•The assumption that black people must be guilty of something lies behind the Ferguson shooting, and the police reaction
Mike Brown is currently engaged in one of the most difficult, but common – for black men, anyway – forms of criminal defense in the American criminal justice system: he is engaged in The Ultimate Defense.
Granted, it’s rather hard for him to wield The Ultimate Defense effectively, as the unarmed teenager was killed over the weekend – shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. But that’s the cruel irony of The Ultimate Defense: it’s always invoked posthumously, when the defendant can’t really defend himself because …well, because he’s dead.
Why was he in the police car?, people will ask. Why did he run? If he’d just been a pliant enough, wouldn’t he still be alive?!
Brown’s prosecutors in the court of public opinion will nonetheless demand he defend himself against these charges because he was a black teenager. His killer will remain presumed innocent. But for Mike Brown, there was a collective presumption of his guilt by the Ferguson police … and that of the Ferguson citizens who gathered to air their grievances about the shooting long before any rioting started – and the timing of this is important. As a St Louis community activist who talked to me on Monday put it, he knew something was amiss when the police stationed K-9 units at the protest at 9am protest on Sunday.
“I have never seen police dogs barking at us at a peaceful march before,” he said.
The dogs aren’t just present in historic images of Southern police intimidating civil rights protests. (St Louis, notably, is the largest city in Missouri which, via the eponymous Missouri Compromise, was the last slave state admitted to the union.) The dogs are also tied into how other burned-out northern industrial towns use harsh police tactics – like the tear gas and rubber bullets fired at protestors on Monday night – to keep their marginalized peoples from erupting, and how northern and southern tension merge in St Louis, smack in the middle of the US.
— Miriam Elder (@MiriamElder)
August 12, 2014
Jesus, America RT @FOX2now: Officers stand in a mist of tear gas. Protected by masks. #Ferguson pic.twitter.com/NfiW16WlWH
But such containment can’t last forever. I spent some time in St. Louis earlier this year reporting on a racially-charged story and came away extremely depressed by how blighted huge swaths of the metro area are. Ferguson sits north of the city, not so far from where Pruitt-Igoe –the most notoriously disastrous housing project built during Urban Renewal – once stood. It was abandoned and blown up less than 20 years after it broke ground. What remains nearby the now overgrown ruin, like what’s visible throughout much of metropolitan St Louis where black people live, is an “economy” based on fast-food restaurants, payday loan sharks, casinos and, inevitably, crime.
In such quarters of our nation, where men seem as likely to have contact with the criminal justice system as with the public education system, citizens often find themselves on the defensive with police.
The Ultimate Defense is the final step in how black men (or, in the cases of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Mike Brown and many more, black children) try to navigate this uneasy relationship with law enforcement in the United States, which collectively assumes our guilt before, during and after alleged crimes occur. This presumption doesn’t die – even when one of us is killed by law enforcement.
The first step in navigating this assumed guilt is “the talk”. My father, who was routinely harassed by police when he was driving to college at night, had “the talk” with me when I was six or seven, explaining how people would automatically assume that I was up to no good, and would often even presume I was about to commit (or had just committed) a crime
I’d never heard white people discuss “the talk” until George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, when some conservatives started having strong ideas about how “the talk” could be altered for the benefit of white people. But I’ve heard endless variations of “the talk” among black folks – perhaps the most alarmingly when I was investigating police profiling in New York City in 2011. That’s when I learned the term “stop and frisk virginity”: black and Latino boys, as young as 10, would brag about who’d lost theirs or who was still a virgin.
Having a police officer act out his presumption of your guilt, it seems, is so ubiquitous – even today – that it’s a rite of passage toward manhood for these black and brown boys.
Their understanding is rooted in a harsh reality. In New York City, where I live and where Eric Garner was recently choked to death during an arrest, people of color are thought to be more guilty of crimes and therefore more likely to be stopped. And while black and brown New Yorkers are stopped exponentially more often, the NYPD’s own data “demonstrate slightly higher rates of contraband yield” from white people than Hispanics or blacks.
In Ferguson, as in New York, black citizens are also far more likely to be stopped by cops, even though the Attorney General’s office reports that “whites are actually more likely to have contraband”.
It takes micro-defenses, if you will, to manage these daily assumptions of guilt, whether you’re a teen stopped on the street, a shopper followed in a store, or a Harvard professor arrested for entering your own house. But a lack of habeas corpus is easier to fight with breath in your corpus. Lacking that, you need The Ultimate Defense.
Why were you wearing a hoodie? And walking through a gated community while black? Those are the kinds of questions Trayvon Martin had to ultimately defend himself against posthumously, despite the fact the unarmed 17 year-old was killed by a gun wielding maniac (who’d eventually walk away free and later harm women). Trayvon must have done something to deserve his death.
Why were you playing your music so loud? Don’t you know you’d still be alive if you had your music quieter? Ultimately, Jordan Davis had to defend himself for that. One jury couldn’t decide if Davis’s right to life trumped Michael Dunn’s right to “stand his ground” at a gas station. Jordan must have done something to deserve his death.
And now, Mike Brown’s ghost has to similarly invoke The Ultimate Defense. Sadly, the weight of all of this is being born by Mike Brown’s family, who have to simultaneously proffer The Ultimate Defense to a skeptical public: that their son, alive last week, had the right to live to see this one.