Tag Archives: ferguson

Darren Wilson’s Demon

“I then looked at him and told him to get back and he was just staring at me, almost like to intimidate me or to overpower me. The intense face he had was just not what I expected from any of this.”

Reading Darren Wilson’s testimony about his encounter with Michael Brown, you can’t help but notice two things. First, not just how implausible the whole story sounds, and, second, how important faces are – and aren’t – to it.

For starters, there’s the fact that when Darren Wilson supposedly received the report of the theft of some cigarillos from a local market, he apparently didn’t get a description of the perpetrators beyond that one was  wearing a black shirt. Next, there’s the fact that, when he later encountered Michael Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson, he didn’t notice anything about them other than that they were two individuals walking in the street and that “either the first one was really small or the second one was really big.”

But then faces, and descriptions of faces, get really important. Seeing how and why requires summarizing Wilson’s account. Encountering Brown and his friend walking in the street, Wilson pulls up on them in his car and demands that they move to the sidewalk. When Johnson tells him that he and Brown are almost at their destination, Wilson presses them to get off the road, and Brown, according to Wilson, replies with “Fuck what you have to say.”

Wilson finds this response “unusual” and begins to scrutinize Brown. Earlier, all he claims to have noticed was Brown’s size and the fact that his socks had images of “marijuana leaves as a pattern on them.” Now, Wilson says, he sees that Brown is holding some cigarillos; he connects that observation and Johnson’s shirt with the description of the young men from the gas station incident.

Wilson cuts the young men off with his car, and then demands of Brown, “Come here.” Brown refuses – well within his rights, as he’s not being arrested and hasn’t been told that he’s being detained. When Wilson tries to open the door to his vehicle, Brown supposedly then slams it shut. Wilson’s reaction to this is telling:

 “I then looked at him and told him to get back and he was just staring at me, almost like to intimidate me or to overpower me. The intense face he had was just not what I expected from any of this.”

What happens next unfolds quickly, is hard to parse, and harder still to believe. Wilson claims he tried to get out of the car yet again, but that Brown closed the door on him once more and then began to pummel him through the open window, hitting Wilson’s face. According to Wilson, while still leaning into the car, Brown then calmly handed the cigarillos to Johnson (“Hey, man, hold these,” Wilson recalls), at which point Wilson grabbed him.

Here Wilson begins to sound a theme he will hammer away at again and again: Michael Brown was some species of superhuman monster, somehow possessed of both an ominous cool yet consumed with an animal rage, and nothing short of deadly force would stop him. The vocabulary and imagery Wilson uses to paint this picture are nothing short of ludicrous.

“And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old hol ding onto Hulk Hogan.”
“Holding onto a what?”
“Hulk Hogan, that’s just how big he felt, and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.”

By his own description, Wilson is 6’4, and somewhere around 210 pounds; Brown was 6’4 and 292. And yet Wilson, an adult man, a trained police officer, describes making contact him as like clinging to a professional wrestler.

Desperate to save himself – and specifically to protect his face – Wilson realizes that none of the several weapons at his disposal will save him from Brown’s assault. His collapsible baton won’t open in the car; his heavy flashlight is too far away – reaching for either, Wilson says, would require him to drop the hand he’s using to protect his face. And although he’s trained to use one, Wilson isn’t carrying a Taser, incidentally, because he finds it uncomfortable. Instead, he has Mace, but he can’t use it, because, if sprayed in his car, it will potentially incapacitate him (he’s wearing contacts). And so Wilson goes for his gun. “It is kind of hard to describe it, I turn and I go like this. He is standing here. I said, “Get back or I’m going to shoot you.”

Having already invoked the World Wrestling Foundation, at this point Wilson goes full Hollywood, making Brown into an action movie villain. “He immediately grabs my gun and says, “You are too much of a pussy to shoot me.”

This supposed reaction strikes me as having all the plausibility of George Zimmerman’s claim that, making a play for Zimmerman’s gun, Trayvon Martin screamed “You’re going to die tonight!” But it doesn’t matter, because these young men aren’t here to tell their side of the story, and the men who killed them are. And in Wilson’s case, the man putting words into the mouth of the teenager he shot also has a suite of visual aids and a very helpful pair of assistant prosecutors on his side. Because it’s at this point that the grand jury is shown pictures of the gun, and of Wilson’s face – his threatened, fragile, damaged face.

“Does it look like swelling?,” Wilson is asked. “You know your face better than we do, does that look like swelling?
“I can’t tell with that angle with the ruler.”
“You can’t tell on that one? What about this one?”
“That one I can tell from down by my, down in this area looks swollen to me.”

Wilson’s face is in danger. The photos show it. “[There was] a significant amount of contact made to my face.” Wilson stresses this vulnerability. “I mean it was, he’s obviously bigger than I was and stronger and the [sic], I’ve already taken two to the face and I didn’t think I would, the third one could be fatal if he hit me right.”

And so Wilson fires, or at least tries to – there is a series of apparent “clicks” where the gun doesn’t discharge. But one round eventually does go off, shattering the window. At which point Brown undergoes yet another metamorphosis, this time into a “demon.”

“And then after he did that, he looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”

Brown, rendered here not just “no angel” but now fully in league with the powers of darkness (all senses of that phrase intended), readies another charge at Wilson. “I just saw his hands up, I don’t know if they were closed yet, on the way to going closed, I saw this and that face coming at me again, and I just went like this and I shielded my face.”

That face coming at me…I shielded my face. Covering his face, Wilson fumbles with his weapon and fires blindly, finally striking Brown. Wounded, Brown flees; Wilson pursues. And then, for no apparent reason, Brown turns on him.

“He turns, and when he looked at me, he made like a grunting, like aggravated sound and he starts, he turns and he’s coming back towards me. His first step is coming towards me, he kind of does like a stutter step to start running.”

After supposedly yelling at Brown to get down, Wilson opens fire, but Brown continues to come at him. And now Wilson relates Brown’s final transformation: from Hulk Hogan into the Incredible Hulk, a man-beast who can shrug off bullets like raindrops, ready to charge through them and rip Wilson to shreds.

“At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way… like he was going to just tackle me, just go right through me.”

Wilson continues to fire, twelve shots in all.

“I remember looking at my sites [sic] and firing, all I see is his head and that’s what I shot. I don’t know how many, I know at least once because I saw the last one go into him. And then when it went into him, the demeanor on his face went blank, the aggression was gone, it was gone, I mean, I knew he stopped, the threat was stopped. When he fell, he fell on his face.”

There is much that could be said here. We could observe that Wilson’s testimony is orchestrated with an almost cinematic eye for drama, that he seems also to be attributing to Brown a near-textbook example of so-called “Excited Delirium Syndrome,” in which, as Rei Terada has brilliantly written, “superhumanity functions as subhumanity; it allows the nonhuman to be eliminated while releasing the perceiver from having to answer for seeing someone as nonhuman.” We could also note how Wilson’s warped usage of quasi-religious vocabulary, and his apparent fear of Brown as simultaneously demonic-and-magical yet sociopathic-and-bestial, harken back to some of the oldest, vilest tropes in the American racist imagination.

For all the attention shown in court to Darren Wilson’s face, to its cherubic gleam, to its lamented injuries, and to his own preoccupation with saving it, there appears to have been quite as much, if not more, emphasis on denying, erasing, and distorting Michael Brown’s.

Defiant youth, stone-cold gangster, jacked-up wrestler, demon: Michael Brown never had a human face for Darren Wilson. He was a space of projection for Wilson’s worst fears, insecurities, and prejudices. And what face Brown did have – Wilson had to shoot the life out of it, to leave it blank, and finally to obliterate it altogether. “When he fell, he fell on his face.”

Dead Man Running

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.

Call of the Uncanny

“That particular variety of terror that leads back to what has been known of old, that has been familiar for a long time.”


Two things. First, something I wrote exactly a year ago. At the time, I was living in a different city, and my day-to-day life was pretty different from what it is now. It’s impressionistic, not analytical, but I wanted to share it here, today, and then pair it with something else, a more critical reflection in light of President Obama’s speech to the nation this past evening.


I worked all day – really hard, all day long, and I am finally settling down for the evening. Nobody’s home yet, and so I’ve got the place to myself. Teaching, work, a little writing, shopping errands, a doctor’s visit, cooking, I’m exhausted. The anniversary was rough as always, but not as bad as it’s been previously, although realizing that my students were all five or six when 9/11 happened was weird – especially since I opened class by asking if people wanted to talk about the anniversary and no one had anything to say. If I’m still teaching five years from now, any students I might have then will have been born well after it – and hell, for my kids now, all they’ve known, given how memory works, is this world. But, whatever, class was good, and even reading various remembrance articles and the Paul Battaglia guestbook, which I read every year on the anniversary, didn’t fuck me up as much as it normally does.

I lie back on my couch with a drink and a smoke and I fire up Call of Duty: Black Ops II on the Xbox. My roommate and I just got it to play together. It’s not the newest iteration in the franchise, but it’s good co-op fun and solid to play solo online, too. I’m playing multiplayer, and we’re on a level that I guess is like Central Asia or the Caucasus or something in the wake of a Russian invasion. A bombed out medieval village with signage in Arabic script and Cyrillic. It’s the usual bullshit – I’m running around with a tricked-out silenced submachine gun dodging snipers and getting blown up by remote-controlled explosives, when I start hearing voices over the mic. You can hook up a mic, you know, to trash-talk or strategize with your team, but I usually turn it off unless someone I know is playing, since otherwise it’s a lot of kids – really young kids – giggling and cursing, or blasts of feedback from idiots who don’t know how to set their audio pickup properly. Occasionally you hear a mom call someone to lunch. But this time I’m also hearing adult voices, talking back and forth to each other, and it’s totally eerie and they sound shocked and deadly serious.

“I’ve seen at least fifteen so far.”

“It’s like a tornado of bodies.”

I know I’ve heard this somewhere before.

The match is in full swing. The game sound effects keep coming, badass voice-actors yelling macho SEAL bullshit: Enemy Care Package incoming! Flashbang out! Smoked ‘em! Air support on the way! Bag ‘em and tag ‘em! These clips mix in with the dorm room banter and pubescent laughter and bong rips, the usual chaos. But those other voices just keep getting louder.

“I don’t know what happened with the pilot, if it was mechanical error –”

“There’s so much smoke.”

Kids are laughing grenades are going off a machine gun nest has opened up and mic feedback is blaring but these voices are all I’m hearing. I’ve dropped the controller and my character keeps respawning, standing still, a sitting duck, getting shot in the head and resurrecting, over and over and over.

“Oh, oh, oh no oh no.”

“People are jumping again…They’re holding hands.”

“Oh God. Oh God.”

Someone is watching news footage from 9/11 while they play, and their mic is picking it up. Or they’re deliberately piping it in with a soundboard. Either is quite possible. Meanwhile the carnage continues, kids laugh, and someone has started talking to someone else in Spanish.

Twelve years out and the world only gets more out of joint. Nothing made sense then, and nothing makes sense now.


A year later, and still nothing makes sense. I’m still teaching, in Philly now, and my class, a course on Communication Ethics, is full of young men and women, most of whom were toddlers in 2001. Later this semester, we’ll read Eric Fair’s “Orders, Truth, and Torture at Abu Ghraib.” I’m curious what they’ll think of it. I don’t often feel much of a generational divide between myself and my students, but whatever gap there is, this anniversary attenuates it.

Although there’s some material about the War on Terror on my syllabus, I don’t usually write  about international affairs. The scope of this blog is writing about guns, gun violence, and the role guns play in the media, popular imagination, and lived experiences of Americans. Despite the temptation the anniversary presents to write a “My 9/11 Story”-style journal entry, and despite the fact that, as a born-and-bred New Yorker, I could say a lot of things about how 9/11 impacted my life and those of the people I love, I instead want to hew to this space’s more narrow purpose and make three observations, the first two involving objective data, and the third of a more personal character.

First, I’d like to call your attention to a fascinating interactive tool produced by Google as part of the Illicit Networks, Forces in Opposition Project (INFO). It uses customs data collected by the Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) to visualize trends in the international trade of small arms, light weapons, and ammunition. You need to use Chrome or Firefox to see the visualization, but it’s worth installing the plugins to play with. The PRIO dataset covers some 250 countries, but I’d like to call your attention specifically to the figures for the US. In 2000, America imported $353,618,432 in ammunition and military and civilian small arms; it exported $542,735,831. In 2005, the figures are $495,869,1120 and $287,041,040, respectively; in 2010, they are $996,769,657 and $606,577,243. In 2000, Americans imported $0.24 billion in civilian weapons; by 2010, that figure more than doubles to $0.55B. It is important to note that the Google INFO data only extends to 2010, and that it does not take into account the substantial black market for US weapons, particularly that in Mexico. In any event, as of 2014, the US small arms and manufacturing industry employs nearly 50,000 people and generates revenue in the range of $13 billion a year.

The upshot is that, since 9/11, America has produced, imported, and exported more guns than ever before (or at least since WWII). The connection between this uptick in exports and post-9/11 American military interventions abroad is obvious. In terms of imports, there’s of course always been a steady demand for high-quality AK-style long guns and pistols from manufacturers in Bulgaria, Romania, and Russia (with imports from the latter becoming particularly hot commodities given recent sanctions). On the domestic front, though, when it comes to why Americans buy guns (imported or otherwise), their stated reasoning for doing so has undergone a substantial transformation over the course of the past fifteen years. According to PEW research, whereas in 1999 49% of people who owned guns said they did so for hunting, and 26% did for self-protection, by 2013, 48% of poll respondents said they owned guns to protect themselves, and only a third did for hunting. Given the fact that violent crime rates actually went down throughout the 2000s, the impulse to buy a gun to protect oneself seems, at first blush, perplexing. I suspect, however, that this trend speaks to a climate of fear that arose significantly prior to the election of Barack Obama and the subsequent, incessantly-hyped prospects (however dubious) of new gun control legislation. That climate of fear is, I think, part-and-parcel of the knee-jerk response to 9/11 itself. Simply put, Americans got scared, and have been arming themselves accordingly ever since.

Second, I’ll observe that quite a few die-hard pro-Second Amendment militia websites and Oath Keeper social media accounts make frequent use of this image in their banners, memes, and avatars. This painting of a ludicrously over-armed Special Forces soldier with terrible trigger discipline is actually taken from the first Call of Duty: Black Ops game. Likewise, it’s worth observing that direct product tie-ins between arms manufacturers and First Person Shooter games like Call of Duty – including the use of licensed weapons photos and name-brand virtual guns that players can use in-game – are common. In fact, according to Reuters, developer Activision-Blizzard “gives ‘special thanks’ to Colt, Barrett, and Remington in the credits for its “Call of Duty” titles.” And even a casual observer of the trajectory of both the Call of Duty franchise and its competitors (the Medal of Honor and Battlefield series) can’t fail to be struck by how they now involve modern or near-future settings in the Middle East, the former Soviet Bloc, and China, whereas during the 1990s and early 2000s, most of these games were set during World War II, and overwhelmingly in the European theater. The popularity of these games is hard to overstate: the Call of Duty franchise alone has sold nearly 140,000,00 copies, and, as of 2009, had generated nearly $3 billion in revenue worldwide. The point is that, much as we’ve upped our game since 9/11 when it comes to importing, exporting, and buying real guns, America has gotten a lot better at marketing virtual ones as well, at home and abroad.

For my part, personally speaking, I still play the occasional video game, but I haven’t touched Call of Duty or anything like it since I left Atlanta. Maybe it’s because my memory of those levels now look like scenes of breaking news from Novokaterinivka, where the Russians are invading, or from Zumar, Northern Iraq, where, despite all contrary protestations from the administration, we do, allegedly, have Black Ops-style “boots on the ground.” Maybe it’s because I’m afraid to hear voices from the real news piped into my headset while I’m pulling the trigger on a controller and firing virtual versions of weapons that I know are all too real, particularly as our President condemns Russian aggression, vows to “hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” and commits to further arming both opposition forces in Syria and the faltering Iraqi government. Maybe it’s because the prospect of playing a game like the upcoming installment of the Battlefield franchise, which shifts the scene of action from a foreign war zone to a US city, and which changes the role of players from Special Forces commandos to militarized police and SWAT teams seems particularly twisted in the wake of events in Ferguson, where Homeland Security-supplied military gear was deployed against protestors. Maybe, in other words, it’s because the collapse of the virtual realm of militainment into an omnipresent real-world battlespace now feels more complete than ever. Maybe, in yet other words, it’s because the map has become the territory, and that landscape is the world we’ve made, a world filled with more guns than ever before. It’s all just too uncanny – which is another way of saying that, now, thirteen years out, nothing makes sense, but also, at the same time, that everything, all of it, seems perfectly logical, even inevitable, in its terrifying senselessness.

On Not Being an Angel

“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.

Ferguson, Open Carry, and the Ghost of Huey Newton

Two encounters on social media, and one news item; together, a bleak picture.

On Tuesday, there was a post in my Facebook feed, written by a tenured professor at a Midwestern university, a white man. In a few brief, blistering lines, he shared an article about supposed New Black Panthers directing traffic in Ferguson, denouncing them as being “governmental,” and insufficiently “revolutionary.” A few moments later, presumably realizing that this perhaps crossed a line even by his own bilious standards, he deleted the post, replacing it with a borrowed quote from a black anarchist writer, former Black Panther Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin, calling upon black people to arm themselves and meet police in Ferguson with a show of force.

A few days earlier, in my Twitter feed, there was an announcement from CJ Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas, that his group would stage an armed march in Houston’s Fifth Ward. The Fifth Ward is a predominantly black neighborhood, and members of the community there had not only made clear that OC Texas’s presence was unwanted, but that, if they were to show up, they should be prepared to encounter residents also bearing arms. When I asked Grisham whether, in light of events in Ferguson, he was reconsidering his group’s sortie into a largely black neighborhood, he replied: “What happened in Ferguson is exactly why People should be armed.” He then doubled down on questioning what I was referring to by events in Ferguson in the first place, asking: “You mean where a thug and criminal was killed after robbing and threatening a store owner?”

At that point it seems worth observing not only that what exactly happened in that store is now very much in question, but also that while Michael Brown had no criminal history whatsoever when he was shot dead, Grisham himself does have a criminal conviction, from a 2013 incident involving an altercation with law enforcement. Moreover, this episode arose while Grisham was carrying a weapon – unlike Michael Brown, who no one disputes was entirely unarmed when he was shot to death (or even during that alleged “strong arm” robbery). And yet Grisham, who is (no matter what you think of him) a criminal in the most precise legal sense of the term, appeared to see no contradiction in slandering the dead young man, who had no rap sheet or convictions to speak of. Grisham then proceeded to insist,“We won’t bow to the Black Panthers or Quannel X. We won’t be intimidated by bullies. This is America…All of it.” And then, a few days later, OC Texas called off its planned march in the Fifth Ward in favor of a “book drive” to benefit young students there.

Wednesday, news broke of a planned event by an organization in Texas calling itself the Huey P. Newton Gun Club. This group, made up of “black and brown residents of the city of Dallas” is named after the Black Panther leader who famously observed that “The gun is where it’s at and about and in.” The Huey P. Newton group is planning an “armed self-defense patrol” along Dallas’s Martin Luther King Boulevard, standing against police brutality and in support of its members’ own right to bear arms.

Stipulating – explicitly – that I do not begrudge the Supreme Court’s recognition of an individual right to bear arms, I admit that this development, like Grisham’s planned march, has left me deeply troubled. On the one hand, this escalation has a feeling of inevitability to it: as I have written elsewhere, once guns enter the public arena as a means of protest, once they are deployed as a kind of speech, it is arguable that the only equally powerful response is a countervailing display of arms. But the thing about shows of force is that they have a tendency to escalate without warning or plan. And I fear that, as events in Ferguson suggest, any intervention on the part of law enforcement in a confrontation involving armed black protestors will not favor the latter, no matter how well equipped or righteous they may be.

But I admit, too, that these developments also have a kind of all-this-has-happened-before, all-this-will-happen-again dimension to them. Indeed, the open carry protests of Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s were themselves largely responsible for a political backlash that more or less determined the shape of gun control politics going forward. Likewise, the role of guns in what many frequently remember as a solely non-violent Civil Rights Movement is also paradoxical and complicated (for an excellent history of this, see the work of Charles Cobb, Jr.). But much as differing voices today will by turns vilify and praise Black Panthers movements both New and Old, so too are the memories of black luminaries of the earlier Civil Rights Movement co-opted by unlikely, ideologically motivated figures, including Glenn Beck, who dedicates his book “Control” to “Martin Luther King, Jr. … who owned several guns but was subjected to the worst kind of gun control—and deprived of his basic right to defend himself and his family—when police in Alabama denied him a concealed carry permit in 1956.” Never mind the fact that I suspect that even Beck himself would admit that a concealed carry handgun license would likely not have saved Dr. King from James Earl Ray’s sniping at him from across the street with a .30-06 Remington rifle. For all these figures – for the anarchist professor in my FB feed, for CJ Grisham, for Glenn Beck – the image of armed black activists represents a malleable target to appropriate for their own dubious ends, whether they be furthering Leftist revolution, justifying threatening, racially coded displays of Right-Wing aggression in a black neighborhood, or just simply selling books.

But not only are these images of actual people, people who can speak and do speak for themselves, and who don’t need white people to ventriloquize them, the power of those images in the media derives from a history that is very real and far from settled. Indeed, one way or another, it is the events of the 1960s and 1970s, and their consequences – from race riots to white flight to police militarization to mass incarceration to the war on drugs – that have led us to our present situation. And that present situation is a continually unfolding tragedy that encompasses, among other things, what is happening in Ferguson, pervasive racial violence, uncounted and overlooked acts of police brutality, and a nationwide body count due to gun violence that reveals stark racial disparities, particularly among children.

And so while I do not know what happens next, I do not see how repeating the same brew of escalating gestures of further political violence can lead any of us anywhere good. I hope that in spite of the joy that trigger-happy radicals of whatever persuasion may take in the increased presence of guns in our political landscape, we can de-escalate, step back, and find another way forward.