderers who typically targeted travelers in 19th century India. It was applied to the mobsters of the early 20th century and later adopted and repurposed in the 1990s by some young people, including rapper Tupac Shakur, who briefly attended Baltimore's High School for the Performing Arts and embraced the so-called "thug life."
"When I'm saying 'thug,' I mean not criminals, someone to beat you over the head, I mean the underdog," he said in a 1993 video. "The person that had nothing and succeeds is a thug because he overcame all obstacles. That doesn't have anything to do with the dictionary's version of thug."
But Shakur, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1996, was said to live a criminal, gangster life in addition to performing gangsta rap, and the word "thug" continues to be applied to members of modern gangs: often black, urban males.
Freddie Gray, who was 25, was also branded a thug by some on social media because of his criminal record, which mostly included arrests on drug charges and for minor crimes. The implication was that he deserved what he got — a nearly severed spine.
Calling him a thug is the equivalent of writing him off.
Having city leaders apply it to the high school students and others who rioted throughout Baltimore tells the offenders that they weren't just wrong in what they did, but that they're also worthless because of it — something too many people already believe.