Baltimore Councilman Carl Stokes brought up an interesting point on CNN Wednesday night when he asked Erin Burnett why protesters in Baltimore were called “thugs” when the Baltimore policemen involved in the events leading up to the death of Freddie Gray, the incident that sparked the protests in the first place, were not. Stokes had said in a previous interview with Burnett that he found the word “thug(s)” racially charged.
Mediaite reported April 29 that Councilman Carl Stokes of Baltimore, in a return visit to “Erin Burnett OutFront,” was given the chance to clarify a few remarks he had made on Tuesday night’s show. During that conversation, Stokes, making the point that the use of the word “thug(s)” was a racial buzz word, that those using it should simply come right out and say “n****rs,” which he did live on the air. He pointed out that Burnett herself probably would never call her children thugs, but the news anchor retorted that if they were rioting, she probably would.
On Wednesday’s show, after Councilman Stokes had gone on to defend his comments on other shows, Burnett even read from the dictionary the actual definition of the word “thug.” That is when Stokes pointed out that when demonstrations and riots were conducted by white people after certain sporting events, “we didn’t refer to them as thugs, we called them college students.” He went further, bringing the focus back to Baltimore, saying that the protesters were called thugs but “the people who are responsible for Freddie Gray’s death are not.”
Burnett had previously made the point that, until all the facts were in on the Freddie Gray death investigation, conclusions should not be drawn as to their culpability. And yet, with cases like that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York, conclusions about the role of the police officers involved have already been made by many. The demonstrations and marches that have been ongoing in Baltimore since news of Gray’s controversial arrest and hospitalization are testament to those conclusions.
But, as in many cases such as this, the petty details, like focusing on the connotations of words, get in the way of actually reporting news on events and incidents that truly matter. Although it is important how these events and incidents are described to a certain degree, any issues arising from such descriptions are of secondary, even tertiary importance (unless, of course, there is an escalation to newsworthy events). What matters in these instances is: What is happening in Baltimore? Why is it happening? Who and what issues are involved? How will the important parties involved resolve the issues going forward? And what is being done to illuminate and rectify the initiating incident or circumstances (i.e., the death of Freddie Gray)?
Semantics and connotations are quick distractions, misdirections amplified by media coverage that tend to push the public’s attention away from important matters. What is important is this: The people of Baltimore have peacefully and non-peacefully protested. Can their behavior, in the case of those non-peacefully protesting (a.k.a. “rioting”) and those simply engaging in criminal behavior for their own selfish interests, be describes as “thuggish”? Of course it can. But should it be? Not when an incident or series of events and their participants are centered around a particular demographic (in this case: blacks, or African Americans) who have come to look at the word “thug” as a racial slur, a recently morphed term of socially permissible racial code.
In short, thug is perceived by the black community as a less abrasive way to say the n-word. So you can use it when describing newsworthy events if you’re engaged in using it in an equal-opportunity setting (for example: college student thugs, stadium parking lot thugs, police brutality perpetrators, etc.), but, when the English language has so many descriptive alternatives, you really shouldn’t.
The news event was the Baltimore protests against police brutality and the death of Freddie Gray that turned into a riot and looting. The news story quickly took a left turn into the land of political correctness, pulling the news coverage away from what was actually important and answering for viewers the news-reporting basics: who, what, where, when, why, and how. In allowing it, Erin Burnett did her viewers a disservice. In focusing on it, Councilman Carl Stokes did his constituents and the viewers a disservice. A debate in semantics did nothing but redirect the attention of the viewers from what should have been covered to addressing the way it should have been covered, a topic better taken up in a journalism and language arts classes, on Op-Ed pages, or on late night talk shows.