Two days ago, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death by the police in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was unarmed. Eyewitness accounts suggest that Brown and a friend were walking in the middle of the street, where they were confronted by Ferguson police officers in a patrol car, who told them to “get the fuck on the sidewalk.” Brown put his hands in the air to show he was unarmed, and was shot while running away. One witness says that Brown was shot, fell, put his arms up again, and was then shot two more times. The police dispute this account and claim that Brown and his companion attacked a police officer, in an effort to get his weapon. Following the ensuing struggle, the officer shot at the teens, fatally injuring Brown. The police have offered no explanation as to why two unarmed teenagers would randomly assault an armed cop, and they don’t seem to be in any hurry to think one up. The police do not dispute that Brown or his companion were unarmed, nor do they claim that the officer who killed Brown (this officer’s name has not been released, because in these types of cases, it’s the killer whose identity is protected, not the victim’s) thought that either of the two boys had weapons. And so it goes.
It seems like not a week goes by without news of an unarmed black American being killed by someone in a position of authority. In some cases, that authority is real and state-sanctioned, like in the cases of the police officers who killed Brown and Staten Island’s Eric Garner. In other cases, that authority is tacit, and is granted the murderer by virtue of the fact that the victim is black, as was the case with the killings of Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin. In all cases, it seems, what winds up happening is a rush by the media to try and understand what happened, by finding out what the victim might have done to deserve his or her fate. Because when the victim is black and the killing happens in America? There must have been some motivating factor involved, the media wants us to believe, something that drove the aggressor to pull the trigger or tighten the chokehold, something other than the color of the victim’s skin.
And so in the effort to blame the victims, we hear all about Eric Garner’s arrest record for crimes so minor as to be tolerated in other, wealthier (and whiter) parts of the city, like Ditmas Park. In the effort to blame the victim—even after the killer is found guilty of murder—we get AP headlines about the jury’s verdict in the Renisha McBride case which read: “Suburban Detroit homeowner convicted of second-degree murder for killing woman who showed up drunk on porch.” In the effort to blame the victim, we allow a narrative to be established in which a teenage boy walking home can be stalked and brutally murdered simply because he looked “menacing” in a hoodie. And, in the effort to blame the victim, the media uses a photo of victim Michael Brown (below) that is intended to imply that he is a menacing figure, instead of one of Brown in his high school graduation cap and gown, taken only a couple of months ago.
— NBC News (@NBCNews) August 10, 2014
In protest of the use of this photo of Brown, a twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown was started in order to show how rhetorical the question “If they gunned me down, which picture would they use?” really is. All the people contributing to this hashtag posted side-by-side photos, one more recognizably “respectable,” in which the subjects are smiling and not infrequently in a scholastic or military-related setting, while the other could be interpreted as being menacing or overly sexualized or antagonistic—basically in a manner that appears to undermine the way society likes its most powerless members to be: docile. The hashtag is worth a real perusal, demonstrating as it does how subject we all are to being reduced to only one aspect of our humanity, and how that reduction is determined based on what makes for a better story.
— Steve Marmel (@Marmel) August 10, 2014
Of course, using this photo of Brown is not the only instance of media distortion in this particular case. The AP also reported that crowds gathering in Ferguson to protest Brown’s murder were chanting “Kill the police.” Many eyewitnesses disputed this and said that the chant was instead, “No justice; no peace.” Peaceful protesters in Ferguson were matched by police officers with snarling German shepherds at the ready, leading to a scene which evoked the terrifying and violent encounters that civil rights advocates had with police some 50 years ago. And then last night, what had been a peaceful protest turned heated and reports of rioting and looting started coming in. This is tragic for countless reasons, but one of those reasons surely is that the boiled over frustrations that necessarily exist in a community in which young unarmed men can be murdered with no apparent cause are now going to be used to tie a neat little narrative bow in this story. How soon, after all, will it be before these protests are used as an example of why the members of this community can’t be trusted? How if the members of this community would just stay in line, then everything would be ok?
Missing in that line of questioning, though, is the reality that Michael Brown didn’t seem to be doing anything wrong other than walking down the middle of the street on his way to his grandmother’s house. Eric Garner wasn’t doing anything wrong other than having a history of minor infractions. Trayvon Martin wasn’t doing anything wrong other than wearing a hoodie. Renisha McBride wasn’t doing anything wrong other than looking for help after her car broke down. And yet they all paid with their lives while doing nothing wrong.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen