That reaction is a story almost as unsurprising as the death of yet another unarmed black man. This was the latest of several high-profile killings of young African American men in which the alleged criminal backgrounds of the victims have been used to sway public perception, influence legal proceedings and even impact national politics. The reflexive instinct to blame the victims in cases like this is rooted in a desire to correlate blackness with criminality — to imply their untimely death was because they did something wrong. The benefit of the doubt, the presumption of innocence, didn’t exist for these victims, and under these auspices, justice is not blind; it becomes merely partisan and corrupt.
The conversation around Arbery’s killing bear a striking resemblance to the story George Zimmerman used to justify stalking and ultimately killing black teen Trayvon Martin in 2012. Back then, Geraldo Rivera argued in an interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News that Martin’s wearing a hoodie — which Rivera characterized as “thug wear” — was a bigger contributor to his death than Zimmerman’s incompetence and aggressiveness.
“I’ll bet you money,” Rivera said. “If he didn’t have that hoodie on, that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn’t have responded in that violent and aggressive way.”
In 2014, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot 14 times by a Chicago police officer after he allegedly approached officers with a knife. In a recent nationwide expose of police officers, one Chicago officer was quoted as having made a social media post stating, “Every Thug Deserves a Slug,” after McDonald’s shooting. His police supervisors, who had long complained about his bigoted views, were not permitted to fire him. Subsequently released video clearly showed McDonald was not attacking or even approaching officers. But the media narrative stuck.
That same year, when teenager Michael Brown was shot after a confrontation with a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., footage showed he allegedly stole cigars from a store earlier that day. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee argued Brown’s death “could have been avoided if he’d have behaved like something other than a thug.” A Justice Department report later revealed Brown probably double backed toward officer Darren Wilson. But the fact Huckabee was so quick to paint Brown as a “thug” whose death could have been avoided because of his actions show how credulous many people are when it comes to believing in the criminality of black people.
Coast Guard veteran Walter Scott was pulled over by North Charleston, S.C., officer Michael Slager in April 2015 for an alleged motor vehicle violation. Scott, who had several outstanding warrants for unpaid child support, fled the scene rather than risk arrest. Slager alleged he shot Scott in self-defense after Scott wrested his taser from him. But a bystander cellphone video soon emerged that showed Scott running full speed away from Slager, and not at all threatening him. Slager’s sole-survivor narrative was initially bolstered by the “thug life” blog, a website founded by disgraced ex-North Charleston police sergeant Ray Garrison, who was bounced off the force after testing positive for cocaine. Although Garrison urged readers in his post to “wait until the final report” before drawing conclusions, he nonetheless argued Scott was complicit in his own murder, stating, without evidence, “when an unarmed man arms himself with a weapon forcibly taken from a police officer he is no longer unarmed.” Scott did have outlying warrants. But the impulse to inflate the criminality of black Americans makes them seem more criminal than they truly are.
In 2012, Michael Dunn, a 45-year-old white man, shot and killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis, who was African American, at a gas station minimart in Jacksonville, Fla. Dunn defended himself by saying Davis and his friends cursed at him, threatened to kill him and allegedly brandished a shotgun. At trial and in subsequent jailhouse phone letters, Dunn called the teenagers “thugs” and their music as “thug music.”
“The jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs,” Dunn wrote in a jailhouse letter to his daughter. “This may sound a bit radical but if more people would arm themselves and kill these (expletive) idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.”
None of the teens who allegedly threatened Dunn had a prior criminal record, and no gun was found. But Dunn felt it was entirely appropriate — and actually fitting — to associate Davis and his friends with inmates of color despite the fact that by committing a crime, he had more in common with the inmates.
This urge was repeated again when Eric Garner was choked to death by a police officer in Staten Island in 2014 after a confrontation that began when police tried to arrest him on the suspicion of selling cigarettes without tax stamps. Garner complained he could not breathe at least 11 times and died at the scene. But Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) pointed to Garner’s weight and said he “was resisting arrest. The police were trying to bring him down as quickly as possible. If he had not had asthma and a heart condition and was so obese, almost definitely he would not have died.” It didn’t matter that two medical examiners ruled Garner’s death a homicide; King was interested in pointing out his character flaws and finding any other excuse for his death as a defense for police.
African Americans know that our society validates the lives of some while invalidating the lives of others. Every time a black man is shot and killed is followed by attempts to tip the scales of justice to assume their criminality while giving their shooter the benefit of the doubt. Justice is not blind when it clearly picks one side and enables unarmed black men to be tarred with the “thug” label when they get killed with near impunity. Victim-blaming is too often used to cover for otherwise incompetent and lazy “policing” and a flawed justice system. The law and pundits’ attempts to smear character essentially say that if you’re not white, you’re not right.