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Words Matter! Are They Thugs, Criminals, Rioters or Protesters?

Part 1: Our Humanity and Purpose in Life

This past week has highlighted the United States’ population engagement in life and man’s humanity to man, or the lack there of. Every person on this planet has a purpose in life whether they are conscious of it or not. At best, people know and live from their life

purpose. Otherwise, people are left floundering with the circumstances they find themselves in.

Our Words Make a Difference

Let’s be a little more precise and not so sensational or judgmental in the language we use and be culturally sensitive so that we don’t cast others in a negative light. These questions were raised as a result of the situation and rioting in Baltimore.

“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world,”~ the late comedian Robin Williams

Is it possible for us to look at each other as part of a bouquet in Nature - to see the beauty in each and every flower that is part of that gift?

Recently on CNN and Fox, they were having semantic debates of the use of the word “thug” and whether it was a replacement for the “n” word. They also discussed related words like “rioter”, “protestor” or “criminal,” and wanted to label the people of Baltimore, but never gave a definition for any of them, so let’s start the discussion there…

We can be honoring and informative if we are not lazy with our language and speech. Here are some standard definitions for words that are being used in the media today according to

The word “criminal” is defined as:

 a person who breaks the law

 a person guilty or convicted of a crime.

 A person who commits crimes for a living

 Some related words include: bad actor, culprit, trespasser, wrongdoer, felon, lawbreaker and offender

The word “thug” means:

 A cruel or vicious ruffian, robber, or murderer.

 A tough and violent person, esp. a criminal.

 Its origins are Hindi and mean “thief, scoundrel, to conceal”.

 Synonyms related to a person who commits criminal acts are:

bully, criminal, gangster, goon, mobster, murderer, punk, ruffian, troublemakers, delinquent, gang member to name a few.

The word “protestor” means:

 An expression or declaration of objection, disapproval or dissent, often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent or avoid

The word “rioter” is described as:

 A noisy, violent public disorder caused by a group or crowd of persons, i.e. a crowd protesting against another group or government policy

 A disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons acting together in a disrupting and tumultuous manner in carrying out their private purposes

Another word we heard a lot of regarding community members is “activist” which means:

 A vigorous advocate of a cause, especially a political cause

Media Language Should Properly Convey Events

It seems from this simplistic look at what has been going on in America lately in Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities around the country that there is a ramping up of people’s behaviors and actions depending on what happened. People start out with idealism and want to make a difference, to have their lives and actions matter, but when that is thwarted and they feel unheard their voices get louder and then comes the tipping point towards violence that always gets the media’s attention.


Like to get the community involved, bring the “stakeholders” together in positive ways to seek constructive solutions to the ills of their lives.

Community action networks and churches with people of all ages involved can make a difference in the quality of everyone’s lives.


First, people start out as protestors – unhappy with how something has been handled so the make their objections known publicly.


When people become violent, they turn into rioters who loot businesses, homes, etc. for their own personal gain. We certainly saw that with the vandalism and fires in most recently Baltimore.


These some of the rioters due to their acts became criminals because the broke the law in trashing other people’s property. They may or may not be thugs – vicious people who harm others intentionally.

Honoring People - Not Defaming Them

In answer to the media coverage on CNN, Fox and other mainstream media outlets the correct way to discuss the unfolding events should be done in the manner that I outlined above.

  • People have a right to protest and voice their displeasure publicly.

  • People who move from protesting to rioting and things turn violent, then different actions are required like the calling in of the National Guard.

  • When the few rioters engage in unlawful activities with the looting, they become criminals, which are addressed by the legal system.

  • The word thug it seems relates to a more hardened, vicious troublemaker who consistently has involvement with the law, which is NOT the case with the majority of protestors in Baltimore or any of the other large cities where protestors have publicly demonstrated. Interestingly enough, the “thug/ gangsta” look is hip, but that does not make a criminal. True thugs are criminals regardless of their race…

Therefore, the appropriate reference to the majority of people who demonstrate and protest is a protestor, and the word thug should be reserved for the select few, not a general term that specifically relates to people who intentionally harm people or property.

The Healing Power of Words

Hopefully, this will help newscasters and people move beyond judgmental references to people who were exercising their right of free speech. It would seem that the majority of coverage should be using the term protestor and only when speaking about specific people and their actions would you use the inflammatory term thug.

The healing process starts when we can respect each other and listen to the divergent opinions without labeling others negatively. Every life matters and how we interact with each other impacts the quality of life we have for better or worse.

“Good done anywhere is good done everywhere. For a change, start by speaking to people rather than walking by them like they’re stones that don’t matter. As long as you’re breathing, it’s never too late to do some good,”~ the late Maya Angelou

Imagine yourself being on the other side of any situation and look at how you would handle things if you were in the other person’s shoes. Empathy begins when we can understand each other and find common ground.

Remember, each person is doing the best they can with what they have to work with. Every person is trying to express their purpose through whatever means they have available to them and sometimes that is not pretty because they haven’t figured out more constructive options.

*This is the first in a multi-part series on “Our Humanity & Purpose in Life.”

**Pictures used in this blog post come from Google images and are for examples of behavior and action that define the words. This post does not speak to the guilt or innocence of the people pictured in these images.

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