Growing Up Thug

By: Joseph Phelan

When I was in high school, I wore combat boots with white laces, cuffed jeans, a studded belt, a ripped t-shirt, and I dyed my hair green. After the last bell and before my job stocking shelves, I hung out with a small crew of skinheads from another school. They considered themselves anti-racist; half of them were Jewish.

The sub-cultural scene I was a part of was generally associated with criminality and anti-social behavior. And we were anti-social, kind of. We were working class suburban kids who listened to aggressive music, whose style was inherently confrontational, and who definitely scared people on the streets, not just for our looks but also how we behaved.

One day we were hanging out in a parking lot and one of our friends rolled up in his car blaring punk music. We started slam dancing and circle pitting in the middle of the lot, blocking cars from pulling in and out. We jumped on the hood and roof singing along. 

An auxiliary police officer appeared, got in my face and told us to leave. I puffed out my chest, looked into his eyes and said, “No.” He said, “Get out of here now.” I looked back at my skinhead friends forming up behind me and said, “Make us.” The auxiliary cop left. We laughed about it as we walked away and dispersed in case he called the real cops.

It was pretty badass for a teenage punk to confront such an authority figure and stand your ground, and not get bashed back down. It was butch, it was tough, it was punk and let’s be clear, it was thuggish.

I was a punk and I generally acted like one. There weren’t any serious ramifications for my behavior, or even my association with a violent crowd. At the time I wondered when the shoe would drop, but it never did.

Michael Dunn murdered Jordan Davis in a parking lot in Tallahassee, Florida. Shortly before firing 10 rounds from his 9mm into an SUV filled with young Black men, he told his girlfriend, “I hate that thug music,” referring to the music coming from the SUV. 

In Michael Dunn’s mind, the kids in the SUV were thugs because they were young Black men. This was reason enough for Dunn to kill Jordan Davis.

The attribution of the term “thug,” and all of the associated images and assumptions, to young Black men is not the prerogative of Michal Dunn alone. 

In January, when Seattle Seahawk Richard Sherman heatedly bragged, on camera, about being the best cornerback in the NFL (he is), the White Twitterverse fell over itself throwing out old school racial epithets. It is easy to shake those tweets off as the work of some ignorant White people, but they are the canary in the coal mine of racial bias that runs through our society. 

Sports website Deadspin reported on January 21, 2014 (the day after Richard Sherman asserted his greatness):

[Thug] means a black guy who makes white folks a little more uncomfortable than they prefer. On Sunday night, Richard Sherman made a lot of people uncomfortable. Then on Monday, people said thug on TV more often than on any other day in the past three years [625 times].

The use of the word “thug” was clearly not limited to the overt racists on Twitter. Rather, it spread through the media and spoke of the racial bias held by individuals and institutions.

Michael Dunn did not see Jordan Davis as a “thug” in the sense of the word that could be used to describe me when I was growing up. Michael Davis saw Jordan Davis as “thug” in the sense of the word that people used to describe Richard Sherman, and countless Black men across this country. Michael Davis saw Jordan Davis as an “n-word,” and that’s why he killed him. 

And the law let him get away with it. 

Dunn was convicted of attempted murder, presumably on the young men he didn’t kill, but the jurors could not agree if he was guilty of murdering Jordan Davis under the Stand Your Ground Law, or as I think it should be called the “#LynchingLaw.” 

On its surface Stand Your Ground sounds pretty great. If someone messes with me, I can stand my ground, not back down, and defend myself. It is real schoolyard ethics brought into law. 

Sounds awesome to me, someone who was bullied a lot as a teenage punk. 

But what the catchy name doesn’t tell you is it is a license to lynch, as the Michael Dunn case show us. 

Michael Dunn, a middle aged White man, has a problem with teenage Black boys. He finds an excuse to confront them; their “thug” music is too loud in the parking lot in their car. Knowing he has a handgun in arm’s reach, he starts a confrontation with the boys. When he feels like there is a threat of imminent bodily harm, he has a right, under the “Lynching Law,” to use his gun to kill the person he fears will hurt him. 

We all act on our racial bias everyday. Most of us do not kill young Black men sitting in a car listening to music. But we do have immediate reactions based on race and racial perceptions, and we should do our best to interrupt it (a great example of this is the #DangerousBlackKids meme does).  And just as we aim to interrupt our own racial bias, we should aim to interrupt the racial bias in our justice system. 

Michael Dunn’s racist killing of Jordan Davis was legal because of the “Lynching Law.” The common excuse for lynching was that a Black man had made unwanted advances on a White woman. Under today’s “Lynching Law,” all a White person has to do is start a fight with a random Black person and then pull a gun when they feel threatened. 

Rinku Sen, director of Race Forward and publisher of Colorlines, said on the Melissa Harris Perry Show on Sunday, “Fighting Stand Your Ground laws – it’s the anti-lynching movement of our time." 

I, a former thug and always a punk, agree with her. It is time to repeal the “Lynching Laws,” it is time to be better than our history. 

Joseph Phelan is a communications strategist and activist. He started WeAreNotTrayvonMartin.com after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin.

The ideas expressed on the Haas Institute blog are not necessarily those of UC Berkeley or the Division of Equity & Inclusion, where the Haas Institute website is hosted. They are not official and not of one mind. Thoughts here are those of individual authors. We are committed to academic freedom, free speech and civil liberties.