Is the Word "Thug" Being Used to Justify the Use of Excessive Force?

Last year conservative talk show hosts claimed that Missouri teen Michael Brown was killed because his street ways finally caught up to him when he was shot in self-defense by a conscientious police officer. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said that the violence between Brown and the officer, "could have avoided that if Brown behaved like something other than a thug." Others said that Brown caused his death by participation in a robbery then going after the officer's gun. Even worse, some media outlets paraded photographs of Brown that purported to depict him as a menacing person. The logic seemed to be that if black youth want to avoid police violence they simply need to avoid "thuggish" behavior.

Meanwhile the word "thug" has become a code word for people that are acceptable victims of police aggression. During the Trayvon Martin controversy, defenders of the shooter, George Zimmerman, labeled Martin a “dangerous thug” for committing ordinary teenage behavior, like cursing or smoking marijuana. Rush Limbaugh and Karl Rove call President Barak Obama a "political thug." Sports writers called the Seattle Seahawks Richard Sherman a "thug" even though he graduated from Stanford with a 3.3 G.P.A., prompting Sherman to say the word “thug” has become an “accepted way of calling somebody the N-word.”

Now a new police beating invites legal observers to reevaluate what factors are consistent with police violence. On St. Patrick's Day State Alcoholic Beverage Control ("ABC") agents approached a third-year UVA student as he was near the entrance of a bar. The ABC Police grabbed the student and threw him to the ground causing a gaping laceration to this forehead.

The difficult questions arise when the unavoidable realities of the story are examined. First, the UVA student is black and the ABC officers are white. Cell phone video shows no rational reason for the intensity of the ABC agents reaction. Virginia ABC agents are sworn police officers vested with statewide authority to arrest for violations of any crime. However, in the majority of situations, these agents simply make peaceful arrests for alcohol related infractions. The overwhelming number of ABC agent interactions with the public are college aged kids accused of underage possession of alcohol. These are non-violent police citizen encounters that do not require use of force. (In 2013, a white UVA student sued the state of Virginia after she was wrongfully arrested in a botched alcohol sting operation. Seven ABC officers approached her but she was not assaulted.)

The voices that supported police brutality of the so called "thugs" Martin and Brown have been conspicuously silent. Others have asked to wait for all the evidence to be revealed. It is prudent to view all information before forming a conclusion but is this "wait for evidence" going to be a witch hunt where people dig around until they find an old picture of the UVA student that depicts him misbehaving. That information should not make people more comfortable with his assault. In this UVA situation the student is a member of the university's Honor Council and doesn't fit any intelligent definition of a "thug." He looks speaks and acts like a young man that any parent would be proud to call son.

Legal analysts are indisputably aware that police aggression statistically affects blacks more than whites. The public has been told that this occurs because police patrol "urban" areas more populated by black citizens. The UVA assault reveals the falsehoods in this position. Here officers with limited authority and in no danger still felt it appropriate to assault a black citizen near a college campus. It is time for everyone to recognize that race plays a part in some police assaults. Code words like "thug" have no role in an intelligent debate in this issue.

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