Tag Archives: police

Cross of Irony

Templars

Last Friday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the NYPD will be upgrading its equipment by acquiring $7.3 million dollars worth of high-end bulletproof vests. These vests, which Police Commissioner Benjamin Bratton calls the “Rolls Royce” of body armor, cost $700 each and contain a ceramic plating capable of stopping knife thrusts as well as shotgun blasts.

No one disputes that police need protection, and it’s a basic fact of materials science that bullet-proof vests degrade over time and need to be replaced. The issue here, though, is that these particular vests are made by a company named Paraclete Body Armor, and, if the photos from the press conference are any indication, they bear that company’s logo: a cross. And not just any cross, either – it’s a big red one with distinctively tapered corners that is immediately recognizable as the symbol of the Knights Templar. The Templars were an order of European warrior-monks that arose during the Crusades in the Twelfth Century and who, among other things, were involved in numerous atrocities – including systematically decapitating some three thousand prisoners, largely women and children, at Acre in 1191. Like other monastic orders during the Middle Ages, the Templars followed a “Rule” (a sort of personal code of conduct and set of organizational practices). But unlike more friendly monks whose Rules involved morning prayers and guidelines for brewing beer, the Templars’ Rule was obsessed with martyrdom – and the red crosses they wore explicitly symbolized their willingness to die for their faith.

It’s not a coincidence that the company in question uses this logo. “Paraclete” is the Greek name for the Holy Spirit, and Paraclete Body Armor itself was founded by one Tim D’Annunzio, a former paratrooper and born-again Christian. To call D’Annunzio a colorful figure is an understatement: he’s a strident gun rights activist, a multiple-time Tea Party-favored candidate for Congress in North Carolina who held “machine gun socials” to support his campaigns, and a donor to the notorious anti-John Kerry “Swift Boat” ads. He’s also denounced President Barack Obama for “associating with terrorists,” and stated that “As a Christian, I cannot vote for Barack Obama.” Although his blog, “Christ’s War,” is now no longer operational, and much of his online presence appears to have been scrubbed, he’s still on Twitter, where his thoughts on Islam and Muslims in general are a matter of public record.

Although D’Annunzio sold off Paraclete a few years back, the company still uses his preferred logo. Which, I emphasize again, also happens to have been the symbol of an order of religious fanatics dedicated to putting nonbelievers to the sword and who believed that dying in battle while wearing that Cross guaranteed them entry into Heaven. Now whether under D’Annunzio’s stewardship or otherwise, Paraclete can use whatever it wants for its logo, much as scope manufacturer Trijicon can inscribe Biblical verses on optics shipped to US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The question, rather, is: should the NYPD be buying this product? What kind of message does that patronage send to the general public, and what kind of message does an individual cop wearing a Crusader’s Cross on their chest send to civilians with whom he or she interacts? The NYPD has previously taken the stance that religiously symbolic garments must be more or less concealed beneath uniforms. Presumably these crosses, which appear on the ceramic plating within the vest, will be hidden, but will the logo be visible elsewhere? And even if it is hidden, what about police officers who find wearing that symbol to be abhorrent to their own beliefs – but who still need protection regardless?

I hope and presume the contracting process was transparent and fair, and that the NYPD got the best product they could. That said, I think it’s inadvisable and unacceptable if the department actually uses models that have the crosses on them, and I question the judgment of choosing this particular brand (all other alternatives being equal) in the first place. If you think I’m overreacting, consider a counterfactual example: what if the NYPD just dropped seven million dollars on bulletproof vests with a big scimitar on them, manufactured by a company called “Ghazigear” that was founded by a darling of the Muslim Brotherhood who had run for Congress after making a series of statements saying GW Bush was behind 9/11?

After the absurd, profoundly ignorant kerfuffle over the President’s comments about the Crusades and religion’s role in American racial violence, can you imagine the response? And yet here we are, in 2015, dressing armed public servants in garb that hearkens back to one of the most violent religious conflicts in history. What are we thinking – or are we thinking at all?

Update 2/10: My friend Scott Moringiello – who remembers his Jesuit education vastly better than I do mine – correctly points out that “cross” and “crucifix” are not technically interchangeable: a crucifix features the suspended body of Christ (a corpus) on a cross, whereas a cross is just, well, a cross. I have updated the terms used in this piece accordingly.

Update 2/19: The Village Voice’s Jon Campbell, who contacted the NYPD about this issue, reports that the Department wrote back to him and insisted that the vests it has procured will not feature the cross, “which it describes as an adhesive and an optional component.” The Department admits that it was “aware of the logo” although it remains unclear why a model with the cross was featured at the press conference; Campbell describes the procurement of the vests as “unusually rapid.”

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.”
“Okay.”

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.

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.