Tag Archives: racism

Real Talk

I’m going to be frank here. In the wake of Charleston, there’s been a lot of thought-provoking conversations about mass shootings, gun violence in general, and, inevitably, “gun control.” Many of these conversations seem divorced from reality at multiple junctures. Here’s what I think should be stipulated as the stark facts against which the seriousness of any discussion of “gun control” should be measured. They are specific features of our political process, our contemporary cultural landscape, and past history that demand acknowledgement, whatever your position on “gun control” may be.

1. There are at minimum 280-310 million guns in private hands this country. Plenty of their owners vote, and a hard-core group that will not compromise on gun rights does so with particular regularity and high impact in party primaries in key states.

2. The market for guns is not slowing down. Moreover, polling and market sales data indicate that there is a particular growth in favorable attitudes towards gun ownership and a correlative increase in gun purchases among African Americans. If you are white and scorn that impulse, I think you should reflect hard on why – and you should probably read this book, too. In any event, that expanding market of consumers is unlikely to vote against their own gun rights, especially since “gun control” has on numerous historical occasions been wielded specifically to crack down on African Americans owning guns.

3. If the murder of twenty-six toddlers and teachers in one of the wealthiest communities in the nation wasn’t a tipping point in terms of generating a counterbalancing grass-roots mobilization of pro-“gun control” voters in this jaded, violence-numbed country, then no single dramatic event ever will be. Period, full stop, end of story. There might be cumulative impact years down the line, but that’s a complicated discussion for another time.

4. On the national legislative level, lawmaking in the House is broken, and dominated by legislative capture. Not only is the Senate just as broken, its makeup skews votes on gun issues in favor of extremely low-population Western States where gun ownership and a fierce protection of gun rights is baked into voters of all affiliations.

5. On the state level, militant pro-gun actors have successful pressured legislators into expanding gun rights through a series of bellwether actions. Open Carry activists have entered State Houses and the personal offices of opposing lawmakers to tell them that voting against expanding gun rights is treason – with the obvious penalty being death. If you don’t think that impacts legislator behavior, you are fooling yourself. Because as Texas has proven, this tactic works. And mark my words – we will see much, much more of it in the next two years.

6. As far as the courts are concerned, since DC v. Heller, SCOTUS has enshrined individual Second Amendment rights more firmly than ever in American history. This has sparked a cascade of ever-expanding State-level court challenges and “preemption” laws which will only broaden gun rights. This also is not going to slow down.

7. President Barack Obama arguably never could have brought about “gun control” even if he had made it his sole priority in his first term; the fact that he couldn’t after Newtown only cemented this. The particular character of events in Charleston, in my opinion, pre-empts any substantive action on his part from the outset, and makes “gun control” a dead letter for the rest of his Presidency.

Now, even if all the above weren’t true, and “gun control,” somehow, miraculously, were to manifest on the horizon as an actual possibility, I think any serious talk about such “gun control” should also acknowledge as realities that:

8. “Gun control” and gun violence have been equally and inextricably bound up with white supremacy and white supremacist violence since before this country was founded.

9. Any Federally imposed registration process, mandated buyback program, or massive confiscation would quite likely generate violent resistance unlike anything this nation has seen since the Civil War — while also inflating an already abusive Security State apparatus ridden with white supremacy. And, as Alex Gourevitch compellingly argues, any such effort at “gun control” would also inevitably be marked by profound racial disparities and injustices in enforcement.

Whatever your position on “gun control” is, I think these are basic premises that should inflect it one way or another. They should also shape your choice and consideration of analogies when comparing “gun control” in the US to other places (Australia among them).

For my part, in addition to these premises, I believe some other things. I think that gun violence in general and mass shootings specifically implicate white supremacy at nearly ever possible juncture: in their genesis, their enactment, their representation in media, their treatment by our medical and criminal justice systems, and more. Hell, you can’t even define what a “mass shooting” is or count how many we have without immediately encountering complexities of racial framing: per most law enforcement calculi, “mass shootings” encompass acts of violence (gang shootings specifically) which decidedly do not correspond to the popular media association of the term with rampage killings carried out by young white men. I think this terminological instability is itself an index of the power of white supremacy to shape how we frame violence and measure the value of some lives over others. Likewise, I believe even Sandy Hook itself would have been unthinkable if not for white supremacy, and that the gendered dimensions of gun violence also implicate white supremacy as well.

I know some people may take issue with these other beliefs, but I think the nine assessments listed above share a sound grounding in reality. If you disagree, let me know, and I’m glad to talk. Because talking is important. We need to talk about Charleston, we need to talk about white supremacy, we need to talk about racist terrorism, we need to talk about gun violence, and we need to talk about mass shootings. But as Jennifer Carlson wisely cautions, and as I also believe, we should beware of facilely collapsing discussion of one concern into another or of gesturing at them all while saying nothing substantive about any. And all these conversations have to be reality-based — because at the end of the day, it seems to me, talking about things is only meaningful if you intend to actually do something about them.

A Sick and Broken People

A sleepless night; a morning torn between tears of rage and grief. I should not be writing, but I am. I want to say three things. What I say will perhaps be intemperate, but at least it will be honest.

One: this is terrorism. Even given the countless ways in which the label of “terrorism” has been warped, abused, and cynically evacuated of meaning over the past decade-and-a-half, refusing to call this what it is is intellectually and morally indefensible. If anything was ever terrorism, this is. If this is not terrorism, than nothing ever was. This is white supremacist terrorism, and terrorism made possible by white supremacy. Full stop.

Two: the impulse to narrowly pathologize the shooter serves the interests of white supremacy. If, once the identity of the shooter is known, we roll out a tired, ready-made media narrative that solely focuses on his background, upbringing, personal frustrations, and other life details – in short, that paints him as a mentally ill “lone wolf” – then shame on us. This framing not only slanders the mentally ill, who are vastly more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators, but it also ignores the fact that the term “lone wolf” is not an exculpatory psychological explanation. The historical origin of the contemporary phrase refers to an explicit strategy for recruiting and mobilizing terrorists. And not just any terrorists either: the first self-described “lone wolf” terrorists were proudly white supremacist ones. And yet now, when media figures and politicians use the phrase to talk about white mass murderers (but not, tellingly, those supposedly “radicalized” by Islamic fundamentalism) they do so to effectively obscure their shared racist ideology and instead beguile us into focusing on them narrowly as merely misguided or tragically demented individuals. In other words, it’s about whitewashing, and like all whitewashing, it preserves and protects white supremacy.

All this is because, three: We pathologize individual white terrorists so we don’t have to talk about the collective terroristic pathology of white supremacy itself. In May, a group of openly armed white men picketed a mosque in Arizona and menaced and harassed the congregants. Now, another armed white man has decided to murder nine people inside an African Methodist Episcopal Church. Once we know more, when the shooter is apprehended, or killed, or tried, we can talk about pathology, fine. But then, and now, we need to be talking first and foremost about another pathology – not an individual pathology, but a collective one. And this conversation shouldn’t be for purposes of exculpation: it should be about indictment. Because how many more places of worship need to be desecrated with the tears and blood of other human beings before White America shows at least some bit of spine and confronts what it has wrought, what it will not stop wreaking, and what is consuming what we have left of a soul from within? If we do not confront this, then we are a sick and broken people, and if the judgment of history shows us any mercy, we will not have deserved it.

—–

*Update, 2:15 PM.

I wrote the above at around eight this morning and posted it a bit before nine. Since then, the alleged shooter has been identified as a twenty-one year-old man named Dylann Storm Roof, and has been captured in North Carolina. Descriptions of events inside the Church have also become available. Per the New York Times:

The gunman walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church after 8 p.m., and the first call to police came shortly after 9 p.m. Among the dead was the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, pastor of the church, who was also a state senator. Sylvia Johnson, a cousin of Mr. Pinckney, told NBC News that she had spoken with a survivor of the shooting who told her the gunman reloaded five times. The survivor, she said, told her that the gunman had entered the church and asked for the pastor. Then he sat next to Mr. Pinckney during the Bible study before opening fire. “I have to do it,” the gunman was quoted as saying. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

The alleged gunman (Roof) walked into a place sacred to other human beings. They welcomed him among them. He sat with them as they prayed. And then he murdered them in cold blood. I cannot bear to imagine this scene; the mind reels. South Carolina’s governor Nikki Haley appears to sympathize, stating that: “We’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”

At face value, this strikes a chord: some things some people do, we will never understand.  When it is not being marshaled as a distraction, as a sideshow to keep us from confronting white supremacy, even the most astute psychopathological workup of a single individual can only ever take us so far. Haley’s brief statement seems to gesture at this, asking us to see what happened in the Church as a “senseless tragedy.” Senseless: beyond comprehensibility, beyond reason itself — not an act of political violence or the recognizable product of an ideology historically cultivated and shared by more than a single, deranged person.

