What It Means When Obama Says ‘Thug’ On National Television


When President Obama used the word “thugs” in a press conference, his overt and implied meaning escaped me at first. I watched the Rose Garden briefing—like many of my friends did—as an excerpted blip on my newsfeed. The condemnation of violence being attributed to “criminals and thugs” seemed like the usual verbal overcompensation black politicians engage in during times of civil unrest to avoid the un-American claims. If Obama doesn’t deeply mourn the death of an officer in public, have a large enough flag pin on his lapel, or hold his hand over his heart while the national anthem is being sung (even though it’s incorrect procedure) then he is “doing it wrong.” It’s just another sign to an increasingly unhinged and racist rightwing population that black leaders don’t and can’t love their America.

I started thinking about all the other forms of violence which are approved and non-thuggish, and I realized that Obama is too smart for such a lazy read. In light of all the civil protest, thug is a sloppy and offensive term. By tossing the phrase around we are only showing what society considers appropriate violence versus inappropriate violence and highlighting the hypocrisy buried in the word’s use.

To understand “thug,” it’s important to know the word’s meaning in the current context as well as what forms of violence aren’t considered to be that of thugs.

Thugs are masked men. Thugs are in the street. Thugs are black.

As has often been reported, when white teenagers riot over a sports game or a bad concert, these people are not thugs. Even though they may be masked, in the streets, destroying property, injuring and killing, these people aren’t thugs because they aren’t black. This form of violence receives to the terror code status of ‘rabblerousers.’ They are dismissed as drunken mobs, fools, idiots, or the more European and jovial-sounding hooligans. In the morning after a riot, hooligans get to put back on their suits and ties. They get to chalk up violence to alcohol or a stupid referee call, or even a surprising victory.

In comparison, “thug” is used to delegitimize one form of violence over another by judgment. It is a condemnation of one’s permanent character. It removes all the social context that led up to a particular incident and focuses on the solely on the individual. And what Baltimore and Ferguson has shown us is that no sudden violent eruption of rage exists in a vacuum of personal responsibility.

The finger jab of “personal responsibility” is never done by a sitting public official toward a police officer. No one would dare call any police force “thugs.” Despite the unprecedented daily evidence of police brutality and judicial collusion with cop violence, none of this is considered “thuggish” behavior. These actions escape that label because it’s perpetuated by people with badges, timesheets and unions. These actions are merely unfortunate and the cops don’t receive any personal label that judges their character. When Henry Louis Gates was arrested in his own house by an overzealous cop who was standing in the professor’s living room, Obama made the mistake of saying that the officer acted “stupidly.” He quickly backtracked when the Fox News suggested that he didn’t respect the law, because “stupid” (even though it was in reference to the action and not the person) was seen as a judgment word.

When cops are caught on camera committing murder they are often deemed as corrupt aberrations, not thugs. To say these occurrences are corrupt implies that police brutality is against the normal protocol. I would beg to differ. Police murders have been going on for generations. State-sponsored violence isn’t the exception to the rule for black communities. It is the rule.

The rules promote cop-initiated robbery, lying, false testifying, planting evidence, unconstitutional jailing, illegal search and seizure, conspiratorial cooperation between judges and police, and homicide. I would argue that these rules—much more than teenagers tossing rocks—are heinous, thuggish, and dangerous to the public welfare.

For future reference, here are some other non-thuggish forms of violence: the FBI forging evidence for generations that resulted in executions of countless innocent people, the penal system’s allowance (and even running joke) of prison rape that leads to rising rates of HIV contraction, clubbing Occupy Wall Street protesters for exercising constitutional rights, sexually assaulting people while they’re in custody. In short, anything that involves technology or bureaucracy escapes the dreaded label. Killing thousands of foreign people with drone attacks isn’t thuggish behavior. This is technological advancement. This is approved. Americans like this kind of violence. It shows our technological superiority, which we often mistake for moral superiority. Police reports and judges’ rulings aren’t the kind of things that comes from thugs. These actions are efficient and documented.

At first I simply saw Obama’s use of the word as a pre-emptive strike against the radical right’s inevitable accusations that his mere existence in the Oval Office gives sociological permission to riots. But given the way that word has been thrown around to smear Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, the entire city of Ferguson, and now Baltimore, “thug” has a much more racial meaning in context of civil protests. And the Obama administration knows better.

Aurin Squire is a freelance journalist who lives in New York City. In addition to being a playwriting fellow at The Juilliard School, he has writing commissions and residencies at the Dramatists Guild of America, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and National Black Theatre.