By Cord Jefferson
In the week since Michael Brown was killed by Darren Wilson, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri—shot six times while unarmed and, according to witnesses, with his hands raised high in the air—Brown has become different things to different people.
To some, the 18-year-old and his death serve as reminders of what a burden black men in America have become, or, perhaps, have always been. These people aren’t suggesting it was better for Brown to be killed, naturally—that would be the behavior of ghouls—but they do believe it’s important for the world to know that Brown sometimes recorded “gangster rap” songs, and that he was known to make “thug life” hand gestures. After all, how innocent could a boy who occasionally gives the middle finger in photographs actually be?
To the police, Brown was a suspect. After refusing throughout days of civil unrest to name the officer who shot Michael Brown, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said on Friday that Brown may have been involved in the theft of some cigars from a convenience store prior to being shot. Never mind that Officer Wilson had no idea that Brown was a robbery suspect when he stopped him and a friend for walking in the street. Never mind also that, when discussing Brown’s death, it seems unnecessary to even mention his alleged theft if Officer Wilson wasn’t responding to that crime. Nevertheless, asked why he released security-camera footage purportedly showing Brown stealing if it had no bearing on Brown’s death, Chief Jackson said, “because [the media] asked for it.” Of course, it’s surely not Chief Jackson’s fault that a nasty side-effect of the video’s release will be all the people wondering to themselves how innocent a boy who steals could actually be.
To others, like the thousands of people who took to streets around the country last week to protest the Ferguson tragedy, and to those still protesting amid tear gas and heavily armed riot police in Ferguson, Brown has become a symbol. As with the many similar cases preceding it, Brown’s killing represents the prejudiced recklessness blacks have come to expect from America’s police, the refusal of our national white power structure to admit that such a structure even exists, and the inability of white men with guns to look at black children without guns and see innocence.
At the heart of the protests for Michael Brown, if all the sadness and anger and frustration may be distilled down to one thing, there seems to be a demand that the police force responsible for Brown’s death acknowledge his basic humanity. Because that’s what he was before all of this—a human being. A young man who was loved and who loved in return. A young man who will be missed by his heartsick mother and father. Michael Brown is now different things to different people, but we should never forget that he was a person above all else. A person who was probably taught that one of our nation’s greatest virtues is the unwavering and “inalienable” right to life her citizens have just by nature of being human beings. And yet I’ve never seen that to be true. Michael Brown never saw that to be true. In his absence, it’s now our job to come back to the question that always haunts us in these moments: When will being a person be evidence enough that you deserve to stay alive in America?
Read Matter’s continuing coverage of the Michael Brown shooting: