Decoding "Curfews," "Thugs" and a "Good Night's Sleep": The Paternalistic Language of Ferguson

Please spare us the doublespeak. You don't mean "thug."
Publish date:
August 18, 2014
racism, police, language, Ferguson, code, thugs

For the last week, the world has watched Ferguson, Mo., set ablaze by racism and the calculated indifference of the town’s police force. And over the course of the same week, the media, which was slow to do any reporting at all, has now cannibalized a story about the murder of an unarmed teenager at the hands of a police officer, into one which villainizes the dead and dismisses the living.

Now dead for a little over a week, there is no shortage of ink devoted to understanding who Michael Brown was, despite the fact that he is dead and his killer remains free, alive, anonymous, and enjoying paid time off. To justify racist paranoia about the perceived threat of black life, blacks who die at the hands of white vigilantes and police, the reputation of the dead undergoes an active smear campaign, perpetuated and promoted by the media.

In the case of Brown, the character besmirching originated with the police department that killed him. During a press conference held to finally release the name of the officer who pulled the trigger, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson also released still photos of Brown allegedly taking part in a theft of a local convenience store. This theft, police first alleged, precipitated the meeting between Brown and his killer, though the owner of the convenience store says he never reported the incident to police.

Still, the damage had been done exactly as it had been intended. Just this morning the Los Angeles Times ran a story about Brown’s raps, “Money, sex, drugs — and a vulnerable side,” the headline reads. Each day, the media remains distracted and Brown has been portrayed as a violent offender who used his size to “intimidate.” A “criminal.” A “thug.” And for that, it is tacitly implied, that he deserved to die.

But Brown is not the only person to have his character and his person assassinated. As any journalism major will tell you, members of the press are often sent out into the field looking for tawdry details.

But the tawdry turns downright racist and layered in acceptably coded language in the cases of coverage of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.

“If it bleeds, it leads,” is the old saying in the industry. Splashy headlines and outrageous photographs are what sells papers and keep viewers tuned in. On-the-ground depictions of the scene in Ferguson vary immensely from news reports; as CNN and MSNBC report about “violent protests,” citizens of Ferguson post photos of clergywomen bruised from rubber bullets, small within range of heavily armed guards and sometimes teargassed, and citizens standing peacefully to prevent looting.

And let's look at that: the "looting."

That’s been a favorite angle among many in the cable news press corps. It is easy to depict black men with covered faces as potential threats in the subconscious of the racist American mind. But how many of these men have covered faces to protect themselves from the gas that clouds their city? How many of these supposed looters are actually part of the protest or even city residents? What small portion of the crowd do these people represent? Where are the rest of stories about the black men who have stood, tirelessly to protect the businesses in their community and said “No more”?

The language of Ferguson has been sensational and it has been condescending, particularly in the case of the state Gov. Jay Nixon. In a move that could only be described as paternalistic, he instituted a “curfew” for both the children and adult population of Ferguson, who’d gathered to exercise their constitutional rights.

“The best way for us to get peace is for everybody to help to make sure everyone gets home safe tonight and gets a good five hours sleep tonight,” Nixon told a crowd, as though he were tucking in a group of insolent children who demanded more snacks before bedtime.

“We don’t need sleep. We need justice!” a member of the crowd shouted back.

Justice. Urgency. And a better way to tell this story.