The Anger in Ferguson
BY JELANI COBB AUGUST 13, 2014
The hazard of engaging with the history of race in the United States is the difficulty of distinguishing the past from the news of the day. On Saturday afternoon, under hazy circumstances, an eighteen-year-old named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Brown was unarmed. Police have confirmed that he was shot “more than just a couple of times.” The story that witnesses tell is disturbing not only in its details but in the ways in which those details blur into a longer narrative. It’s one we’re all familiar with if we have paid even passive attention, and yet, despite its redundancy, we have yet to grasp its moral. A trivial incident sparks a confrontation, followed by a disproportionate response, then the tableau of grieving parents struggling to maintain composure and the social-media verdicts rendered in absentia, many asking about the culpability of the deceased. Invariably, some self-ordained truth teller will stand up to quote non sequiturs about black-on-black violence.
The details are still emerging, but there seem to be two irreconcilable versions of events. Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson tells of a police officer, who has yet to be named, confronting the two of them for the offense of walking in the street rather than on the sidewalk, and then starting a fight with Brown, who held his hands up in compliance, before shooting him dead in the street. The police have said that Brown was shot in response to a struggle for the officer’s gun. The police department, citing threats made through social media, has steadfastly refused to release the name of the officer involved in the shooting. The F.B.I. has announced a federal investigation. On Tuesday, the White House released a statement of condolence to Brown’s family.
Brown’s death has served, at least for the crowds in Ferguson, as evidence that the deaths of innocents are not simply something glimpsed in other countries. People in Ferguson drifted out of their homes to witness the macabre spectacle of Brown’s body on the street, a dismal stream of blood winding its way across the asphalt. The ensuing vigil tipped over into bedlam as some in those crowds, joined by others, broke into sporadic vandalism and looting on Sunday night. Then, after dark on Monday, police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. The ironies of race and policing were readily apparent: law enforcement using force to suppress outrage at law enforcement’s indiscriminate use of force.
Ferguson, with twenty-two per cent of its population below the poverty line, is likely a community well versed in these ironies. On Monday night, I spoke to a number of acquaintances in the surrounding area by phone. Most spoke skeptically about the police statement that Brown had attempted to seize the officer’s weapon. “Nobody believes that young man tried to get the officer’s gun,” M. K. Stallings, a longtime St. Louis resident who coordinates community programming for the Missouri Historical Museum, told me. “There’s an idea that the police in this area are not from that community and don’t have any real connections to that community. That’s not necessarily uncommon, but it’s part of the equation here.”
Brown’s death carried a particular resonance in a community that is sixty-seven per cent African-American, with nearly thirty per cent of the population under the age of eighteen. A local bar owner explained to me that older patrons weren’t aware of the groundswell of activity that the case inspired, but it was at the front of the minds of younger people. “A teen-age cashier in my supermarket asked me before I checked out whether I’d be at the vigil Sunday night,” she said. “Until that point, I hadn’t even heard about it, but she explained everything that was happening in response to Brown’s death.”
Three weeks ago, Eric Garner died as the result of N.Y.P.D. officers placing him in a choke hold, a banned tactic, following a confrontation over selling loose cigarettes. His death echoed that of Renisha McBride, the nineteen-year-old who was killed when she knocked on a stranger’s door following a car accident, which in turn conjured memories of Jonathan Ferrell, who was shot ten times and killed by officers in North Carolina soon after the death, in Florida, of Jordan Davis, shot by a man who wanted him to turn down his music, which in turn paralleled the circumstances of Trayvon Martin’s demise. For those who have no choice but to remember these matters, those names have been inducted into a grim roll call that includes Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, and Eleanor Bumpurs. These are all distinct incidents that took place under particular circumstances in differing locales. Yet what happened on Staten Island and in Dearborn Heights, Charlotte, Jacksonville, and Sanford have culminated, again, in the specific timbre of familial grief, a familiar strain of outrage, and an accompanying body of commentary straining to find a novel angle to the recurring tragedy.
Despite all the variables, there’s a numbing constant. The conventions are so familiar that, on Sunday, the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown began circulating on Twitter, with thousands of tweets pointing to the ways in which incidents such as these play out. Many tweets were accompanied by the sort of pictures that could be used to tar even staid black professionals as intimidating. Brown was a large eighteen-year-old—six feet four inches, according to his mother—and, in the image that circulated in the media immediately following the shooting, his size is highlighted. He flashes a peace symbol that, in conjunction with his imposing stature, could predictably be assailed as a gang sign. The hashtag was an overt riff on the way a jury, for example, might decide that a slight teen-ager like Trayvon Martin could be justifiably seen as a threat to George Zimmerman, a man with a gun. Imagery counts as a kind of unspoken forensics, with the power to render someone an innocent victim or a terrifying menace. Implicit is a question: Would you be afraid of this person, too?
The truth is that you’ve read this story so often that the race-tinged death story has become a genre itself, the details plugged into a grim template of social conflict. The genre is defined by its tendency toward an unsatisfactory resolution of the central problems. Two years ago, I visited St. Louis to give a talk at a museum. My visit fell in the wake of a rally in which hundreds of local residents turned out to demand an arrest in Martin’s death. (Brown’s family has now retained Benjamin Crump, the attorney who represented Martin’s family.) Martin was killed nearly a thousand miles away, but when I spoke to people about the rally they conveyed the sense that what had happened to him could happen anywhere in the country, even in their own back yards. For those people in Ferguson pressed against the yellow police tape separating them from Brown’s remains, the overwhelming sentiment is that it already has.