The Value of a Black Man’s Life Is Less Than the Price of a Big Mac: How America Failed Mike Brown and Ferguson

photo via AP/John Minchillo
photo via AP/John Minchillo

After two days of deliberation, a grand jury declined to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Mike Brown. The decision, which was announced at 9:30pm by St. Louis prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch, was perhaps most surprising for the simple fact that it wasn’t surprising; even though grand juries have a close to 100% indictment rate (out of “162,000 federal cases in 2010, grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them“), it seemed that the most people were expecting this precise result—that Darren Wilson would be allowed to walk away scot-free from killing a young man. Perhaps this conclusion felt foregone because Wilson is a police officer and thus not only is the law, but is also held above it. Perhaps this conclusion felt foregone because Mike Brown was black and poor, making him the most threatening person that exists in our society. Or perhaps this conclusion felt foregone simply because this is America and, when it comes to the death of a black man, our outrage tends to center around things like damage to property and potential civil unrest rather than the value of a man’s life.

Long before the grand jury’s decision was announced last night (and stop for a moment to think about who exactly benefited from that decision being released so late at night, rather than this morning), the focus of everyone from the media to politicians to police departments in Ferguson and beyond had shifted—if it had ever really rested there to begin with—from the death of Mike Brown to the possibility of whether or not there would be “riots” if Wilson was allowed to walk free. So first, some thoughts about the possibility of “riots” in Ferguson. In the more than three months since an unarmed teenager was shot twelve times, there have been protests and vigils held in Ferguson and the vast majority of them have been peaceful. When violence—including in the form of looting—was present, it was usually in direct response to police and military intervention, which involved the use of weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets. Even ignoring the fact that many people suspect that the majority of the violent protestors were agitators from outside Ferguson, it remains true that even though the protests have been primarily peaceful over the last 100+ days, there was still an assumption that after Wilson walked free, chaos and violence would ensue. “Riots” were what was being billed as the main attraction last night by everyone from CNN to Missouri Governor Jay Nixon (who declared a state of emergency last week in order to call in the National Guard) to Donald fucking Trump. So “riots” were what we were going to get, one way or another.

But why should the existence of riots be the dominating narrative? Why should Americans care if protestors in Ferguson are burning down the local McDonald’s because they are outraged at a system that condones the murder of unarmed young men? Why should we be scared of the “rioters” in Ferguson, but not be scared of those in New Hampshire or in Pennsylvania or in San Francisco? Why is every news outlet crowing about how St. Louis is “smoldering” or how the grand jury decision “sparks a night of violence” or how “Ferguson is burning” and how it’s a “fiery hotbed of violence” and how “fury boils over“? Why should access to McDonald’s and the ability to buy a Big Mac be more valuable than justice over the loss of a man’s life? Because this is America, and this is the narrative that we are fed from birth.

What the focus on the protests—which occurred all across the country, including in New York, and were overwhelmingly non-violent—reveals more clearly than anything else is what it is that most Americans really worry about protecting: money. Mike Brown can be shot and killed (as can Akai Gurley, as can Tamir Rice) and it doesn’t change anything about how our society continues to function, because the deaths and of these young men (Rice, at age 12, shot while playing with a toy gun, wasn’t even a man, but a boy) and subsequent lack of consequences for the police who shot them, are how our society has always functioned and are a part of maintaining the status quo. Kill Mike Brown—kill a hundred Mike Browns—and nothing will change in this country, rather the existing racist and socio-economically biased foundations will only be strengthened. But burn down some chain stores? Take to the streets and shut down traffic? Stage sit-ins and marches? Well now, that disrupts our economy and the ability for those with money to make more money and, you know, our potential for an easy commute. That is the sort of thing that must be stopped in America. And so that is the kind of thing that gets reported on in outraged tones and leads to a statement from our president asking for peaceful protests so as not to denigrate this nation which was “built on the rule of law.”

But laws for whom? Peace for whom? This nation’s laws are certainly not written to protect Mike Brown. This nation’s laws are written to protect Darren Wilson. This nation’s laws are written to protect McDonald’s. This nation and the majority of its people value comfort and maintaining the status quo over justice and over peace. In his testimony to the grand jury, Darren Wilson revealed that he doesn’t carry around a taser—a weapon whose presence and deployment at the time of the altercation with Brown would almost certainly mean that Brown would be alive today—because “it is not the most comfortable thing.” In other words, the value of another man’s life is so diminished that a police officer’s lack of comfort is far more valuable than keeping that man alive.

But it’s questionable whether or not Wilson even saw Mike Brown as a man: in his testimony he referred to Brown, saying, “it looks like a demon.” Not him—”it.” This is how Wilson saw Brown and this is how we are all supposed to see not only Brown, but also all the protestors in Ferguson. They are demons—complete with fire and rage—who are challenging our ability to live in a “peaceful” society, a “nation built on laws.” But this peaceful society is a myth. What peace can there be when the deaths of unarmed young men are automatically forgiven by the power structures that employ their killers? What do laws matter when they exist to protect those who don’t have to live by them? The protestors in Ferguson and all around this country aren’t dishonoring Mike Brown’s memory. It’s too late for that anyway. America already failed Mike Brown by dishonoring him in death, and in life, just like it failed Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride and Eric Garner and Akai Gurley and Tamir Rice and Dillon Taylor and so many others. And so it goes.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen