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?