From leaving Michael Brown’s body in the street for four hours on the afternoon of August 9th, to the November 24th late-evening announcement that the grand jury had not indicted Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death, authorities in Ferguson / St. Louis seemed to be writing the handbook on how not to ease tensions and cool the anger of a grieving community.
Since St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s badly timed, riot-inducing announcement, peaceful protests all around the country have grown, while many people have become more deeply entrenched in their preexisting biases regarding the case.
On one side, those who never trusted the authorities, and particularly McCulloch, to fairly handle the case, believe the grand jury was set up to fail, pointing to the unusual approach prosecutors took. Those on the other side who so readily clung to the early narrative of Brown as a doped-up “thug,” looking for a fight, have no trouble believing Wilson’s extraordinary testimony (which includes description of Brown as a demon-like superhuman, able to run through bullets).
As ever, there is a wide racial divide over what to make of Ferguson and over views of policing generally. Moreover, the murkiness of this case has led some, who may or may not be sympathetic to the broader issues it raises, to question building a movement around Michael Brown.
One must wonder, though, if pointing to a clearer case with a more clearly blameless victim would break through our racial and political polarization, or, rather, if that idea is often just another well-worn, victim-blaming dodge -- a distraction from seeing in full a broader pattern of excessive force and racial disparities.
And there is clearly a pattern. Darren Wilson’s wild, superhuman description of Michael Brown was not unique, but consistent with long-standing racial stereotypes. In fact, one recent study found that whites tend to have a "superhumanization bias" toward black people, often associating them with superhuman and magical abilities. Other studiesfind that whites overestimate the amount of crime committed by blacks and Latinos. And still another study found that people regularly view black children as “less innocent and less young.”
We have seen too many recent cases where one or more of these biases have tragically worked against black males in encounters with police. Take the recent case of TamirRice. Because of surveillance video, we now know that, instantly upon exiting his police vehicle, a Cleveland police officer shot and killed Rice - a 12 year old black boy - because the boy had an (admittedly realistic) air pellet gun. What’s more, the police officer assumed that Rice was 20 years old.
You would think if any case could produce a clear, united wake up call, the shooting death of a young boy, who was simply playing like young boys do, would do it. Yet, in some corners, all too familiar rationalizations and deflections abound, as does the tendency to more intensely question the young boy’s judgment and background than that of the adult police officer. Even Northeast Ohio Media Group thought it appropriate to quickly report on the “violent pasts” of Rice’s parents, in order to, as the VP of content, Chris Quinn, writes,“shed further light on why this 12 year old was waving a weapon around a public park.”
Or consider the case of Eric Garner. Wednesday, in a similar fashion to Ferguson, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict the officer who placed Eric Garner in a chokehold (a practice banned by the NYPD), resulting in Garner’s death, later ruled a homicide. Police had approached Garner, a 43 year old black man, for allegedly selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. Garner was unarmed, and in no way a threat to the officers who choked and smothered him while placing him under arrest. Yet, somehow the grand jury found no reason to indict, and the city’s police union places the blame squarely on Garner for resisting arrest.
And therein lies the problem with demands for a “better” victim. Certain victims, it seems, can never be perfect enough to avoid the easily modified template for judging the dead in order to shift any blame from the living and the powerful. “Why would you pick a fight with a cop?” is easily interchanged with, “Why would you play with a toy gun?”, “Why would you resist?” or, “why would you wear a hoodie?”, as if any of those things deserve death.
These cases show precisely what is at the heart of the protests branching out from Ferguson. The rallying cry “Black Lives Matter,” born in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s killing, anticipates and responds to the predictable demands that such black victims be perfect. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about deserving the equal chance to go on living just as any other imperfect human being.
Josh Cannon holds a history degree from UAB and is hoping to pursue a master's degree in Community / Urban Planning. He also blogs at http://joshuacannon.wordpress.com.