When it was Trayvon Martin, I pitched a fit.
Michael Brown? Not so much.
It’s fair to ask why, and the answer is to simply look at what is going on in Ferguson, Missouri. The twenty-one thousand plus residents have seen their city torn to pieces, body and soul, as protesters and police battle over the murder of an unarmed black man by a city police officer whose record includes being fired as part of another small police department in Jennings, Missouri, that was disbanded by its city council for being so corrupt and generally awful. The town is in chaos; residents are intervening to slow the most vocal protesters, and are also reportedly attempting to prevent media from covering the events. Ferguson has become the latest incarnation of our nation’s sick heritage of deadly racism, emerged as a symbol of our dark slide toward militarized police, and found itself the butt of one of the worst jokes on the planet after a protester tweeted a comparison of the situation there to what is going on in Palestine, and instead of being indignant the Palestinians tweeted back with good-faith advice.
I first addressed the death of Trayvon Martin with friends on March 13, 2012, some weeks after the George Zimmerman stalked and pursued him for no good reason, shooting the seventeen year-old to death and then claiming self-defense. And when I first mentioned it, I did not expect what was coming. Certes, my gorge rose to learn the story, but like so many Americans the idea that an apparently murdered black man will die under the presumption that he needed to be shot just did not seem all that unusual. That is to say, like many I expected Trayvon Martin would become another forgotten lamb.
And, yes, I was wrong.
This time, the nation did not wait weeks. Before the name Michael Brown finished echoing after the first wave of press coverage the town was beseiged by chaos. Screaming and shouting from my evergreen corner of the country really doesn’t do me or anyone else any good.
And, yet, Justice still seems nearly destined for disappointing failure.
How do I loathe this moment in the American experience? Let me count the ways. No, really, setting aside the appalling fact of a death with every appearance of murder:
• President Obama faces scrutiny and criticism from allies for being too dispassionate, though none who make that argument at present seem willing to address the question of just what they think his passion will accomplish. After all, as Arit John reminds in his consideration of the fact that a question even exists whether or not race is an issue in Ferguson, simply saying what so many people of any skin color have said about something horrible that happened—”That could have been my kid”, or some similar formulation—conservatives threw a fit and instead of what happened to Trayvon Martin we all needed to take a time out consider whether such remarks show, as Todd Starnes of FOX News suggested, that President Obama “truly is trying to tear our country apart”. Someone please explain to me why, after all the concerns about crimes against children, it has suddenly become racist for a black person to say that could have been their kid.
• It is not that we must necessarily convict Darren Wilson as a murderer without trial, but there is something keenly askew about those who, like Greg Messmer, wish to lend their voices to a white police officer with a troubling history including being fired for corruption, who shot an unarmed black man to death. The spirit of Lester Cowens prowls Ferguson. Some who support the killer invoke rule of law, even though that was denied Michael Brown. They remind of innocence until proven guilty, even though that was denied Michael Brown. Indeed, the best thing that can be said about these people is that in wishing “Justice & Revenge” on behalf of Officer Wilson—justice for whom? revenge against what?—they demonstrate they are capable of discerning that the two concepts are, in fact, different. But this is a minor detail, comparatively. For folks like Greg Messmer, “Vicky”, and other wellwishers, rule of law and innocence until proven guilty are the privileged province of whites only.
• The degree to which we are expected to warp reality in order to accommodate police officers accused of crimes is generally mindbending enough, a statement made from a corner of our nation where the state government has decided that a police officer shooting a man to death, perjuring himself in the incident report, and getting caught manipulating the physical evidence at the crime scene to accord with his lie is behavior that must be specifically protected. Still, though, even the idea that Ian Birk has not been charged pales compared to the arguments we’re hearing now, in defense of Michael Brown’s killer. Joan Walsh of Salon offers up the latest challenge for the mental contortionists:
The weekend featured multiple protests supporting Darren Wilson, the missing Ferguson police officer who shot an unarmed Mike Brown on Aug. 9. His superiors apparently withheld Wilson’s name long enough for him to delete all social media accounts and skip town, but his supporters are declaring Wilson, not Brown, the victim here. A GoFundMe site raising funds for Wilson’s defense – though he’s not been charged with anything – garnered not only $250,000 in donations, but so many ugly racist rants GoFundMe administrators had to disable comments for the site. (They’ll have no trouble taking a cut of the racists’ money, of course.) Wilson’s supporters say they’ve raised $374,000 online and at local events, “to support his family,” one woman told MSNBC ….
…. Ferguson’s white grievance industry is getting major help from Fox News, the grievance industry’s biggest grifters. It’s funny, a couple of weeks ago Attorney General Eric Holder spent a few days as Fox’s favorite administration figure, with Bill O’Reilly and the crew at “The Five” piously instructing Ferguson protesters to trust the attorney general, who had taken over the inquiry into Mike Brown’s shooting. No more. On Friday’s “Five” Andrea Tantaros declared that Holder “runs that DOJ like the Black Panthers would,” while the whole team endorsed her claim that the attorney general is “race-baiting.”
Fox has peddled every allegation of wrongdoing by Mike Brown from the beginning of the story. On Fox and Friends Monday morning, Linda Chavez argued that the media should stop calling the teenager “unarmed” because “we’re talking about an 18-year-old man who is 6-foot-4 and weighs almost 300 pounds, who is videotaped just moments before the confrontation with a police officer strong-arming an employee and robbing a convenience store.” So Mike Brown can’t be considered unarmed because . . . he had arms?
• Would someone please think about the children? All I can say is that it is the creepiest thing in the world when an eleven year-old is asking about what is going on, a parent is trying to answer, and a grandparent is reminding sternly that the child doesn’t need to know about these things. Such is life. Such is culture. It ain’t that way in every family, but it’s common enough to see regularly. So a note to a close associate: Stop it—this is why it will happen again, and again, and again, and again.
• Perhaps more obscure is the state of the public discourse in general, but this is bothersome. American society seems to have reached a proverbial crossroads at which we can choose the arc of our future history. And while this is not a decision bound for eternity, the fact is that the mythical Beacon of Liberty, the pledge to “Liberty and Justice for all” is a generational proposition insofar as once we start, it’s going to take a couple of generations to fix the problems. But our societal discourse is such that we’re not anxious to start. To wit, when transforming an unequal state to equality, that equality represents a step up for the vast majority of people affected; still, though, a slender minority will see their privilege eroded, and complain about attacks against their rights. And throughout this process, a question that seems to somehow evade the American conscience is, “What is one’s ‘equal’ right to be superior?” That is to say, certes your ‘rights’ might seem to be diminishing, but if it’s a right you never should have had, say, the right to racial or religious supremacism, to be treated with greater regard and protection before the law than your neighbor, then you’re not actually losing a ‘right’—you are losing a privilege you should not have had in the first place.
And these issues will play out. What do we expect of the president? He’s damned for his dispassion if he doesn’t come crashing down, but simply showing the slightest hint of emotion is denounced as race-baiting, with the result that we must stop and argue that stupid point, and thus the real issue of how Michael Brown died would be sleighted. And just how do Officer Wilson’s supporters explain their appeals to “rule of law”, which was clearly absent in shooting an unarmed man six times. And “innocent until proven guilty”? We might wonder where that principle was for Michael Brown, but reasonably expect that Greg Messmer, “Vicky”, and all of Darren Wilson’s other supporters will skip out on the question. And, seriously, has anyone over at FOX News considered the gravity of their new standard? It’s the same thing with Stand Your Ground laws in those states where they are intended to open hunting season for white people looking to shoot black people. Because Mr. Brown was big and able bodied? Think about this: What would FOX News say if the story emerged tomorrow that a woman had stood her ground and shot a man point-blank simply for the crime of saying hello to her? All she has to say is that she has no obligation to wait for him to try to rape her, she was already afraid. And you know what? She would have a better claim than, say, some dude who decides to pick a fight with a black guy and then shoots him to death in self defense after dude realizes that he’s picked the wrong fight. But what would any of us say? Would the point that a white man can’t even schmooze and chat up a woman without being perceived as a threat be what finally tips society to the idea that we’ve gone too far? No, seriously. It’s always when it comes back to bite the privileged class that we decide we’ve gone too far, and we never really do go back to make amends for all the years we were going too far, anyway. Then again, those victims were women and dark-skinned minorities, and yeah, this is America, so that’s just the way things need to be. Apparently.
John, Arit. “People Who Don’t Think Race Matters In Ferguson Think Obama’s Remarks Are Racist”. The Wire. 18 August 2014.
Leonnig, Carol D., Kimberly Kindy, and Joel Achenbach. “Darren Wilson’s first job was on a troubled police force disbanded by authorities”. The Washington Post. 23 August, 2014.
Madrid, Ciena. “He’s Wrong”. The Stranger. 24 February 2011.
Walsh, Joan. “Fergusons booming white grievance industry: Fox News, Darren Wilson and friends”. Salon. 25 August 2014.