A Brief History of People the New York Times Has Called “No Angel”

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Yesterday, the New York Times published a profile of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old killed by police officer Darren Wilson just over two weeks ago. The article, which ran in tandem with a profile of Wilson, attempts to give a more nuanced picture of a young man whose life was so needlessly, brutally ended. The article does not do this. Rather, it serves no narrative other than that which seeks to find Brown complicit in his own murder. John Eligon, who wrote the piece, pointed to everything from Brown’s interest in rap to the fact that he colored on the wall as a child to demonstrate that he was a young man who had “problems.” 

But perhaps most notable is the fact that Eligon sums up Brown as being “no angel,” a designation that serves to do nothing more than cast a shadow over the character of a young man who was shot six times, whose body was left in the street for hours in the midday sun. Why would Eligon do this? What purpose does it serve other than to ameliorate the murderous actions of a police officer? Well, none. Not really. Oh, it also manages to bolster a racist, classist social structure, through which people like Mike Brown are found guilty of their own murders, and the more powerful members of society can pat themselves on the back for not participating in such demonic behavior as sometimes thinking that their parents just don’t understand them (another “problematic” behavior  of which Eligon accused Brown).

Seeing Brown accused of being “no angel” had me wondering who else the Times has designated with said term, and if all these non-angels were victims like Brown, or had, you know, actually done something to warrant such an offensive, simplistic description. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a quick survey of Times-approved non-angels reveals that the term’s employment is used regardless of the race of the subject, but that it is only used for white people when they are guilty of the most offensive crimes against humanity—even once, literally, a Nazi. Whereas black non-angels includes a celebrated actor and civil rights activist.

Herewith some white non-angels:

Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the two teens responsible for the Columbine High School massacre: “Eric’s parents knew their son was no angel — he broke into a van, he was found making pipe bombs and setting them off for fun — and they took steps to address this.

Nazi Wehrmacht Field Marshall Erwin Rommel: “Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, no angel, but an eventual enemy of Hitler whom the Führer allowed to kill himself with a poison capsule.”

Al Capone, gangster: “Al Capone of Garfield Place was no angel.”

Donald Manuel Paradis, gang leader: “Don Paradis was no angel. He was a leader of the Gypsy Jokers motorcycle gang back in 1980 and he allowed any number of nefarious types to have the run of his home in Spokane.

And then two black non-angels, about as different from one another as can be:

Clayton Lockett, murderer and rapist: “To be sure, Lockett was no angel. He was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting a young woman, Stephanie Neiman, and watching as accomplices buried her alive.

Paul Robeson, college valedictorian, actor, cicil rights activist: “Despite all his accomplishments, fame (at times, he was the best-known black man in the world) and courage, Robeson was no angel: He had affairs, while playing Othello, with at least two of his Desdemonas; his integrity could become stubbornness; and he refused to criticize Stalin publicly despite awareness of his crimes.

And, again, perhaps it isn’t surprising that this is how the paper of record describes a crime victim, but it should be. It should be shocking. A lot of people will excuse this by saying that the Times is attempting to be “fair and balanced.” But there was nothing “fair and balanced” about Wilson’s actions that day. Wilson shot Brown for reasons that have nothing to do with objectivity and everything to do with our biased society and the free reign that police have in subjugating an already oppressed community. None of us are angels, but mythical creatures aren’t really the point of the Michael Brown shooting, now, are they? Rather, the point is one that is all too human and about the weaknesses and injustices that permeate our society, which lead to the dissection and dismissal of a young man’s character after he’s been murdered. 

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen