A Different World

Would President Obama call cop who shot man in the back ‘thug’? Would you?

Camille Lattimore-Weanquoi points her finger at officers lining the street where a peaceful gathering was taking place. There was a heavy police presence in some parts of the city today, including this stretch of West North Avenue, which had been the scene of looting.
Camille Lattimore-Weanquoi points her finger at officers lining the street where a peaceful gathering was taking place. There was a heavy police presence in some parts of the city today, including this stretch of West North Avenue, which had been the scene of looting. MICHAEL S. WILLIAMSON THE WASHINGTON POST

First a look at what this means for the 2016 presidential elections:

I’ve been saying for awhile now that Sen. Rand Paul has more credibility on the issue of criminal justice reform than any of the other presidential candidates. That’s still true, but it will be interesting to see if he can maintain that status while he tries to secure the Republican nomination. I think he took a slight step back while talking about Baltimore.

Over the past few years, Paul has been clear about the problem with our justice system. Yesterday, he took the easy route. I hope that’s a small misstep, the kind that he won’t make again.

On the other side of the aisle, I’ve been saying for awhile that Hillary Clinton would be unwise to allow Paul own this issue, that she should not assume that because she’s a Democrat she will get enough black voters no matter what she says. She briefly touched on Ferguson - which wasn’t enough - but now she plans to speak about justice reform. I hope that means she really does understand the importance of this issue:

Clinton to call for end to mass incarceration

Baltimore protests and riots and the power of words:

President Barack Obama made news yesterday for his use of a particular word - thug - to describe some of the Baltimore rioters:

He added that the country has to do more than “feign concern” over Gray’s death as well as those of black men killed in police incidents in South Carolina, Missouri and Staten Island.

“It’s too easy to ignore those problems or to treat them just as a law-and-order issue as opposed to a broader social issue,” Obama said.

He claimed America should not just pay attention to the concerns of the black community only “when a CVS burns” or when “a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped.”

Still, the president lashed into the rioters who torched buildings and looted businesses in Baltimore a day earlier, calling them ​“criminals ​and thugs” who were destroying their own communities.

​“That is not a protest. It is not a statement. It’s people, a handful of people, taking advantage of a situation for their own purposes — and they need to be treated as criminals,” Obama said from the White House.

Read more here.

Most of what the president said yesterday made sense. But using the word was counterproductive and uncalled for.

How can such name calling make things better? And let’s not pretend it doesn’t matter what words we use to describe people.

Here’s how we know our word choice matters.

A North Charleston police officer shot a fleeing suspect in the back for no good reason. Did Obama call that officer a thug?

In Baltimore, the unrest began when Freddie Gray had his spine almost completely severed while with the police. Did Obama call those officers thugs?

Obama’s Justice Department found systemic, widespread, long-term discrimination and awful police practices in Ferguson. Did the president call officers in the Ferguson police department thugs?

This is from a Baltimore Sun series of stories about police brutality:

On a cold January afternoon, Jerriel Lyles parked his car in front of the P&J Carry Out on East Monument Street and darted inside to buy some food. After paying for a box of chicken, he noticed a big guy in jeans, a hooded sweatshirt and a baseball cap.

“What’s up?” the man said to Lyles. Others, also dressed in jeans and hoodies, blocked the door to the street — making Lyles fear that he would be robbed. Instead, the man identified himself a police officer, frisked Lyles and demanded he sit on the greasy floor. Lyles objected.

“The officer hit me so hard it felt like his radio was in his hand,” Lyles testified about the 2009 incident, after suing Detective David Greene. “The blow was so heavy. My eyes swelled up. Blood was dripping down my nose and out my eye.”

Should Obama call the officer who did that a thug?

And this:

Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.

Does that mean the Baltimore police department is full of thugs?

I’ve heard Myrtle Beach police officers and other local officials toss that word around as well. Though I found no widespread police misconduct when I looked into the issue in Myrtle Beach a few weeks ago - which is a really good, positive thing - I did find an instance of a Myrtle Beach police officer stomping a handcuffed teen. Should I have called him a thug instead of just describing what he did wrong?

Why is it that that word gets tossed around only to some people, like those who rioted in the streets of Baltimore on Monday, and not to cops who shoot people in the back and beat them for no apparent reason?

You don’t have to call someone a thug to recognize and try to correct bad or criminal behavior.

When my son does something wrong, I am quick to correct him, redirect him into better decisions and along a wiser path. I don’t have to call him a thug to do that.

Labels matter.

Related: Troops referred to Ferguson protesters as 'enemy forces', emails show

It won’t inspire anyone to rise about their wrongdoing or their environment. Calling the rioters thugs won’t convince them to make better decisions the next time, to not unwisely destroy their own communities. All it does it make it easier on the rest of us. The quicker we can call them a nasty name, we can wash our hands of them.

That’s not good enough. President Obama should know that.

And I’m say this one more time: How we talk about the upcoming Atlantic Beach Memorial Day Bikefest matters. We have a chance to handle it well - with an increased police presence, Friendship Teams and a traffic loop, among other things - and avoid making the national news like Ferguson and Baltimore.

Or we can fall in the trap Obama did yesterday and allow our disgust and dislike of certain people take us to a darker place.

Related: Why Obama should sideline Sharpton and head to where the white people are to deal with racial unrest

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