#BlackLivesMatter: Why We Love Thugs
Last week, this video of Peggy Hubbard went viral. Hubbard, a black grandmother speaks passionately about a discrepancy she sees between the reactions of Black Lives Matter protesters to the killing of Mansur Ball-Bey, a young black man suspected of robbery, versus their reactions to the death of Jamyla Bolden, a nine-year-old killed by a stray bullet.
My question is simple: what makes this video so popular? What is it about Hubbard's call for black accountability and a crackdown on Thug Culture that resonates widely enough to attract over 8 million views in a weekend? I've spent the past few days responding to twitter users who desperately push this video as their first and sole answer to the entire Black Lives Matter movement. Why?
Let's begin with an analogy.
Imagine visiting your elderly father at an old folks home. Don't have an elderly father? Just go with me on this. The man's eighty, he's got your smile, and he's wondering why you don't call more often. So you arrive for your visit, only to find him covered in bruises. As it turns out, your father is just one of many elderly residents who are regularly beaten by the facility's after-hours caretakers. Now, imagine that I respond to your shock and outrage by reminding you that 60% of physical abuse in old folks homes actually comes from old men like your father assaulting their fellow residents. 'The caretakers are not the real problem,' I assure you; 'we just need to crack down on the disobedient old bastards who refuse to take their medicine, disobey orders, and sometimes attempt to lay their hands on the caretakers.' Finally, I contend 'if your hypocrite father is serious about staying safe, he should stop complaining about his abusive caretakers, and focus more on the root cause of all his troubles: his disobedient friends.'
Would that argument resonate with you? If yes, then this article is over; enjoy your day.
However, if that argument strikes you as hollow and even malicious, let's try to figure out why.
Perhaps because the argument suggests that old men like your father both deserve and cause their own victimization. Perhaps because it insults your intelligence by taking two distinct problems and pretending as if there is only enough room for one real problem. Maybe you are suspicious of the way in which this argument slyly ignores the power dynamics of the orderlies hired to take care of your father, and pretends as if their abuse of those in their care is just as bad as the supposed misbehavior of your father and his friends. Or perhaps you are offended by the way that I've grouped your father into a monolithic pack of misbehaving old goons, and thereby made the question of his individual behavior irrelevant.
Whatever it is that offends you, this argument feels so different from the #PeggyHubbard thug screed because your father is just a helpless old man. We have no problem picturing your pop-pop, with his liver spots and rickety bones, in the familiar role of a victim. Sure, old men have a reputation for being grumps and generally hostile about foot traffic on their lawn. But, as a population, the elderly don't have over 200 years of images and stories that cast them as a violent threat. And so, despite the existence of some very dangerous old men (John Houser, Dick Cheney, Bill Cosby) the nation has no historical story - no narrative - that has taught us to automatically cast the elderly as villains.
Conversely, the call at the center of Hubbard's video taps into one of the most popular historical narratives America has ever know: the narrative of the black Thug. We have no problem casting a black man as a villain. You can see the image of the black brute in everything from the the rapists of The Birth of a Nation, to the monstrous Willie Hortons of the 80s and 90s, to the Fuck-The-Police gang-bangers that make Straight Outta Compton so popular and the death of Michael Brown so contentious.
We live in the era of the Thug. This pants-sagging authority-bucking image of the black male permeates our pop culture and explains away the complexities and tragedies of our criminal justice system.
'But thugs exist,' you exclaim. You reach for stats, you call forth stories of victimization, you search for that poignant meme your uncle emailed you. And I am not debating your point. Criminals do exist. Many of them are black. And some of those black criminals find themselves in altercations with police that end violently. I am not debating the existence of Thugs. And in my opinion, neither should the Black Lives Matter Movement. I am simply asking you to consider the incredible distortions and gymnastics in logic your mind is able to do when you name Thugs as the cause of any given police shooting or, even more horrifying, as the cause of a pattern of police shootings. The narrative of the Thug is a story we tell ourselves. Like the narrative of the Slut, this story helps us already know what happened in any given situation without researching it. Like the Slut, the Thug was probably asking for it.
Peggy Hubbard's video is a productive challenge to the black community and certainly to the Black Lives Matter movement. It pushes the movement to take a stance on other types of violence that might be overlooked. However, in it's focus on Thuggery, the video advances the false assertion that the nation cannot have two conversations - one about reforming police and one reducing crime - at the same time. That we must pick. And more importantly, that protestors are hypocrites if they attempt to reform police without first taking up the decades long fight to reduce crime. That your father must do the double duty of of protecting himself against his caretakers while also doing the caretakers' job of controlling the rest of the community. Its an old tradition that prohibits blacks from voicing one problem without first having to solve a host of broader more 'inclusive' problems.
Criminals are out there. They must be stopped and brought to justice. This has not changed. But what has changed is the casual speed at which we are able to immediately assume that the criminal and the unknown black male killed by police in a traffic stop are the same person.
If we are going to reform police, we are going to have to be comfortable wading through gray space. Black Lives Matter protesters should feel no urgency to make saints of those gunned down by police. Instead, protesters would do well to raise the question of what oversight and training (in bias recognition and non-violent de-escalation) officers have in encounters especially when the compliance of a black suspect is murky.
Similarly, those who offer up "better behavior and fewer thugs" as a policy solution to the well documented and systemic problem of police brutality should be aware that they are using a shortcut. A Thug is not an answer to the question, it is a backdoor that helps you evade the question.
After all, if the unarmed victim of the next police shooting is just a Thug, then you don't have to confront the terrifying possibility that the caretakers you pay to protect your father (and the rest the american public) are capable of unspeakable things. If the victim is just a Thug, then you don't have to wade through the shame you might feel by being implicated in a system that treats people in such dramatic and fatally differently ways. If he's just a thug, then the solution isn't beyond your reach; it's simple and familiar: "Niggers behave." If he's a Thug, you can close your browser window, and enjoy your morning coffee with confidence that the world is what you thought it was.
But if he's not a thug...well then, shit.
What do we do then?