There are two equally odorous narratives that have emerged out of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Both work to trivialize Black suffering and cause unnecessary dissension within the Black community during moments of crises and in general. The first narrative is that Black people, particularly Black males, are inherently violent and this disposition warrants the use of force by police and eventually sparks violent outbreaks such as we witnessed in Ferguson after Brown’s death. The second narrative is that intra-group violence is unique to African-Americans and the pattern of deadly force that occurs in Black neighborhoods is culturally driven. This thinking encourages the patronizing sermonizing that we hear from the media and Black and white leaders alike on the need to curtail ‘black-on-black’ crime that is absent the context and life situations of many African-Americans.
This imagery works to discount the pain of the Black experience in America and causes wasteful and self-defeating divisions within the Black community. It also fits a historical pattern in America of creating conditions that are bound to provoke human outrage and then characterizing the outrage as genetically driven and beyond the bounds of reason. The slave was oppressed and reduced to property but was expected to be happy, and then when he revolted was characterized as a beast. During Jim Crow Blacks were humiliated and subjected to legally sanctioned violence but when they raised objection were then charged with being law breakers. In those eras, as today, much time is expended within the Black community over fault finding for conditions and reactions to oppression rather than attacking the root cause of the problem. We are not the enemy.
Michael Brown did not die because he robbed a convenience store. The college bound youth was not killed because the officer felt a serious threat from this unarmed teenager. Michael Brown was shot multiple times and killed by a police officer because he was the latest victim of institutional racism in America. And just as Brown was a victim, so were those folks who were rioting and looting. For as much as some want to brand them criminals, those looting resorted to the only means of expression they had left. It was clear the Ferguson police have been operating in rogue mode for some time and the political leadership of the city had endorsed its behavior. As crazy as it might appear to those outside Ferguson, the only recourse many in the community believed they had at that moment was the violent act of destroying property. Yes, in their own community but they were isolated at that moment as they have been on a daily basis. Rebellion is often a rational response to oppression.
What disturbs me are newspaper articles and television news programming in which great pains are taken to cast doubt on the character of Michael Brown and to focus on the few days of violent outbreaks in the aftermath of his killing. There is an effort to create an ‘equivalent’ to the violence of the police officer Darren Wilson who took Brown’s life as if to suggest the officer might have been justified in using deadly force. The media, with a few exceptions, has also been shameful in the laziness it has exhibited in its reporting, focusing on ‘riots’ absent the context of Black life in Ferguson.
Equally troubling is the sense that some in the media feel obligated to raise the issue of ‘black on black’ crime in reporting on the killing of Michael Brown. Intra-group violence is being used as a red herring to evade the more critical analysis of policing in our nation. I have read far too many online posts that suggest Black people should be as concerned with violence within our community as we are with police shootings of young Black men. It’s an insulting suggestion given how many communities across the nation have been vocal on the issue of Black violence and how many programs and marches have been held focused on that issue. Yet, as if to gain permission to address police violence, many feel it necessary to talk about violence between African-Americans. In his forceful eulogy of Michael Brown on Monday, Rev. Sharpton also took this approach and condemned ‘black on black’ violence. No one lectured the white community on intra-group violence after the Columbine and Newtown massacres, or suggested that those acts of violence take a back seat until ‘white on white’ crime is addressed. The fact is that most people are murdered by someone known to the victim, and that someone more often than not looks like the victim. Black on black crime did not kill Michael Brown or place fear in the heart of Officer Wilson when he encountered the young man. Institutional racism was the force that compelled the shooting of the unarmed Brown.
We must be forcefully and painfully truthful about the killing of Black men by police. At the same time we must keep the focus on policing and not allow the distraction of our outrage or intra-group conflict be used to justify police brutality. On that point Rev. Sharpton got it right in the pulpit on Monday. It’s time to address policing in America.