Reading the official St. Louis County Michael Brown autopsy, it’s hard not to feel the limits of what laypeople can glean from a forensic pathologist’s report – and to feel a corresponding temptation to rely instead on vague memories of CSI episodes and to tweet about gun shot residue and powder burns as though we knew, for sure, what we were talking about. It’s also hard not to feel that many of the talking heads on TV springing into action either to give credence to or discredit the report are speaking first and foremost to audiences who have already made up their minds about what happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. I imagine, too, that for some, it’s likewise hard to avoid the temptation to let the whole mess of competing voices drown one another out, shrug, and write off the entire affair as somehow inscrutable, turning whatever actually happened on that Ferguson street this past August into a 21st Century St. Louis Rashomon. This last reaction would, I think, be a tragedy – and I hope that pressure from both media and protestors will lead to substantive, public inquiry and to an open, transparent treatment of Brown’s death in a court of law (beyond the ongoing Grand Jury proceedings).
But still, we have this new autopsy, newly and dubiously leaked, as have been so many other elements of this case. I’m not a forensic pathologist, and so will leave its more technical nuances for others to pick apart, although I will eventually give it a more thorough reading alongside the findings of the family-requested autopsy and with my copy of Brian Heard’s Handbook of Firearms and Ballistics in hand (and will do the same if and when the Department of Justice’s autopsy is released).
For now, though, since I am trained to read texts closely, to pay attention to how we use words to describe events, and to reflect on how descriptions of one event resemble those of others, I do have some thoughts on this document. Specifically, I hear echoes of two other texts in it: first, Radley Balko’s excellent Op-Ed, “The Curious Grammar of Police Shootings” and second, Rei Terada’s brilliant reflection on the “superhuman strength” (so-called “Excited Delirium syndrome”) that police and media reports regularly attribute to unarmed people whom cops shoot dead.
Balko’s piece makes clear how official documents regularly obscure the agency of individual police officers in favor of bloodless, passive constructions. One episode Balko relates is officially described as follows: “Sheriff Wooten said a deputy, who was not named, was approaching the property when a dog ran up to him. The deputy’s gun fired one shot, missing the dog and hitting the child. It was not clear if the gun was accidentally fired by the deputy.” The contorted passive construction here not only renders the killing of a living, breathing child into a hard-to-parse syntactical trainwreck, but also works to absolve the individual (unnamed) officer of even grammatical agency, not to mention moral culpability. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, we’re so often told – except, it seems, when it’s a police officer’s gun that does the killing. Then it’s just the gun.
It’s impossible not to think about such Orwellian ethico-linguistic obfuscations when, reading the Mike Brown autopsy report, you come across sentences like this: “During the struggle the Officer’s weapon was un-holstered. The weapon discharged during the struggle. The deceased then ran down the roadway.” The weapon discharged. The deputy’s gun fired one shot. Mistakes were made. A child is being beaten. The torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
“The deceased then ran down the roadway.” What a strange sentence this is. A dead teenager runs. Although already shot at least once, he is still alive, and running. But he is also already deceased. Dead man walking; deceased teenager running. Michael Brown was dead even as he was stepping back from the car, already dead even as he was running. Of course, while witnesses claim that Brown ran away from the car, and then turned to surrender (an account which the previous autopsy arguably supports), the official narrative accompanying the new autopsy claims that “Officer Wilson then began to chase the deceased…. [and then] the deceased turned around and ran towards Officer Wilson.” This reading of events, of course, jibes with the argument of Right-Wing pundits who have argued that Brown was not actually unarmed, because in fact his very body was somehow a lethal weapon. It’s here that I think of Rei Terada’s essay, on so-called “Excited Delirium Syndrome” – the “superhuman strength” exhibited by unarmed people who can (supposedly) only be stopped by deadly force. These people, we are told, are mentally ill, perhaps high on drugs of some kind – PCP, “bath salts,” LSD, what have you. They are irrational, “impervious to pain.” As Terada writes:
“The phrase ‘superhuman strength’ reflects police discomfort with mental illness–or even just ‘irrationality’–on the one hand, and with the unaccountable phenomenon of resisting arrest on the other…Superhumanity is invoked to explain their choice not to give themselves up, making it sound less like an ability and more like an involuntary condition. (Police officers themselves never show superhuman strength, even when they’re agitated by adrenaline in struggle; they show fortitude and tenacity—at least when they don’t cut matters short by shooting.) From the perspective of the police, resisting arrest is necessarily irrational: they perceive irrational people as resisters, even if that isn’t their intention, and resisters as definitionally crazed… You don’t have to be Foucault to see that superhumanity functions as subhumanity; it allows the nonhuman to be eliminated while releasing the perceiver from having to answer for seeing someone as nonhuman.”
One could note here how much coverage of this latest autopsy emphasizes that Michael Brown had marijuana “in his system” when died. One could also note that Officer Wilson was not drug tested after killing him. One could further remark on the similarity between these circumstances and those surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin – whose body was tested for drugs post-mortem even as George Zimmerman (who appears to have been regularly taking a cocktail of amphetamines and benzodiazepines) was not. But instead, let’s focus on what I take to be the upshot of Terada’s piece. In many cases, the institutional logic runs as follows: if you were shot, you must have been resisting – and if you were resisting, you deserved to get shot. It’s a perfect, hermetically closed circle.
But what is “resistance”? What does it mean to “resist”? In many technical vocabularies (in physics, electrical engineering, etcetera), resistance means blocking the flow of power, impeding its free operation, obstructing it. Recall why Michael Brown was accosted by Darren Wilson in the first place – for (supposedly) walking in the street, obstructing traffic. In other words, by simply walking where Wilson didn’t want him to, he was resisting. Now, I’ve never been called over to a cop car for being in the street, and I’ve jay-walked right in front of dozens of them. But Michael Brown’s mere presence in the street – that was resistance. Not coming over promptly when Darren Wilson told him to? Resistance.
What does it mean when simply walking about, minding your own business, and not coming-hither immediately when ordered to do so, equals “resistance”? It means that just being in public space can be construed as an obstruction, a resistance. Resistance to what? To power. To white supremacy. In other words, for some people, simply existing equals “resisting.” And it’s very clear what happens when those folks “resist.” They wind up arrested, beaten, or worse. For them, the demand, “Stop resisting!” is more or less the same as the injunction, “Stop existing!” and that injunction produces, very frequently, the outcome of their no longer existing at all.
There are some things the autopsy can tell us, some things it can’t, and some things we will hopefully learn more about down the line and in a more public way. But for now, I can’t help but dwell on this scene: “Stop resisting!” yells the police officer, a man with a badge and a gun, at a teenager. And Michael Brown runs, very much alive, and yet already deceased – it’s just that the adjective hadn’t caught up with him yet, erasing his name, much like the remainder of Darren Wilson’s bullets hadn’t yet caught up with him, obliterating his body.