“Let’s go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.” – Pat O’Brien, as Father Jerry Connolly, in “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938)
Today, Michael Brown, eighteen, was laid to rest in a closed casket ceremony. This morning, the New York Times seized the occasion to piss on his grave. You can find the piece in question online easily enough. I’m deliberately not linking to it, but I will paste the following paragraph, which you’ve probably already seen.
“Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor. At the same time, he regularly flashed a broad smile that endeared those around him. He overcame early struggles in school to graduate on time. He was pointed toward a trade college and a career and, his parents hoped, toward a successful life.”
Setting aside the dubious release of the video in question, or the status of the incident it allegedly depicts, the Times piece then goes on to list a whole bunch of ways in which Mike Brown “was no angel,” tracing his delinquency to his earliest years, where he climbed over a toddler gate separating rooms in his house, banged loudly on things, and drew on walls with crayons. Clearly, these behaviors, utterly unthinkable for a normal child, all marked young Mike from the start as a troublemaker. If you don’t believe me, check the DSM: being a “handful” as a toddler and drawing on your home’s walls appear right alongside torturing animals, bedwetting, and compulsively setting fires on the differential diagnostic checklist for malignant psychopathy. In fact, if you draw on the walls with a Sharpie instead of something that can get scrubbed off with a Magic Eraser, the DSM’s recommended interventions are either immediate administration of 100 CCs of Thorazine or a Glock 17 full of hollowpoints, depending on your Health Plan, the child’s melanin pigmentation, and whether or not it’s a psychiatrist or police officer administering treatment.
What’s particularly striking about the Times’ level-headed assessment of the factors that led to Mike Brown’s so clearly deserving to die is its juxtaposition alongside a profile of the police officer who shot him, Darren Wilson, which I’m also not linking to. In that piece, we learn a great deal about how Officer Wilson is by all accounts a quiet, respectable, and low-key man (did we mention quiet? and gentle? and soft-spoken?). Strikingly, this profile offers precious little insight into the type of information that the Times seems to think it’s so vital for us to know about Mike Brown. For example, we are given no glimpse into Wilson’s behavior as a toddler, whether or not he got into any fights in high school, what his grades were, whether or not he had college ambitions, what type of music he may have listened to as a teenager (let alone how violent its lyrics might have been), or whether or not he may have – gasp – drunk alcohol while underage or even – the horror – smoked weed. While the Times can doubtless be forgiven for passing over trivia like whether or not Officer Wilson received training on racial profiling, or what his marksmanship test scores were, I have to admit that I’m shocked, simply shocked that these other critical issues remain unaddressed.
One thing does come, up, though. You see, Officer Wilson had an “unsettled” childhood, insofar as his mother, it turns out, was convicted of felony theft and forgery for stealing the identity of a neighbor in order to purchase “tens of thousands of dollars of candles; home decorations; furniture; clothes, including some from American Eagle Outfitters, which [the neighbor] says was Officer Wilson’s favorite store at the time; and hockey gear.” But whereas Mike Brown was falsely accused of possessing stolen property while in High School – an iPod, the receipt for which his mother had to bring to school in order to exonerate him – the fact that Officer Wilson appears to have spent many of his teenage years wearing stolen clothes makes him an object of pity.
I have no doubt that Darren Wilson’s childhood was hard. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have your mother die young, let alone die in infamy. But contemplate the counterfactual here. What if Brown’s mother had had a similar record to Wilson’s? If it suffices to elide Mike Brown’s residence in a “community that had rough patches” into the broader narrative of his own being insufficiently angelic to be worthy of human life, can you imagine the headlines if his mother had stolen tens of thousands of dollars to spend on bric-a-brac? But we don’t have to imagine the counterfactual – we can just contemplate what’s in front of our faces, printed in our nation’s paper of record. In the case of Mike Brown, his parents’ disciplining him to keep his grades up was a sign their son was out of control, a loose cannon – no angel. Meanwhile, Darren Wilson’s mother’s multiple felonies are none-too-subtly suggested to be what inspired him to pursue a career of quiet, selfless service as an exemplary police officer. In other words: when a black family shows care and discipline toward their teenager, it’s an indictment of his character – he’s no angel. When the white officer who killed him turns out to be raised by a career criminal, it renders him an object of pathos, a paragon of respectability and angelic restraint. Simply being a human being isn’t enough for Mike Brown to deserve life, or respect in death – he has to be angelic to qualify. Meanwhile, every time a black kid is shot, a white cop or vigilante gets his wings.
Smart advice is that you shouldn’t write publicly when you’re angry. But reading these pieces side-by-side I can’t shake it off, and I just have to say it: fuck being an angel.
If being an angel is the bare prerequisite for deserving the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, then we’re all write-offs. If being an angel is the minimum condition for being worthy of mourning instead of slander after you’re gunned down like an animal in our streets, then we’re all fair game.
But of course, and this is the rub of it, it’s only open season on some of us, on the streets and in the press.
When I was a toddler, I was a handful. I’m told that, once, when I was maybe five, sitting in a parked and playing “cops and robbers” with my Dad, I asked him to close his eyes, which he did, and then I promptly hit him over the head with a small fire extinguisher. He needed stitches for that. At summer camp, when I was eleven or twelve, a couple of times, when I got hit by bullies, I pushed back – and I’m ashamed to say I also shoved another kid who hadn’t done anything wrong to me at all; it was just because I was angry and thought that that display would result in my own getting pushed around less (it didn’t). When I was a teenager, I listened to Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Snoop, Busta Rhymes. I shot thousands of digital monsters and Nazis and generic enemy commandos playing computer games, and watched dozens of ultra-violent action movies (John Woo’s “Hard Boiled” was a particular favorite – 307 people are killed on screen in 92 minutes). I snuck into Central Park at night to drink with friends and smoked the occasional joint at a concert. Like pretty much every young boy in this country, I suspect, I showed a “rebellious streak.” Hell, at one party, when I was nineteen, I distinctly remember a cop pulling a gun on me, and that looking down the barrel of that Sig Sauer .40 was like staring down the longest, widest tunnel in the world. When you’re a young boy – a young man – you try on personas. Sometimes, you get into trouble. Sometimes, you don’t. Sometimes, you just get lucky – like the character played by Pat O’Brien in the 1938 James Cagney gangster flick (whence the quotation that begins this piece,) sometimes you just run faster than your buddy.
Or sometimes you’re white. Call me crazy for the speculation, but if my 18-year old self had somehow wound up dead in the street under uncertain circumstances, with at least half of a police officer’s sidearm emptied into my face and chest, I suspect that the New York Times wouldn’t have published a bio of me invoking my teenage angst and toddler hijinks to draw the conclusion that I was “no angel.”
The word for “angel” comes from a Greek word for “messenger” – somebody who brings news. Reading the news this morning, on the day a young man is laid to rest, the day a mother and a father bury their child, I have to observe that while a St. Louis police officer’s Beretta can carry 10-15 rounds, more than twice what Darren Wilson pumped into Mike Brown’s body in order to leave him perforated and dead in the street, and although breaking news suggests Wilson fired a full eleven rounds, it took the New York Times only 1,100 words to assassinate Brown’s character in print.
Fuck being an angel, and fuck these messengers.
Had your piece been a lot shorter, I imagine I would have found it less sophomoric, not as yawn-inducing.
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