How Should a Person Die?: On Michael Brown, Ferguson, and the Dangerous Myth of Dying with Dignity


The euphemisms we use when talking about death are manifold, but so many have to do with warfare. We battle; we fight; we struggle; we conquer; until, ultimately, we surrender. And much like what we’re told should be the case with warfare, there is a certain code of conduct that ought to be observed when facing death and disease. We need to be brave; we need to have courage; we need to stay strong; we need to do what our superiors tell us is good for us; we need to suffer silently; we, ultimately, need to die with dignity. Struggle, desperation, panic, terror: these are all feelings that have no place in the death narrative anymore. 

But why is this the case? Why should we not rage against the dying of the light? And who exactly is being asked to go quietly into that good night? Because while, yes, there is lots of talk of battling death, and that kind of language seems to imply a fight, the type of fight referred to is a highly codified one, in which the person fighting is expected to remain calm and in control, to make it easy on those who aren’t struggling. To do otherwise—to run, to scream, to make a scene—would be to betray the unwritten rules that those in power have long since dictated, namely, that they’re not interested in seeing things get messy. They want clean deaths; they want an anodyne life. They want to whitewash the world, even in its darkest moments.

Right now, Ferguson, Missouri is being treated like it’s a war zone. And, of course, it is one. It is one because the residents are being treated as enemy combatants, despite the fact that much of the protests have been peaceful and non-violent, and almost exclusively so following the night of severe unrest on Sunday. And yet police shoot rubber bullets and wooden pellets and canisters of tear gas into crowds of people who are protesting not only the killing of Michael Brown, but also the systemic injustices they face every day. Beyond the actual protests, one of the ways that both residents of Ferguson and black Americans all across the country have been demonstrating their dismay and frustration with Brown’s murder is through the use of the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown which highlights the way the media portrays black victims as threats rather than as the threatened. The hashtag has led to many powerful photographic juxtapositions, through which it is heartbreaking to see how frequently African-Americans are reduced to stereotypes and mere fragments of their whole.

But because this is social media, some people have used #IfTheyGunnedMeDown for their own purposes, and one trolling post in particular (pictured below) really stands out. The white woman “lissypriss” pictured insists—as so many other racist, bigoted people have done—that black victims like Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or Renisha McBride deserve the way the media portrays them because they were the knowing subjects of photos that could be exploited. She writes, “When you don’t add fuel to the fire, you’re far less likely to wonder what negative photo they’ll dig up. Take down your club pics. Delete your weed smoking albums. Get up, do something, be productive, so if you get gunned down, you know you will go out with class and dignity.”



Beyond the despicable (though hardly singular or surprising) assertion that just by living life and taking photos with friends, a young man ought to be implicated in his own murder, the thing that strikes me most about this woman’s screed is that what she finds unacceptable isn’t the idea that an innocent person might get “gunned down” because of the color of his skin. Rather, what she finds so awful is that a murder victim might not die with dignity or class. In America today, those in power don’t just want the oppressed to remain powerless, they want them to stay quiet and well-behaved; those in power want the powerless to feel the boot on their necks and choke out the words thank you. Those in power want to excuse the death of Eric Garner, because if he hadn’t been selling loose cigarettes maybe the fatal chokehold never would have happened. They want to excuse the death of Trayvon Martin, because if he had been wearing a polo shirt instead of a hoodie, maybe he never would have been stalked and shot. But there are no excuses for these deaths. There is no way to ameliorate what was done without confronting the foundational problems in a society that leaves a young man’s body exposed in the Missouri sun for 4 hours after his murder, but won’t reveal the name of his shooter because of safety worries. There is no dignified response to a society like this; there can only be rage.

The truth is that most people in power don’t want to make room for Dylan Thomas’s rage in America today, instead they call for a sterile life, one in which colors are muted and pain is medicated and an 18-year-old black man is gunned down in the street, his body laying in the sun for hours, barely covered by a flimsy white sheet. Where is the dignity in that? There should be only rage. You can not cover what was done to Michael Brown with a flimsy white sheet; it’s time to take that sheet off and see what was done. See how ugly death is. See how it lacks dignity. Only then can we do something about it, so that the Michael Browns of this country don’t have to think about dying with dignity, but about living with it.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen


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