Derrick Rollins is a thug.
It says so right in the transcripts from Delaware County Judge John P. Capuzzi Sr.’s courtroom.
Last Friday, when Capuzzi sentenced Rollins to life in prison for the murder of 29-year-old Temple and Lower Merion grad John Le, the judge told Rollins that he was “a liar, a manipulator, a thug, a scumbag.”
Crime victims might respond: Well, yeah. But we really need to ask: How is that an OK thing to say?
To be sure, a convicted murderer deserves the punishment coming to him. But a duly elected Common Pleas Court judge just called an African American man in his courtroom the socially acceptable equivalent of the N-word.
Thug has a checkered history from its origins as a 19th-century Hindi word for thief to its present-day status as a racist dog whistle. But it’s always held a patina of otherness.
An early English mention in an 1863 New York Times article about the “Carbon Thugs” rioting in Pennsylvania coal country referred to “these ruffians” as “ignorant, brutal, and in the majority of instances animal in appearance and instinct.”
Fast-forward a century to the 1959 film The Stranglers of Bombay, about the murderous nature of the Indian “Thuggees,” whose provocative poster includes a man in a turban attacking a buxom young woman underneath the words MURDER CULT TERROR IN EXOTIC ASIA.
George W. Bush used the word to describe Middle Eastern terrorists, while Rush Limbaugh used it to describe President Barack Obama. At a 2016 North Carolina campaign rally, a black Trump supporter waved in the air a note that he wanted to get to his favored candidate. Donald Trump, however, assumed the man was a protester and said, “Were you paid $1,500 to be a thug?” He had security escort the man out of the rally.
Labeling people as thugs is rarely about just their actions; it’s about painting them as savage, animalistic, unable to be tamed — and therefore subject to retributive violence. Violence that can be excused in a court of law or public opinion.
Like the N-word, thug was reappropriated in the late 20th century. Just a few years after the L.A. supergroup N.W.A took the reappropriated N-word mainstream, Tupac Shakur broke out with THUG LIFE tattooed across his chest. “White folks see us as thugs,” Shakur said in one notable speech. “I don’t care if you think you’re a lawyer, if you’re a man, if you’re an African American, if you’re whatever the f--- you think you are. We’re thugs and n-----s to these motherf-----s.”
After Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, many — including Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, both African American — used the word thug to describe the protesters wreaking havoc across the city. But as Columbia English professor and language deity John McWhorter noted on NPR, thug carries different meanings depending on who says it. Like with the N-word, the races of both the speaker and the subject are important.
Derrick Rollins is a convicted murderer and will spend the rest of his life in jail. But just as if the judge had used the N-word to describe Rollins, calling him a thug serves only to cast doubt on the motivations and heart of the court. That undermines the justice that’s been done, which is the ultimate disservice to the victims.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. That’s every other week, not twice a week, friends. Send comments, questions and phrasal verbs to firstname.lastname@example.org.