We’ve all heard about the Baltimore Uprising happening right now in Baltimore, Maryland. It’s hard to ignore when the media has latched onto the violence and destruction, as they’re wont to do. The protests began after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old resident of Baltimore, died in police custody. Since his death and the refusal of the police to release any information, Baltimore has been holding peaceful protests, but the media has not been covering this. Only when police instigated a confrontation with high schoolers did the protests take a violent turn and then the media showed up to cover it. Since the violent incident earlier this week, the news has been replaying the story over and over, exaggerating truths and framing the protesters in a bad light. This Friday, the mayor of Baltimore revealed that the officers responsible for Gray’s death will be charged and prosecuted.
Many people have weighed in on the uprising, adding their opinions to the many swirling around on the Internet. People seem to be split on whether they should condone or condemn the way these protesters have acted. Some users on Facebook have been saying his death was justified as he resisted arrest and they even started a new hashtag trend, #BlueLivesMatter, copying the popular #BlackLivesMatter. On Twitter this past Monday, the word “thug” appeared in over 50,000 tweets referring to the protestors. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of Baltimore said, “Too many people have spent a generation building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs who in a very senseless way are trying to tear down what so many have fought for.” She has since apologized for carelessly using the word “thug,” citing her frustration at the situation as an excuse. President Obama condemned the violence in his address, also calling the violent protesters “thugs,” but he also called out the police officers that were in the wrong. He pointed out that this “has been going on for a long time. This is not new and we shouldn’t pretend it’s new.”
When you look up the word “thug” in the dictionary, you will find that it means
“a violent criminal,” someone Batman beats up in a comic book. But in reality, “thug” is a racially coded word, a post-racial substitute for the overt monikers of black people. While people insist on the dictionary definition, that a specific race is not delegated to the word, the connotations of “thug” have changed. Culturally, it has become a substitute of the N-word, a word that devalues and dehumanizes a whole group of people. It’s mostly used to refer to young black men—the most steadfastly declining demographic in America. “Thug” allows for stereotypes to fester, burying the harmful connotation deep in the American psyche. It allows for African Americans to be incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites and for one in six black men to be incarcerated.
Baltimore has a history of poor neighborhoods and police violence. In the past four years, the city of Baltimore has paid over $5 million in police brutality settlements. The neighborhood where Gray lived, Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park, is the highest incarceration community in Baltimore with 458 people currently in jail. Gray’s old neighborhood also currently has 52% of its residents unemployed, not an uncommon thing to see in the Baltimore projects. This is a community that was already in bad shape before the riots even happened. These people are protesting fed up with the way they’ve been treated and, since Gray died, they have been protesting peacefully. The media has all but ignored these peaceful protests because burning cars sell better. They don’t care about the pain these people are feeling, only that this is a story they can feature on the nightly news. Calling the black protesters “thugs” allows for the media to generalize and dehumanize to have these people better fit the narrative they have constructed.
By using the word “thug,” the message of these protests are lost as the press starts to victim blame the protesters themselves. Since Gray died, these protests have been peaceful. They only became violent when police received a tip that there would be a “purge”—like the movie of the same name—conducted by high school students at 3pm, the same time that school gets let out. Police shut down all public transportation at 3pm and showed up in full riot gear just as students were released from classes. With nowhere to go and tensions running high, police and the students clashed. While some students threw rocks and water bottles, police were protected by body armor and even threw rocks back at the teens. These students were trapped and scared, with nowhere to go and with Freddie Gray’s funeral happening that day, they may have even been a little angry. The violence on both sides was reprehensible, but to call these kids thugs for reacting in a way that any normal person would have reacted is wrong.
Instead of focusing on what to call these protesters, we should focus on why they have to protest at all. Freddie Gray had his spine almost severed and his larynx crushed while in police custody. He got into that police van completely fine, but when he left it, “he could not talk and he could not breathe.” We, as a country, need to hold police officers responsible when they abuse their power. We need to recognize that in 2015, cops kill one black person every 8 hours. That’s three people a day. Three black people a day killed because of police brutality and we’re only five months into 2015. We as a country and as a community need to stop these statistics from growing and focus on the real problems. As president Obama said in his address on the matter, “If our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could; it’s just that it would require everybody saying, ‘this is important; this is significant.’ And, that we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped, but we’re paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids.” We need to stop letting the police get away with breaking the law and help these people rebuild their communities. Getting angry at the protesters is just ignoring the problem. Burning buildings are not more important than black lives.
This article was written by Halley Dewey, a writer for dusk magazine.