And yet: In the photo accompanying the NYT piece, Roof appears wearing a jacket stamped with the flags of Apartheid-era South Africa and the defunct white supremacist Republic of Rhodesia. According to the relayed witness testimony, during his attack, the shooter invoked one of the most durable and vile tropes of the American white supremacist imaginary, straight out of The Birth of a Nation. He also essentially articulated an agenda of ethnic cleansing in the name of nationalist irredentism. And he did all this while assassinating a black State Senator and eight other people inside the Emanuel AME Church.

Sometimes you do not have to understand the why of a thing to recognize it for what it is. Pathologizing Roof as an individual is besides the point here, because what we recognize in him is nothing unfathomably inscrutable at all. It is actually very, very familiar, and the pathology in question implicates all of us insofar as it is the pathology of white supremacy itself. So the questions then become: how up-front are we willing to be about this, and about ourselves — and what are we going to do about it?

Sandy Hook, “White-on-White Crime,” and How Privilege Kills

A memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings at the intersection of 5th and Cecil B. Moore, a so-called “Murder Corridor” in North Philadelphia. From 2007 to 2013, 299 children were murdered in city; the majority of these victims were black, and shot to death in North Philly. Photo Copyright Jason Francisco (2012).

A memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings at the intersection of 5th and Cecil B. Moore, a so-called “Murder Corridor” in North Philadelphia. From 2007 to 2013, 299 children were murdered in the city; the majority of these victims were black, and shot to death in North Philly. (Photo Copyright Jason Francisco 2012).

It’s been two years now since December 14, 2012. On that morning, twenty year-old Adam Lanza, a young man with an extensive history of mental health problems, shot his mother four times in the head while she slept. He then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut, which he had attended as a child. Wielding a Bushmaster XM-15 and carrying a pair of pistols, Lanza entered the school at 9:35; stalking the halls and classrooms, he shot and killed twenty children and six adults before shooting himself in the head at 9:40.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled about Adam Lanza since Sandy Hook: a mountain of coverage, including several books, and a slew of government-commissioned reports, among them one produced by the Connecticut State Attorney’s office – a document that, as I wrote at the time, raised more questions than it answered. Yet another report was made public just before this past Thanksgiving, this time from the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate (OCA). The OCA report fills in many of the gaps in previous analyses of what led up to events that December day, and merits close attention – I will turn to it shortly. But reading this report, it’s impossible not to think, too, about what else has been happening since Sandy Hook. I’m referring not just to the escalating number of school shootings that have occurred since Newtown, but also to the ongoing protests over the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, and the scores of other young black men and women killed by police. It’s impossible not to think about these deaths while reading the OCA report, because, if any one thing leaps from its pages, it’s the fact that what Adam Lanza did at Sandy Hook would not have been possible without the enabling forces of white privilege, white wealth, and white impunity. Indeed, with pundits cynically trying to derail discussions of structural racism and police brutality by speciously concern-trolling about so-called “black-on-black crime,” it’s time to talk about Sandy Hook in a different way: not just as an act of “white-on-white” crime, but as an event that is inseparable from the white supremacy that helped produce it.

At just under a hundred and twenty pages in length, the OCA report reveals that what happened at Sandy Hook would have been utterly unthinkable if not for the selective attentiveness, determined along racial lines, of multiple American institutions – from our schools to social services to the prison-industrial complex. Before turning to the report itself, it’s important to stipulate the reality of how these institutions function when it comes to dealing with black youth, whether or not they suffer from psychiatric problems, and particularly when they do.


Our school system is marked by systemic racial discrimination. Black children are disproportionately penalized by teachers and administrators from pre-K on: “While black children make up 18 percent of preschool enrollment, close to half of all preschool children who are suspended more than once are African-American.” As they progress in school, so too does consistent discrimination: rather than being offered special education classes, black children are disproportionately likely to be shunted into woefully-underfunded remedial education courses, and to be punished or even expelled for behavioral “infractions” under “zero tolerance” policies. In Connecticut specifically, which ranks in the lowest quintile of states in terms of providing assistance to black children with special needs, no less than 44% of the youths admitted to its main juvenile detention facilities are black. When young white students act out, their misbehavior is frequently characterized as mischief, or “being a handful” – when black students do, it’s perceived as a sign of budding criminality (see this piece by Lisa Wade for more). The bias of treating black children as deviant troublemakers while excusing or ignoring white children’s misbehavior continues into adolescence. As Jamelle Bouie has powerfully argued, the overall landscape of our schools thus constitutes “a status quo that’s nearly designed to deliver the worst outcomes to African American students.”

