Last night, as Baltimore erupted with riots and violence and anger, the city’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, took to Twitter to share her thoughts on the events sweeping the city. The mayor talked about “the evil we see tonight.” She promised that “we will do whatever it takes” to stop the destruction and restore “the will of good.” Because “too many people,” she said, “have invested in building up this city to allow thugs to tear it down.”
“Thugs.” “Thug.” The derision here—dismissive, indignant, willfully unsympathetic—is implied in the sound of the word itself. Spoken aloud, thug requires its utterer first to sneer (the lisp of the th) and then to gape (the deep-throated uhhhh) and then to choke the air (that final, glottal g). Even if you hadn’t heard the word before, even if you had no idea what it meant, you would probably guess that it is an epithet. Thug may have undergone the classic cycle of de- and re- and re-re-appropriation—the lyric-annotation site Genius currently lists 12,590 uses of thug in its database, among them 19 different artists (Young Thug, Slim Thug, Millennium Thug) and 10 different albums—but the word remains fraught. In a series of interviews before last year’s Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman—who had been described by the media as a “thug,” and who is African American—referred to thug as an effective synonym for the N-word. And in Baltimore over the past few days, the term has been flung about by commenters both professional and not, mostly as a way of delegitimizing the people who are doing the protesting and rioting. To dismiss someone as a “thug” is also to dismiss his or her claims to outrage.