The awful recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, have prompted endless commentary, evidence of how deeply they have tapped into something basic and foundational in American society. No one could do justice to it all, and I wouldn’t even presume to try.
One aspect, however, has been nagging at me: the practically gleeful response in some quarters to the video showing the shooting victim, Michael Brown, allegedly stealing some cigars from a store shortly before he was killed by a police officer.
One blog called it “A Likely Slam-Dunk In Favor Of Police” that proves Brown was a “gangsta thug.” Another saw it as reason for an indictment—not of the officer who fired the shots, but of Attorney General Eric Holder, simply because the “Justice Department asked the Ferguson Police Department not to release the video because of concerns that ‘it would roil the community further.’”
Bill O’Reilly used the video to hint that Brown may have deserved what he got: “When the story first broke we were told that the victim was just a regular guy, but now we see he wasn’t a regular guy.”
How is whether or not Brown was a “regular guy” relevant to the question of whether the police officer was justified in shooting him to death? We do not have one set of laws for “regular guys” and another for everyone else.
The only relevant information is what really happened on that street. If Brown in fact had his hands up and was shot to death, it does not matter what happened in the store. The penalty for shoplifting is not death. Similarly, if he attacked the officer and the officer fired in self-defense, it would not matter if there were no video from the store.
But that is not how cases involving race in America work. Suddenly, it matters what kind of guy the victim was.
African-Americans are well-acquainted with this dynamic. When Branch Rickey was looking for a player to break baseball’s color barrier, the man he chose had to be more than a great ballplayer—he had to be someone of exemplary character and self-discipline. A white man like Ty Cobb could get away with being a reprehensible human being as long as he could hit. Jackie Robinson had to be a great player and a great man.
When Montgomery’s civil rights leaders were looking for someone to challenge the city’s segregated bus system in 1955, they too looked for character. Most Americans know the story of Rosa Parks. Fewer know that she was not the first black woman to refuse to give up her seat.
Nine months before Parks, a 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin was also arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus. The head of the local NAACP, E. D. Nixon, had been looking for a case to challenge the segregated bus system. He met with Colvin and her family, but ultimately decided not to use Colvin’s case.
Why? Nixon decided Colvin was not the right lead character in this particular drama. As Taylor Branch says in Parting the Waters, she “had defended her right to the seat in language that brought words of disapproval from passengers of both races.” The local Women’s Political Council was concerned that Colvin “was immature—prone to breakdowns and outbursts of profanity. Worse, she was pregnant.” That combination made her, in Branch’s words, “an extremely vulnerable standard bearer.”
Instead, in December 1955, the middle-aged, respectable Parks repeated Colvin’s refusal to move. When warned she would be arrested, in direct contrast to Colvin she “spoke so softly” that the driver “would not have been unable to hear her above the drone of normal bus noise.” She was arrested, and the Montgomery bus boycott began.
The NAACP chose Parks as the face of the movement, and rejected Colvin. They knew that the person at the center of the storm would attract tremendous attention, and Parks was beyond reproach. They knew that it would be easier to make the argument for the injustice of segregation with the dignified, middle-aged Parks than with the headstrong, teen-aged Colvin. They were no doubt right.
As a matter of justice, however, it should not have mattered. If it was unjust to demand that Parks move, it was also unjust to demand that Colvin move. Colvin’s anger, age, and sexual behavior were irrelevant. The NAACP knew that they nonetheless would make a difference in public opinion. Colvin would be easy to caricature as “undeserving.” So they chose Parks.
But most of the time, events do not allow us to choose. The black community of Ferguson did not get to choose the event that would bring to the surface the town’s racial tensions and inequities. Michael Brown was shot dead in the street by a policeman, and in that moment, he became the symbol of the community’s grievances.
In the immediate aftermath of Brown’s death, accounts often noted that he was about to start college. That, too, ought not to matter. If he had no direction, no plans at all, who would say it was then acceptable to kill him?
One can nonetheless understand the desire to put that information out there. It is the same thing that led E. D. Nixon to choose Rosa Parks over Claudette Colvin: the knowledge that when it comes to race, it is easier to get justice in America if the victim is seen as “respectable.”
Holder’s Justice Department urged the local police not to release the tape from the store to the public, not because they were trying to “cover up” anything (that evidence of course would have been considered in any legal proceeding), but because of the negative effect it would have on the community, and Holder was right.
In racial matters where the facts are in dispute, we all too often use evidence of “character” as a substitute for facts. By releasing the video to the public, the local police were (whether intentionally or not) encouraging that predisposition, and feeding those who were itching to suggest that, regardless of what actually happened on the street, Michael Brown somehow “deserved” it because of his behavior in the store. By extension, the release of the tape indirectly suggested that the accumulated grievances that found expression in the public protests were not legitimate either.
I don’t know what happened on that street, or whether the officer was justified in firing his weapon. But I do know that the eagerness on the part of some people to embrace a narrative that suggests that Michael Brown somehow “deserved it,” before the facts are established, has a long and ugly history—and that fact may be far more significant and troubling than what happened that day in Ferguson.
Mark S. Byrnes
History News Network