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Story highlights

NEW: Baltimore mayor says she wants to "clarify" use of the term

Some community leaders in the city call the term equivalent to the n-word

Others disagree and don't want the debate overshadowing the issues

(CNN) —  

A term used by President Barack Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to characterize rioters has given new life to a debate over the word “thug.”

“Of course it’s not the right word, to call our children ‘thugs,’” Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes told CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront.” “These are children who have been set aside, marginalized, who have not been engaged by us. No, we don’t have to call them thugs.”

“Just call them n—–s. Just call them n—–s,” he said. “No, we don’t have to call them by names such as that.”

The Rev. Jamal Bryant drew the same comparison Wednesday morning on CNN. The President and the mayor are wrong, he said. “These are not thugs, these are upset and frustrated children.”

“It’s amazing. You don’t call six police officers who kill a man without probable cause ‘thugs,’ but children who are frustrated and don’t have an outlet, you call them ‘thugs.’ ‘Thugs’ is the 21st century word for the n-word. And it is repulsive and it is offensive to every person who is a parent trying to raise children interpreting what’s taking place in this hour.”

The recent unrest in Baltimore was sparked by the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a severe spinal cord injury while in custody. Six officers have been suspended over the incident. Bryant delivered the eulogy at Gray’s funeral.

What we know, don’t know about Freddie Gray’s death

Mayor responds

Mayor Rawlings-Blake responded Wednesday.

“I wanted to clarify my comments on ‘thugs,’” she wrote Wednesday on Twitter. “When you speak out of frustration and anger, one can say things in a way that you don’t mean.”

She added, “That night we saw misguided young people who need to be held accountable, but who also need support. And my comments then didn’t convey that.”

’What matters is how do we take back our streets’

Kweisi Mfume, Baltimore native and former president of the NAACP, said, “It’s important we not shift the focus into something that has absolutely nothing to do with poverty, despair, hunger, homelessness and a sense of not belonging.”

“Whether we call them a thug, a law breaker, a juvenile delinquent, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is how do we take back our streets. And that’s what men have been doing, going around, talking to these young men where they, are in their face, and letting them know, you can’t control this community. It is not yours. You can’t burn it down. You can’t force people out. You can’t threaten people,” he told “OutFront.”

“So I understand that, that people want to talk about a word. But I’m more worried about a movement, and it’s not necessarily a movement for positive change. It’s a movement for negative change right now unless we get it under control.”

Kevin Shird, another Baltimore native and author of “Lessons of Redemption,” said “thug” is “not like the n-word in my mind.” But, he said in a CNN interview, the term has “been racialized across America, so I can see why people would become offended like that.”

Shird, a former drug dealer, also said he does not see the word as an accurate description of the young people who rioted and looted in Baltimore on Monday. “These were young juveniles. And so, in my mind I don’t see a 16- or 17-year-old as a thug. I have seen thugs, and they don’t look like thugs to me. My experience in life has been a little bit more extreme than that, but, again, it was criminal behavior and it can’t be justified.”

He added, “We just want to stay focused on the issue of police brutality and of the Freddie Gray matter.”

Opinion: Calling people ‘thugs’ solves nothing

Ongoing debate has included NFL player, rapper

NFL player Richard Sherman has previously called the term “the accepted way of calling somebody the n-word nowadays.”

Rapper Slim Thug once addressed the term on the Houston radio program “Madd Hatta Morning Show.” The host set up the exchange by referring to deceased rapper Tupac Shakur.

“I got the Tupac definition,” the host said, as “OutFront” reported online in January 2014. “His is just, you know, a person going through struggles, has gone through struggles and continue to live day-by-day…. just trying to make it. “

“I think the same thing,” Slim Thug responded. “I probably got ‘thug’ off of him, you know, growing up listening to him… I feel the same way that he felt, coming from nothing to something.”

U.S. government describes various groups as ‘thugs’

Webster’s Dictionary defines “thug” as “a brutal ruffian or assassin.”

On Monday, Mayor Rawlings-Blake said, “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.”

On Tuesday, President Obama referred to the rioters as “a handful of criminals and thugs who tore up the place.”

That same day, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry used the word “thugs” to refer to ISIS. At a luncheon in honor of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Kerry referred to two Japanese citizens “who were murdered by the thugs of Daesh in retribution for Japan’s pledge of humanitarian assistance – I repeat, humanitarian assistance – to the victims of fighting in the Middle East.” (Daesh is another term for ISIS.)

Kerry has also referred to “thugs” in the Ukraine crisis.

Obama has also used the term “thugs” in similar context. “Not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States,” he said in one speech.

Complete coverage on the Baltimore riots