Calling people 'thugs' solves nothing

Story highlights

  • David Love: Calling rioters the name "thugs" is the new way to shame the oppressed
  • He says real attention should be focused on the conditions which led to violence

David A. Love writes for thegrio.com. He is a writer and human rights activist based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter:@DavidALove The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)In light of the current unrest in Baltimore, riot shaming seems to be the new fad.

Everybody's doing it, and while it is easy, it helps us change the subject and ignore the harder issues facing African-Americans.
What is unfolding in that city, of course, and is receiving national attention, is the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray, 25, who died of a "very tragic injury to his spinal cord," according to Baltimore Police Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez. The exact cause of those injuries remain under investigation. Gray family lawyer said the 25-year-old's "spine was 80% severed" while in police custody.
David A. Love
The circumstances around the man's killing and public outrage in the black community have led to peaceful protests.
And unfortunately, though understandably, things have boiled over, with riots and looting by some. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard, and Baltimore schools were closed.
And people have lined up to condemn the riots, the looting, and the violence. For example, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was in front of the cameras Monday night referring to the rioters as "thugs."
"What we see tonight that is going on in our city is very disturbing," the mayor said. "It is very clear there is a difference between what we saw over the past week with the peaceful protests, those who wish to seek justice, those who wish to be heard and want answers, and the difference between those protests and the thugs who only want to incite violence and destroy our city."
President Obama also referred to the riot participants as "thugs."
In an interview with CNN's Don Lemon, Gov. Hogan seemed to channel his inner 1950s Southern governor. "What we've now seen is outside agitators, gangs and just really thugs as the mayor called them, that are out there threatening people, injuring people and destroying property, and we're not going to put up with it," Hogan said before he and Mayor Rawlings-Blake walked away from the interview when Lemon's questioning apparently became a little too difficult for them.
And Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, blamed the violence on "breakdown in the family structure, the lack of fathers and the lack of moral code in our society." He added: "The mayor obviously could have been stronger with saying: 'We are going to secure the city. We are not going to have thievery. We are not going to have thuggery.' " He then added, "None of this excuses thuggery and thievery."
Whenever there is a killing of an unarmed black person by police, typically, the victim is demonized as a thug, as are the protesters and rioters who react to the killing.
This is because black people are viewed in their entirety as criminals. Whites who protest or riot are not called thugs, because the word thug serves as a proxy for the N-word, whether it's black or white people using the descriptors.
"No, it's not the right word to call our children thugs," Baltimore City Council member Carl Stokes told CNN's Erin Burnett. "These are children who have been set aside, marginalized, who have not been engaged by us."
"But how does that justify what they did?" Burnett asked Stokes. "That's a sense of right and wrong. They know it's wrong to steal and burn down a CVS and an old persons' home. I mean, come on."
"Come on? Just call them n****rs. Just call them n****rs," Stokes exclaimed in frustration.
But as people line up to condemn the unrest and lecture so-called thugs on how to behave, few condemn the oppressive conditions, the unjust policies, the structural racism, the police brutality and the poverty that have plagued Baltimore for years. And if the looting of the CVS disturbs you more than the alleged severing of a man's spine, then you have lost your humanity, and your priorities are all wrong.
"When I go to Baltimore, on the East Coast, I'm dealing with 1950s-level black-and-white racism," Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts told a White House task force on policing. "It's taken a step back. Everything's either black or everything's white, and we're dealing with that as a community."
Mr. Gray's death was the breaking point, but it was a long time coming.
As the Baltimore Sun reported, the city has paid about $5.7 million since 2011 in over 100 police brutality lawsuits and $5.8 million in legal fees. The police have beaten, maimed and killed their victims, which include children, a pregnant mother, a 65-year-old church deacon and an 87-year-old grandmother -- mostly African-American.
And as Bill Quigley wrote in the Huffington Post, the disturbing statistics about daily life in Baltimore are more shocking than recent events.
The poverty rate is 23.8%. White babies born in Baltimore will have a life expectancy six years longer than black babies. Black babies are nine times more likely to die before their first birthday than white babies. The high school graduation rate for Baltimore City schools is 56.4%.
Again, the numbers are downright disturbing.
Meanwhile, in the midst of Baltimore urban rebellion, some voices have invoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his commitment to a strategy of nonviolence. However, they fail to mention what Dr. King said about riots:
"It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard."
John Angelos, COO of the Baltimore Orioles, echoed King's words:
"I agree ... that the principle of peaceful, nonviolent protest and the observance of the rule of law is of utmost importance in any society. MLK, Gandhi, Mandela and all great opposition leaders throughout history have always preached this precept."
That said, my personal concern, outrage and sympathy isn't focused on one night's property damage, but on the past four-decades during which an American political elite has shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and American cities to China and other countries, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American's civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.
We need to keep in mind that people are suffering and dying around the U.S., and while we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don't have jobs and are losing economic, civil and legal rights, and this makes inconvenience at a ballgame irrelevant.
As we watch the events unfold in Baltimore, not unlike Ferguson -- and Los Angeles 20 years ago, and cities such as Detroit, Watts and Newark which experienced urban rebellions sparked by acts of police brutality in the 1960s -- shaming the rioters is the easy way out when we refuse to address black suffering.
It is clear that no expense will be spared in bringing America's military might to bear on the black folks of Baltimore. But where were the resources to eliminate poverty and unemployment and end predatory policing in the black community?