The Knockout Game Has America Fearing 'Thugs' Once More

The specter of marauding urban gangs returns full force. Peter Dench/Getty Images

"Thug" is an immensely pleasing word to say. It has what linguist Ben Zimmer describes to Newsweek as a "blunt monosyllabic sound," which it shares with many of our most beloved four-letter imprecations: the f-word, the c-word. And it is wholly unambiguous in meaning. If, during my bygone days of teaching public school in Brooklyn, I asked a fellow pedagogue, "Hey, is it me, or has Frank been showing up to first period looking like a thug?" she would know exactly what I meant: puffy jacket, a pendant golden cross or dollar symbol, a flat-brimmed Cincinnati Reds or Colorado Rockies hat cocked to the side.

I don't use the word anymore, but I see it all the time. It's been appearing with especially high frequency in the discourse around the so-called Knockout Game, in which young men of color supposedly prowl the streets of American cities, hoping to fell unsuspecting pedestrians with a single blow of the closed fist. The extent to which anyone is actually playing this game is unclear – the clenched hand, after all, is probably the oldest weapon in humanity's arsenal. The New York Times, for one, notes that "the attacks in question might be nothing more than the sort of random assaults that have always occurred."

Yeah, maybe. But what fun is that? The city's tabloids have stoked more than their share of fear: "Knockout game thugs target Jews," said the front page of Sunday's New York Post, just a day after leading with "'Knockout' thugs slug B'klyn man." Meanwhile, the New York Daily News' (disclosure: I once worked for the paper) Mike Lupica – once famously derided by Times columnist Michael Powell as "a tough-guy typist" – penned a column in Monday's paper subtitled "Thugs' knockout pure terror."

The New York Post for November 24, 2013.

There is little doubt about who these thugs are, or are supposed to be. It has been nearly twenty years since a group of rappers headed by Tupac Shakur released Thug Life: Volume 1. Shakur, the Los Angeles rapper who would be gunned down in 1996, proudly sported a "Thug Life" tattoo, as does today the singer Rihanna across her knuckles. According to an analysis of the word by Lakshmi Gandhi of NPR, the word "thug" has been referenced in the lyrics or titles of close to 5,000 rap songs. The thug has thus become a postmodern urban phantasm, capable at once of selling records and frightening your children. He is safe inside your iPod, but take care that his corporeal iteration does not show up in your pristine corner of Pleasantville.

After the Florida vigilante George Zimmerman killed the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin about two years ago, there were suggestions that the shooting was justified because Martin was a "thug," this being less a function of something the youth had done than an essential quality of his person. A writer for the conservative website The New American opined, "he was a thug of a sort, a thug wannabe, if you will. At the very least, he was thuggish, even if he may not have been a full-blown thug." The eradication of this thuggishness was thus, in the writer's opinion, pretty damn close to a public service.

Similarly, the New York Post recently branded as "thugs" the Central Park Five, young men of color who'd been wrongly accused of raping a white woman in 1989. That they had not done it did not matter; their thuggishness has remained intact. Meanwhile, the conservative demagogue Michelle Malkin calls President Obama our "thug in chief," a popular refrain of the far right, which cannot forgive the President his skin tone.

Zimmer (who writes about language for The Wall Street Journal in a column called "Word on the Street") explains to Newsweek that "thug" has had "a decidedly negative connotation throughout its history in English." It was first used pejoratively in the 19th century to describe highway robbers in India who belonged to the Thuggee cult, thus insinuating itself slowly into the lexicon as a broad term for criminal behavior. And thugs have been "knocking out" innocent folks for some time: Zimmer points to a citation in the Oxford English Dictionary from an 1895 newspaper article about "election Thugs" "engag[ing] 'knockers-out', who...belabour and disable voters as they are entering the booths."

But while the word has always described a criminal, today it seems to describe a criminal of particular hue. That's why Adelle, a 17-year-old student from New Jersey passing through Lower Manhattan, says she will not brand people "thugs." She knows what the word signifies, describing a criminal in "dark, baggy clothes." But it is also "demeaning," she adds, needless robbing subjects of their dignity.

Danielle Belton, who writes for The Root and blogs as The Black Snob, agrees, comparing it to a tamer version of the n-word. "Thug has been used to dehumanize black men and boys," she tells Newsweek, lamenting that for some black children, "the thug label can come as early as kindergarten…And once you get that label, you're pretty much stuck with it."

As the word becomes increasingly fraught, some have tried to rescue it from ignominy, deploying the label for both social commentary and laughs. The popular web series Thug Notes, for example, has the unapologetically gangsta "Sparky Sweets, Ph.D." opining on classic literature, branding Moby-Dick a "big-ass book" and calling the titular hero of Beowulf "the baddest motherf--er in the whole world" and the monster Grendel a "l'il 'ol bitch." There is also the blog Thug Kitchen, whose recipe for Thanksgiving cranberry sauce opens with "Put down the f—ing can opener. Trust me on this sh-t."

The team behind Thug Notes told Newsweek, "For us, the term 'thug' refers to living a lifestyle in spite of what the larger powers of society want you to do. The themes of thug life are similar to the themes of many classic books we cover: they represent a rebellion against institutional conventions."

Yet fear exerts a powerful grip on the imagination. A recent post on Philadelphia Magazine's website shows a black man purportedly punching a white woman, suggesting that the Knockout Game had come to the City of Brotherly Love. Writes one commenter below the post, "NEGROES BEHAVE THIS WAY. THEY ARE SO DAMNED DUMB THEY STILL BLAME WHITE AMERICA FOR THEIR GHETTO LIFE." Many of his fellow readers agree with the assessment.

Kwai, 20, is from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where several incidents of the Knockout Game have supposedly taken place. He has sand-colored skin and a hoodie pulled low over gentle eyes; it is impossible not to think of what an older Trayvon might have looked like. Kwai says that anyone can be a thug, which for him is a person "looking to cause some trouble." But he does acknowledge that the word is often used to disparage African-Americans: "We get it more often." He has heard of the Knockout Game and finds the whole thing "so pathetic."

"It's starting to make me feel irky around my own race," Kwai complains. "That sucks."

I stopped using the word about two years ago. Maybe I should have stopped sooner; maybe there is no good reason to stop at all. I just know that it made me feel weird. Words are tools, deployed skilfully by some, crudely by others. Increasingly, I saw "thug" as a tool to bludgeon the dispossessed. That could just be my bleeding-heart sensibilities getting the best of me. Surely, there's a word for my kind, too.