This is what happened.
I was minding my own business, surfing the web for a little… stimulation (clears throat) when I ran across this word “thugocracy.” “Sexy,” I thought. Does that word have anything to do with ghetto fabulous? Is this a new fashion trend? Maybe shell-head Adias are back in style with a new hard “thug” look! Humm…I read on. To my surprise and disappointment—I really was looking forward to some fresh hood-Hip-Hop urbanista tips and hook-ups—this dude from Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy, is talking smack about African, Arab, and Islamic youth being upset and trying to burn parts of France to the floor boards after two teenage boys died (Moushin S., 15, and Larami S., 16) because their, “motorcycle collided with a police vehicle.” What!@&^%$#@! First off—how do you collide with a police vehicle? The reports make it sound like these two victims brought their deaths own themselves by colliding into a (God help us) police vehicle. This reminds me of the “Cell Block Tango” line in the film musical Chicago, when the Black chick explains how her man got dead: “He ran into my knife. He ran into my knife 9 times.” Or was it 11? The point is, he had it coming.
Our boy Nick Sarkozy’s use of the “thug” word implies that (deep breath—speaks in a rush) disenfranchised France-born unemployed, census-ly invisible, citizens of color who live in the ghettos, who have been historically marginalized, systematically discriminated against, and face daily forms of institutionalized racism—which they can not address directly because the French don’t do “race”—throws twin fingers in the air and cries Tupac’s anthem of thug life as a scapegoat for the conditions that would even create the space for the death of young black and brown boys at the hands of the police in the first place. Whoosh. Long sentence. I know. (He had it coming!) And, I am not even including the other two teenagers of color, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré who “got dead” just two years prior in France, running from police kicking of a three month riot; that too was characterized by Nick as the work of racialle (the French word for thug, scum, low.) Thug life and black boys dying. Fire and flames—not race—…
Do you remember Gavin Cato? He was the 7 year-old Guyanese Black boy killed when a car driven by Yosef Lifsh, a Hasidic Jewish man, hit him on the sidewalk. Playwright and solo performing artist Anna Deavere Smith created a one-woman show, Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities, about this incident based on the real-life testimonies of people of various racial, gender, and socioeconomic backgrounds who were involved in some way. Gavin’s death and the events immediately thereafter served as the power keg for already existing tensions brewing between Blacks and Jews in Crown Heights Brooklyn, New York in 1991. The burning, looting, and mayhem (Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old University of Melbourne student, was attacked by a group of black male youth and later died) lasted for 3 days. Just like France 2007. Nick called it thugocracy; Jewish historians called it anti-Semitism. I think about the words. It seems like in both instances, the conditions that precipitated the events that had impact, fall-out, consequence, and repercussions are mute points. If we listen to Nicky, in France poor people of color’s bad attitude and inferior character are the source of the three-day riot not natal alienation, political powerlessness, and suppressed resentment. It matters little that a little Black boy was killed by a Jewish man; what get’s recorded and circulated is the anger and ugliness that painted Crown Heights vile after the child did not get ambulance service before the Jewish driver was whisked away to safety. That simple delay costs Gavin’s life.
Another precious Black boy dies.
A city burns.
Yes, Black people rioted in both France and Crown Heights. But so did the French against the English. And the United States against England. And Africans against Apartheid. And the Israelites against the Egyptians. My point is this: people lash out when they are hurt. When people are hurt they seek to hurt, to extract justice, vengeance, solace to ease the pain. To right a wrong. Call it thugocracy if you need to Nicky baby; I call it being human. And so did Anna. Fires in the Mirrors is all about language, the words; it is about who gets the mic to tell the story. Anna masterfully embodied multiple prospective, multiple bodies, multiple languages to get at the heart of what matters: life. Anna advocates life, not blaming and scape-goating on other people’s pain. People blame people all the time for everything from coffee to war—Nicky blamed the “thug” ness of the youth’s acting out in France; historians blamed Blacks for anti-Semitism in Crown Heights. Black boys get painted as thugs; French and Jewish folk get painted as victims.
(Sigh, exhale, shakes it off)
(Light, with just a little bit of edge)
On the flip side, I am beginning to wonder who is really the thug here. A thug is essentially a bully. Someone who throws his/her weight around to get what he/she wants at the cost of others. In that case, all we have to do is get Nicky some hood-rat gear, have him wear his jeans real low, toss on a hoody, baseball cap turned to the back or a bandana, add a gold grill and put a bling pimp goblet funded by the tax-payers’ dollars in his hand. Then when he talks about thugocracy or racialle, his words will have street cred.