As the days roll on and the details slowly emerge in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by on-duty police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, it is important that we don’t lose sight of the issue at the root of recent events.
Let’s start with a couple of facts: Michael Brown, 18, was unarmed when he was shot and killed by Wilson, and Brown was shot six times in total — including a fatal shot to the top of his head. The remaining information surrounding the events of Aug. 9 are significantly less clear.
Some of the witnesses say Brown was shot after a verbal altercation with his hands up in a sign of surrender, while others say he was shot after attacking the officer and reaching for his gun. Brown purportedly shoved the officer back in his patrol car after the officer got out to insist he and a friend get out of the street. Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, 22, said the officer pulled his car so close to them and opened the door so aggressively that it rebounded off them and knocked the officer back into his car.
The media covered the situation as Ferguson began to look more like a war zone in the developing world than a suburb in the American heartland. To some, the kneejerk reaction to protest might seem strange. For the record, it is now fairly well-established that the protests organized by Ferguson residents during the day are largely peaceful, while arrest records show that the riots and looting that are happening at night are sometimes instigated by people from outside the Ferguson-St. Louis area, some from places as far as New York and California.
The coverage of the violent clashes between police and protesters has slightly overshadowed an important conversation about race and police brutality in America. When the police department released surveillance footage that allegedly shows Michael Brown stealing cigars from a convenience store not long before his death, the department was highly and rightly criticized for releasing it, and the decision to do so was described as character assassination.
When it was later made clear that Wilson was not aware of the theft before he stopped the young men, it became clear that this unsolicited and unrelated information was an effort to paint a picture. Every aspect of the coverage of this story has painted a picture, and so far that picture has been a stereotype.
It was only after the social media collective colloquially dubbed “Black Twitter” called media outlets on their portrayal of Brown that anyone addressed the use of suggestive photographs pulled from social media sites to paint images of young black men as thugs, regardless of the reality of their lives. The use of images that include obscure hand gestures — meant to elude to gang connections whether real or not — neglects the equally accessible images of black high school and college graduates, volunteers and military servicemen.
You might be inclined to ask, “Why fault the news outlets for using the materials teens make available?” That question is like the tail of the comet as it passes the sun: it’s obvious, but not the source of the true curiosity. Why, in 2014, are young black men and women still subject to a completely different set of rules than those set down for their white counterparts?
Teenagers are stupid, subject to capricious impulses, and still developing the ability to make rational judgments. There’s a reason that students are inundated with reminders to clean up their social media accounts before applying for jobs and internships. Those messages are not targeted to black students because it is a truth universally accepted that teenagers will put themselves at risk for all kinds of exposure.
Yet, somehow, when a young white man from the suburbs goes on a shooting rampage in an elementary school or a suburban movie theater, it’s a tragic tale of mental illness. When an unarmed teenager is killed by a white man, it’s an example of hyper-aggressive thug culture. Who had the gun? It is a well-documented fact that a mentally ill white man with a gun has significantly more agency in American culture than a black kid with a bag of Skittles or a pocketful of cigars. Especially in death, young black men are denied the most basic form of respect: the chance to speak for themselves.
After killing six people and then himself, Elliot Rodger’s hate-fueled misogynistic rant was replayed constantly. The man that video manifesto depicted was angry, profane and violently sexist. It was not the image of a loving or troubled little boy, but it was the image he wanted the world to see. Elliot Rodger got the chance to tell the world who he was. Why doesn’t Michael Brown get the same chance?
We still don’t know the full story of what happened that afternoon in Missouri, and yet we continue to make judgments based on incomplete information. We continue to extrapolate from the other stories of black thugs disrespecting authority that the media spoon-feeds us forgetting that at the heart of this story is an 18-year-old, who was days away from starting college.
We forget that an unarmed person was shot dead, with six holes in his body. Six bullets? We forget that cops are trying to protect the American public from itself in the wake of a population that doesn’t trust them, and we forget that mistrust was well earned. Not all cops are going to abuse their power, but that allowance has to go both ways: not all black men are going to fight.
Brionne Powell is a sophomore political science major at Drexel University. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.