Touré, a co-host of “The Cycle” on MSNBC, is the author of “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now.”
An information war is being waged in Ferguson, Mo., each salvo meant to shape public perceptions of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson.
Through this war we’ve learned that the 18-year-old Brown had marijuana in his system when he was killed, suggesting he was of poor character, and that police officer Wilson shot Brown six times, a use of force that could seem reckless or excessive. We’ve been told that Brown was a “gentle giant” who would have started attending classes at a technical college this month, but we’ve also seen a grainy convenience-store video in which he does not look gentle. We have seen a video of Wilson receiving an award, looking professional and happy, but we’ve also heard about him cursing at a Ferguson woman who had been maced, weeks before the town began to smolder.
Such snippets and images are efforts to shape public opinion about these men. They could influence St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch as he weighs whether to bring charges against Wilson. They could also influence the potential jury pool, showing prejudicial evidence that may not be admissible at trial.
In an information war, the news media is deployed as a weapon, our collective mind becomes a battlefield, and biases are land mines waiting to explode.
I feel confident stating that neither Brown nor Wilson is an angel — because no one is. But that doesn’t matter, because the two men have been reduced to symbols. Information wars suggest that character is destiny and that character is knowable, as if a handful of snapshots or tweets constitute an autopsy of the soul. They are waged in all kinds of legal battles, from civil suits to contract negotiations to public divorces.
But when there’s a black victim involved, the information takes a different and predictable turn: The victim becomes thuggified. This is an easy leap for many minds, given the widespread expectation of black criminality. If you become nervous when you see a young black male approaching on the street, it is not hard to convince you that a kid who was shot was not one of the “good ones,” that he was scary and maybe did something to deserve it. Information wars thrive on America’s empathy gap — the way some people struggle to see any kinship or shared humanity with strangers who don’t look like them.
So after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26, 2012, people were told that he had been suspended from school, that he had written graffiti, that he had smoked marijuana. As a result, many saw him as a thug — even though many non-thugs have been suspended from school or gotten high, and those are not violent acts. More important, none of that sheds any light on what happened the night George Zimmerman shot him.
In 2009, after 22-year-old Oscar Grant was fatally shot by a police officer named Johannes Mehserle while he was restrained at a BART station in Oakland, Calif., we learned that, three years earlier, Grant ran from officers after a traffic stop. Similarly, in 1991, after Rodney King was beaten by several Los Angeles police officers, we came to know that 63 days earlier, he was paroled after a robbery conviction.
Did such facts justify Grant’s death or King’s pain? Of course not. But they subtly signal that these guys aren’t good guys. It’s as if a black person must be a perfect victim to escape being thuggified, an angel with an unblemished history in order to warrant justice. The burden of the perfect victim suggests that only impeccable résumés may qualify for protection under the law and the support of the community.
We all remember Rosa Parks and how she earned sainthood status within America’s civil rights mythology: On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala., and became an icon. But Parks was not the first to defy the rules. Nine months earlier, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. In an interview last year with Democracy Now, Colvin said that when the cops arrived and ordered her to get up, “it felt like Sojourner Truth’s hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing me down on another shoulder, and I could not move.”
So they pulled her up and jailed her. Colvin sued and became one of the five plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, a desegregation case that would reach the Supreme Court. In November 1956, the court ordered the end of bus segregation in Alabama. Parks was not involved in that suit.
But Colvin did not become an icon of the civil rights movement. In a March 2009 interview, she told NPR that civil rights leaders at the time thought Parks would be a better symbol for the movement. Parks “was an adult,” Colvin said. “They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable.” She also speculated that Parks had the right look for the part. “Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class. She fit that profile.” By “texture,” she meant color, politely tapping into deep and painful associations between light-colored skin and acceptability.
Also, shortly after her arrest, Colvin became pregnant. She gave birth the same month as Parks’s historic arrest. It’s clear why the civil rights leaders did not want to coalesce around an unmarried teen mother. She was not a perfect victim. Her life and image could have distracted from the message. I understand that there was a movement to shepherd and that the wrong standard-bearer could have kneecapped it.
But when individuals arrive in the court of public opinion, or in a court of law, the burden of being a perfect victim in order to receive justice is impossibly heavy. It doesn’t allow for human fallibility. Is there any information from your past that could make you look bad? Any photo that, taken out of context, could portray you as someone you don’t recognize?
Most of us have something in our pasts we would not want revealed. And for black Americans, those facts too often are used to suggest that victims of injustice don’t deserve justice, because they weren’t some sort of credit to their race. In a nation where police often approach black communities with a dragnet, stopping and frisking everyone, marking as many black men as possible with a record, it would be hard to find a black male who looks like an angel.
But it doesn’t matter whether Brown was an angel. He was young and growing and human, and he made mistakes. That’s okay. The real question is not: Was Brown a good kid? The real question is: How are police officers supposed to treat citizens? California Attorney General Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, has put it well: “Our penal code was not created just to protect Snow White.”
Michael Brown was not perfect. But few of us are. And that does not speak to whether we deserve to die.