Recently, new details have emerged in the story of the Mike Brown – new details that I believe highlight an old problem.
In the case coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, the late Mike Brown had allegedly been caught in video footage robbing a store moments before his fatal encounter with a police officer in the streets. On the surface, this is certainly a setback for those championing Brown’s innocence and victimization. The photos and footage of him stealing and assaulting only tarnish the already shaky image of the “college boy” from Ferguson. Some call it “character assassination.” Some call it “thuggery.” I would call it an unfortunate, but nonetheless insignificant detail in the grander issue currently gripping Ferguson and the rest of the country.
For starters, when we unite in the streets and demand “Justice for Mike Brown” or “Justice for Trayvon Martin,” do not misunderstand us. There is, of course, a strand of specificity for the individual victim, but even if that strand may prove untenable (as it could in the Mike Brown case) it is still just one of many that are wound in a long, ugly rope coiling through America’s history. To us, this rope too closely resembles the noose. Primarily, it is this rope around our necks that we seek to reveal and remove.
Incidents like the one in Ferguson, especially their social and legal aftermath, become the battleground for acknowledgement of America’s ailment. The ailment is the devaluation of black life. We fight for this acknowledgement in media and in court because a legal victory is a symbolic social victory. Justice for one victim is a step closer to justice for all. Justice is not retribution; violent protest is never an ends in itself. Nor can the young lives be returned to us. Justice in our case is the formal acknowledgment of two things: that something was done wrong to result in the death, and that the devaluation of black life is indeed a widespread problem. Recognizing the ailment is the first step to remedying it.
Discrimination is a silent disease, one that often lurks unnoticed within us. Today, this discrimination and prejudice does not precipitate explicit hate crimes as it once did. Instead, today’s prejudice can results in tragedies like those of Mike Brown, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, and the dozens of others who have fallen to our society’s disease. We do not just simply protest in reaction to these individual outbreaks, but instead we protest for the recognition of a greater disease crippling our country.
Admittedly, we sometimes confound the individual cases with the larger social condition. Sometimes, as I suspect in this instance, we may hope in desperation that the innocence of a victim will surely, this time, cause America to collectively acknowledge the disease of devaluing black life. We feel inherently, though we may never be certain, that this is the disease that yet again lurks behind the death of another unarmed individual. It is apprehension of this same disease that ultimately leads black parents to warn black children about the dangers of armed authority.
In the case of the fallen teenager from Ferguson, he may not be the ideal martyr that we inwardly seek. However, this should not make his case any less tragic, or our cause any less pertinent. The details of an outbreak victim do not change the overall nature of the disease.
Mike Brown. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Rodney King. Oscar Grant.
Stealing. Fighting. Selling Cigarettes. Being publicly intoxicated. Resisting.
Whatever the incriminating actions, the wrongdoing, and however serious or petty they are – we are strong enough to acknowledge and accept them. If we ignore or excuse them, it reduces the holistic humanity of the individuals themselves to one dimension, in the same way as it would if we accepted their depictions as completely evil. We all are, in fact, imperfect humans. Why should we pretend to hold these victims to some higher standard?
I understand that for blacks, to be caught in a “bad” behavior, or to concede to it, is to be condemned. To be labeled as a thug nearly eradicates all chances of a fair or sympathetic hearing. Sadly, this is just another symptom of our ailment, a complex that convinces us that black people who have done something wrong have lost their entitlement to their life. The same mentality rarely holds true for whites, or those of other races. In their cases, the public is seldom so easily distracted from the tragedy at hand. Is being a “good kid” in the eyes of white America a requirement for our right to live?
In the subsequent media and legal battles, if we cannot admit that our fallen ones may have done something wrong, then those behind the trigger will never admit that they reacted in a subjective, discriminatory way. Between admitting that a young person was imperfect, and admitting to the use of unnecessary force because of racial prejudice, it should be clear that one of these concessions is much worse. But having neither side concede takes us nowhere.
It would be too perfect to assume all victims of police brutality were completely innocent. The average person on the street is not completely innocent. It would not be realistic to assume every instance of excessive force was unprovoked. But even if the incidents are provoked, we must further acknowledge the subsequent level of force taken by authoritative powers, those who we entrust with our protection. As Americans we cannot lose sight of this point, regardless of the distracting depictions of the individual.
The fact is simple. Very, very few kids, if any, deserve death. But I am dismayed to find that this simple ethical principle becomes obscured when race becomes a factor.
I voice my concerns now because the case of Mike Brown has begun to resemble in my mind the case of Trayvon Martin. Halfway through Martin’s investigation, authorities revealed his apparently aggressive behavior, violence in retaliation to George Zimmerman, and overall “thug” demeanor. What stood then still stands; my disgust and disbelief that the depiction of an individual, even through their actions, could distract enough away from the tragedy that is the murder of a young person.
As blacks, we cannot claim that all our people, all our kids, are 100% “good.” No culture can. But what we want is the acknowledgement that America’s public authorities have a problem of viewing us all in the same unwavering bad light. Yes, the details around Mike Brown’s alleged robbery, like the media that we see every day, highlight that there is undoubtedly much work to be done even from within black communities. We must work to fix this. But we must also come to terms with the pervasive issues surrounding the black community, confronting us from the outside. When we protest, let us not forget that we are seeking direct ways to address this issue, such as the implementation of higher, objective standards for positions of authority. We are not here to attempt to make our victims into saints.
I have come to see that in these incidents, we cannot expect perfect cases of innocence in our fallen brothers and sisters. But we shouldn’t need that. My question remains; can we not universally lament these deaths, and rather than require a higher standard from the victims, or pretense their perfection, do as Obama recommended in his comments last week and each begin to hold ourselves to a higher standard? Or will America continue to let the bodies pile as we wait for the ideal martyr?