No Angels in Ferguson: Michael Brown and The Grey Lady

Occasions of great moral clarity in American life offer a myriad of possibilities: conversations that wouldn’t ordinarily occur, chances for political change not typically probable, voices heard that would otherwise remain silent. In the aftermath of an event like the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, these opportunities form a silver lining around what otherwise would be a wholly nihilistic tragedy.

But such occasions offer another possibility: the chance, as always, that The New York Times will try too hard to be “fair to both sides” and wind up embarrassing itself. In the usual course of events, stories have ten sides as often as they’ve got two, and all of us–in this brave new digital world–take some comfort in the fact that The New York Times is still reporting the facts on the ground that form the baseline of our discourse. But in cases like Ferguson–one of those rare stories which, at least in moral terms, has only one side — the reach toward objectivity ends up feeling more like a desperate grope.

That’s how you end up with pieces like John Eligon’s Times essay this Sunday, which characterizes the 18-year-old, murdered Brown as “no angel.” (Eligon has since told the Times’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, that he regrets the choice of words.) “He dabbled in drugs,” Eligon wrote of Brown. “He had taken to rapping in recent months.”

Taking special pains to complicate Brown’s character has been a common theme in the aftermath of the 18-year-old’s murder, especially amongst those committed to appearing “reasonable” by way of omnidirectional capitulation. The police are out of control, sure, but he wasn’t an innocent kid. He attacked the officer. He was threatening and possibly intoxicated. This isn’t surprising: it’s a common motif in the fallout of racialized shootings, an old dog whistle for reminding white readers that the victim wasn’t like their teenage children, to say without quite saying so explicitly that the victim was big, was black, was wearing baggy clothes, that he was the kind of “kid” who makes you cross the street at night. You know how they are. Do you really think he just minding his own business?

A cardinal rule of this trope is that it can never be phrased in explicitly racial terms. Indeed, part of its infuriating menace is that many of its users would earnestly protest that they don’t (consciously) believe in broad-brush racial stereotypes. It’s always about this particular case, this particular kid. It’s just about what Brown did, or Powell did, what Garner said or what Trayvon Martin was wearing. I’m just saying we don’t know everything. I’m just saying I get what the cop must have been thinking. Interesting how, when it comes to black victims, every incident is an over reaction, every case has mitigating circumstances that mean the shooter was acting rationally all along.

Typically, this line of rhetoric will meet pushback over the facts, and the conversation will then devolve into a cycle of cherry-picked points of objectivity and cross-examination. Well, what did the toxscreen say? What do the eyewitnesses say happened? How credible is the cop’s story? The questions one asks, and the answers they get, that any given interlocutor prefers– that is, which answers among the often-contradictory accounts they prefer to believe – are pre-determined by one’s politics, and stay that way. No minds are changed: the argument was never about the facts anyway.

In the aftermath of Mike Brown’s death, these arguments have been as predictable as ever, but the particulars of the fallout have given birth to another popular resistance to the “no angel” (read: thug) defense of Wilson’s actions. No matter the facts of the original case, the argument goes, police behavior since Brown’s shooting has become a scandal in itself, and one worthy of independent protest. This is a fair point, but inadequate. Under an especially cynical reading, the conclusion of this line of logic can be read as, “If you’re going to shoot black teens, at least try to be polite about it afterward.” But that isn’t the point.

There’s a third way to look at the assassination of Michael Brown’s character. Imagine that everything the skeptics think about Brown is true, and that the facts, as they happened conform to the fever dream typified by The Independent Journal Review, (This is a widely-read but never-cited right-wing “magazine,” and its articles are essentially glorified Facebook status updates from the conservative id.) Here’s their take, via “The Gateway Pundit”:

So [Wilson] goes in reverse back to [Brown and his friend]. Tries to get out of his car. They slam his door shut violently. I think he said Michael did. And, then he opened the car again. He tried to get out. He stands up.
And then Michael just bum-rushes him and shoves him back into his car. Punches him in the face and them Darren grabs for his gun. Michael grabbed for the gun. At one point he got the gun entirely turned against his hip. And he shoves it away. And the gun goes off.
Well, then Michael takes off and gets to be about 35 feet away. And, Darren’s first protocol is to pursue. So, he stands up and yells, “Freeze!” Michael and his friend turn around. And Michael taunts him… And then all the sudden he just started bumrushing him. He just started coming at him full speed. And, so he just started shooting.

That’s a pure distillation of the “thug” premise: that Michael Brown was a good-for-nothing hooligan who got high, choked out and robbed a convenience store clerk, and then tried, inexplicably, to murder a cop. Let’s say that’s what happened. Let’s say this particular shooting was completely justified.

Who cares?

The far more profound revelation is that nearly no one — especially the non-white Americans who endure mistreatment by police every day — assumed that that was what happened. Nobody figured the events that led to an unarmed black 18-year-old left dead in the street was anything but a cop acting with reckless malice — a cop at once made over-confident by official power and scared to death of a color and body and age he’s been told is criminal by definition.

Regardless of what happened between Wilson and Brown, the people who took the streets knew that Brown was only one of four unarmed black men killed in the prior month alone. That in St. Louis, blacks were eighteen times more likely to face marijuana possession arrests than whites. That from 2002 to 2011, New York police conducted 3.8 million stop-and-frisks, 90 percent of them on black and hispanic residents.

If the fever-dream being presented by Wilson’s supporters turned out to be true — if Michael Brown turned out to be a maniac who had it coming — is there a single activist who would say, Oh well, we were resting our entire case about the state of racialized policing in America on this single shooting. You say he was a gangbanger? I guess we’ll all go home then.

It isn’t quite clear why this shooting, one so many, was what that set off weeks of protests and clashes with police so voluble that they could capture the nearly undivided attention of the public. It was a spark, no doubt. But a flashpoint isn’t a lynch pin. Maybe they’ll manage to convict Michael Brown of his own murder. Maybe they won’t. But the impulse to do so isn’t just another dimension to the present racism: it’s irrelevant to the real case.

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Emmett Rensin is an essayist in Chicago, IL. His previous work has appeared in The Atlantic, New Republic, The Los Angeles Review of Books (where he is a contributing editor), and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @revemmettrensin