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On 'Menace II Society' And 'Easy Rider': Why All The Talk On Bikers And Thugs Matters

Sgt. Patrick Swanton of the Waco Police Department speaks to the media as Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper D.L. Wilson (left) stands nearby a Twin Peaks restaurant where nine members of a motorcycle gang were shot and killed in Waco, Texas on Tuesday.

In his New York Times column this week, Charles Blow discussed bikers and thugs in the aftermath of the Waco shootout on Sunday.

This week, many have been contrasting the tone the media have used to describe this incident with coverage of protests against police brutality in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.

"In Waco, the words used to describe the participants in a shootout so violent that a local police spokesman called the crime scene the bloodiest he had ever seen included 'biker clubs,' 'gangs' and 'outlaw motorcycle gangs,'" Blow writes.

In contrast, Blow points out, the press, as well as President Obama and the mayor of Baltimore, used the word "thug" to describe some of the protesters there.

He explains:

The words "outlaw" and "biker" while pejorative to some, still evoke a certain romanticism in the American ethos. They conjure an image of individualism, adventure and virility. There's an endless list of motorcycle gang movies. A search for "motorcycle romance" on Amazon yields thousands of options. Viagra, the erectile dysfunction drug, even has a motorcycle commercial.

While "thug life" has also been glamorized in movies, music and books, its scope is limited and racialized. It is applied to — and even adopted by — black men. And the evocation is more "Menace II Society" than "Easy Rider." The pejorative is unambiguous.

Moreover, he writes that in public discussions, the Waco criminals are generally portrayed as a group of bad seeds behaving violently. Aggressive protesters in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, on the other hand, are seen as part of a larger problem in black culture:

Does the violence in Waco say something universal about white culture or Hispanic culture? Even the question sounds ridiculous — and yet we don't hesitate to ask such questions around black violence, and to answer it, in the affirmative. And invariably, the single-mother, absent-father trope is dragged out.

Blow and The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates highlighted what the press was — and wasn't — saying about the Waco on Twitter earlier this week.

And here at Code Switch, we've discussed the significance of the various labels used to describe black protesters — and why some saw "uprisings" in Ferguson and Baltimore while others saw "riots."

This is more than semantics, Blow writes in his column:

We have to recognize what these disparities and the way we see and discuss events, particularly violent ones, are all about: an underlying fear of, distaste for, suspicion of the otherness of blackness that informs these beliefs.

But there is a way to push back against this subtle, coded form of hate, Blow writes. "We must see the brilliant light in our beautiful darkness and love the brown bodies that the world would just as well mark and discard — even the 'thugs.' "

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