Losing Michael Brown

A black man did something in Ferguson, Missouri, that so many others were incapable of doing.  Someone took a photo of it so we won’t forget.


The man stood there in a police uniform. The normal style, without camouflage, body armor and a helmet and facemask. He carried no heavy armaments. Instead, he held a photograph of a young man, Michael Brown.  The man is Missouri state police Captain Ronald Johnson. 

The killing of Michael Brown became more than some of the other killings of men, notably black men, at the hands of police. The reason, in brief retrospect, is the reaction.  Images of Ferguson under siege by an invading army of police may be more than those who prefer to “tsk” about a death that doesn’t touch their lives could take.

It was a close call for a while there. The media nearly took this way off course, focusing on the “rioters and looters” because they had video to show on the TV, with barely a passing mention of Michael Brown.  The discussion, even by the president, making equivalent the killing of an unarmed 18-year-old and the secondary reactions to an occupying army.  The media’s focus changed somewhat when their own were gassed and arrested. Only then did it become personal.

This wasn’t good enough for some of the cops on sites like PoliceOne, who pondered why the “animals” weren’t put down hard.  When one former cop opined that respect begets respect, and that fear is not the same as respect, his message was taken poorly.  But the fact that the message, even at a place where voices are usually limited to how best to subjugate, is notable.

Yet, others used Michael Brown’s death to further a political agenda, conflating the shooting by a still unnamed police officer with unrelated grievances and diverting attention away from Ferguson for their own purpose. Just as the cops looked only toward the looters, as if it didn’t start with an 18-year-olds body lying in the street dead, they looked only toward the skin color, without any concern that they were as dangerously self-serving and misguided as the police.

Charles Blow in the New York Times went straight toward the “eerie echo” to paint the larger historic picture.

There is an eerie echo in it all — a sense of tragedy too often repeated. And yet the sheer morbid, wrenching rhythm of it belies a larger phenomenon, one obscured by its vastness, one that can be seen only when one steps back and looks from a distance and with data: The criminalization of black and brown bodies — particularly male ones — from the moment they are first introduced to the institutions and power structures with which they must interact.

In New York, the new mayor and police commissioner have embraced police wearing body cams, where the old regime fought it vehemently.  While hardly a solution, cameras are certainly a big step forward, but the ability to show a cop killing a guy isn’t the same as a cop choosing not to kill him.  Suddenly, there is a concern about transparency, and the excesses of militarization of police, as Radley Balko warned.

There are many things that can and should be taken away from the death of Michael Brown, and yet they are slipping away already.  Regardless of which side of the political spectrum one prefers, each seems to see this as an opportunity to grab a piece of Michael Brown’s body for their own purposes.

The more diffuse the message, the less likely that any message will stand out clearly and be heard.  We are on the verge of squandering what happened in Ferguson, of people forgetting what started this, the death of this young man.  We are about to blow this, to waste this, and return our attention to our mundane lives.

Missouri state police Captain Ronald Johnson brought us back last night.  This is about the killing of Michael Brown.  This is about a St. Louis suburb turned into a battle zone when the community rose up in protest.  This is about whether we accept killings in our streets by police, followed by subjugation by an armed force.  This can be a turning point in whether America will allow itself to be held under siege by those who would kill us.  All of us. Any of us. Black more likely than white, but white as well if we stand in their way.

This is the question for America.  Is this the image of what our country should be?


Or should it be Capt. Johnson holding a picture of the murdered Michael Brown?


13 thoughts on “Losing Michael Brown

  1. traderprofit

    That’s the image because the police got all this “cool stuff” from the government after 9/11 to protect their communities from terrorism. So, admitting they had no training for such a situation, they figured they’d put their cool stuff to work.
    I live in a guard-gated neighborhood and our local police showed up one day to serve a warrant in an up-armored Humvee, with 6 cops hanging off the sides in body armor.
    We have cool stuff…let’s use it.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s always good for someone to restate the obvious for the millionth time, just in case anyone missed it.

  2. John Barleycorn

    Tuesday Truths now moved to Fun Friday Facts…

    Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt
    appointed to Captain Ronald Johnson to the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission in 2007 for a two or three year stint. He was just 43 at the time.

    The commission is a regulatory agency that is responsible for the licensure of peace officers, reserve peace officers, basic training instructors, curriculum, and training centers.

    I wonder if Captain Johnson did any heavy policy lifting during his tenure there? If not, that’s too bad. Nonetheless, I think he will and should have future opportunity to reveal what sort of prints he wears on his t-shirts under his uniform.
    If he keeps this behavior of his up I am going to have to start a new line of action figures.

    Is Johnson a thick blue line villain masquerading as a baby faced public relations prince, or is he a super-hero of epic proportions about ready to dawn a blue cape and save his hometown and then the entire planet?

    The commission posts the names and contact information of the state’s “subject matter experts” and their field of expertise on its web page. Johnson is not among them.

    Here is a very limited sampling of the subjects that state of MO has experts in that caught my eye in light of recent events.

    209. Stop and Frisk

    211. Searches and Seizures Without a Warrant

    212. Peace Officer Liability

    303. Justification-Use of Force

    702. Communication Obstacles

    812. Survival Mentality

    1610. Shooting Decisions

    1. SHG Post author

      This is a potentially dangerous comment, in the sense of making people stupider by unfounded suggestion. I expect better of you.

      1. John Barleycorn

        Skeptical yes. Unfounded remains to be seen. The facts are the facts and presented as such.

        Did you hear the breaking news yet? Right on Q even…”The unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot by a police officer in a St. Louis suburb, fit the description of a suspect in a strong-arm robbery that happened minutes earlier…”

        At this juncture I don’t suggest. I know Johnson’s action figure is going to be a top seller either way.

        The killing of Michael Brown and what goes down in the hamlet of Ferguson over the next several months might prove to be as mighty as the Mississippi.

        Then again It might also become a case study in Public Relations Mastery.

        Let’s hope you don’t see Domestic Riot Venting Strategies; The Tactics and Timing of Command Change appearing in the catalog at the Harvard School of Government next fall.

        P.S. Who knows…We all just might learn something as Good Cop (state police) Bad Cop (Ferguson PD) orchestrate the jubilee over the next few weeks. Think we will see anything new?

        1. SHG Post author

          Unfounded never “remains to be seen.” It’s the opposite, unfounded until proven. That’s just how facts happen.

          As for the news, yes, I’ve heard from a few thousand people who had the good sense not to put it into a comment.

          1. John Barleycorn

            I stand by the suggestion.

            Johnson is going to turn out to be playing his part as the villain masquerading as a prince, or he will indeed turn out to be
            true American Hero and seize his apparent command on the ground and take this wherever it goes. Serving the truth and protect the innocent at all costs and regardless of consequence.

            1. SHG Post author

              I don’t care which, and don’t think it matters. My preference is not to view people as one dimensional. I do, however, question the use of innuendo as inappropriate. Use facts, not suggestions. Smearing someone on possibilities is what the police do to perps. Not here.

              If Johnson turns out to be a mutt, and that may well be the case, so be it. My only focus at the moment is on what he did here.

  3. Pingback: Another Saturday Night In Ferguson | Simple Justice

Comments are closed.