Michael Brown was shot by a police officer on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. His shooting led to several weeks of protests, which sometimes got violent. His shooting illustrates not just racism but much worse. The treatment of Michael Brown and African-Americans like him shows a general attempt to dehumanize a group of people. If we stay silent about it, how long before we are next?
Michael was a human being. This is a simple truth, Michael’s humanity. Yet it is also implicitly a fragile insight, one that the police indifference to the dignity of his corpse and to the sentiments of his gathering neighbors suggests that many officers failed to grasp. Instead, they seemingly saw Michael as a black man, a shoplifter (as the video released by the police portrayed him), a criminal, a menace, something far less than human — and saw his community in similar terms, almost as animals to be feared, controlled and contained, rather than as traumatized neighbors anguished by the killing of a child.
This point must not be taken lightly or shrugged off because there is no clear evidence that malevolence drove the officer who killed Michael or the police who rallied around their colleague. We tend to talk about racism in simplistic terms as the hateful actions of (potential) Klan members, while dismissing just about everything else as, at worst, the universally shared tendency to be more comfortable with one’s own. In so doing, we blind ourselves to how racism justifies the inequalities of power and position that exist in society with narratives of unbridgeable difference, of fixed and inherent superiority and inferiority. Racism isn’t simply bigotry; at root, it’s about dignity and denigration.
I can understand the shooting if Brown had a weapon and was going after the officer or if he was caught in the middle of a crime and fought the officer, but the kid had no weapon and was, according to eyewitnesses, just walking in the middle of the street.
I don’t care if the kid was accused of being a serial killer, or had just been seen stealing from a local carry-out, he still didn’t deserve to be murdered.
Supporters of the police officer have complained about the lack of “innocent until proven guilty” in the news reports and general consensus about the officer. The simple response is what about innocent until proven guilty for Michael Brown? (Note: Presumption of innocence is for when facts are in doubt. In this case, everyone agrees the police officer shot Brown.)
The police officer, for whatever reason, became the judge, jury, and executioner on that August afternoon.
If we ignore that the Michael Browns and Trayvon Martins of the world are human beings then it won’t be long before some authority with a gun might not think we are humans and we may get the same treatment.