To make matters worse, black children are consistently misidentified by whites as being older (and hence more “threatening”) than they actually are. This manifests particularly during their interactions with authority figures like police (recall how, after they shot twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, police officers standing over his body as he bled out identified him as “maybe twenty”) and also when it comes to appearing before judges, juries, and prosecutors: black teens make up no less than 62% of all youths tried as adults in American courts. Psychology experiments have shown that implicit biases lead whites (not just police) to attribute “imperviousness to pain” to blacks, to regularly misidentify black teens as armed, and to “shoot” them when given the option in simulations. Outside psychology labs, on our nation’s streets, black male teens are twenty-one times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts. And although nationwide data regarding police violence is shockingly insufficient, reading the FBI’s own statistics (which offer, at best, only a glimpse at numbers that are almost certainly much higher) reveals that, in incidents of the use of excessive force by police, “the less clear it is that force was necessary, the more likely the victim is to be black.”

If they’re not failed by our schools, or brutalized by police, the odds that black youth will end up in juvenile detention, restrictive residential placement, or prison are likewise disproportionately high. Black youth are four-and-half times more likely than whites to be arrested for the same crimes and four times more likely to wind up in residential placement. Together with other minorities, blacks make up two-thirds of all youth in the juvenile justice system – and while arrest rates for other minorities has steadily fallen to below 1980 levels, this trend has not extended to blacks. Meanwhile, the shameful over-representation of black adults in US prisons is a matter of common knowledge and public record; in 2010, when blacks made up 13% of the nation’s population overall, they comprised 40% of the prison population. In that same year, in Connecticut specifically, while only 10% of the state’s overall population was black, nearly 41% of the people held in its jails were.

When mental illness enters the mix, the risks faced by young people – and particularly by black youth – are even more acute. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that only 6% of Americans suffer from a serious mental health illness, and studies indicate that only 4% of violent crimes involve perpetrators who are mentally ill – in fact, mentally ill persons are considerably more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators. And yet encounters between police and the mentally ill regularly turn tragic, fast. As my friend Harold Braswell has compellingly written, poorly-trained police consistently and disproportionately respond to calls involving mentally ill suspects (armed or otherwise) with overwhelming violence. The “irrationality” exhibited by mentally ill individuals can prompt police to apply deadly force when non-lethal means would otherwise suffice: in states like New Mexico, nearly 75% of suspects shot by police are mentally ill. And when the mentally ill person in question is also black – as the recent cases of Kajieme Powell and others suggest – the impulse to lethally “neutralize” them appears even harder for police to resist.

Unsurprisingly, a similar pattern – of acute discrimination against blacks, the mentally ill, and the black mentally ill in particular – plays out in our prisons. Our adult penal system essentially “warehouses” the mentally ill to the point that the three largest de facto “mental health institutions” in the country are Riker’s Island in New York, Cook County Jail in Chicago, and the LA County Jail. Likewise, the juvenile justice system is jam-packed with children who suffer from mental health issues, some of which are outright debilitating. As the National Alliance on Mental Illness outlined in a 2010 report: “Seventy percent of youth in the juvenile justice system also experience mental health disorders, with 20 percent experiencing disorders so severe that their ability to function is significantly impaired.” Of some 13,000 people who were incarcerated in Connecticut in 2010, 3,400 were mentally ill – a number that does not take into account those held in local jails. Unsurprisingly, research data also indicates that, across the board, black youth with mental illnesses are drastically less likely to receive meaningful mental health treatment while in the penal system, or even to be flagged as in need of care in the first place. In fact, in states for which data is available, black youth with mental illness are considerably more likely to be sent to juvenile jails (as opposed to inpatient treatment centers) than their white counterparts. With this backdrop in mind – a continuum of systematic anti-black discrimination at every level of our nation’s educational, police, judicial, and penal infrastructures, and an intersecting and synergistic brutalization of the mentally ill – let’s turn to the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate (OCA)’s report on Sandy Hook.


Unlike previous reports, which have been primarily preoccupied with tracking the events on December 14 specifically, the OCA report concerns itself with what led up to the massacre, systematically chronicling all of Adam Lanza’s interactions with various institutions and individuals from teachers to school counselors to mental health specialists to ER doctors. And the picture of these interactions the OCA report paints is damning, not just because it reveals an utter lack of communication between these actors and institutions (a “silo-ing” of information), but also because it demonstrates that, while countless “red flags” about Lanza were raised, the consistent attitude of authority figures was to unquestioningly defer to and accommodate his wealthy mother’s tragically misguided insistence on overruling their recommendations as to Adam’s treatment in a way that the report itself makes clear would have been unthinkable if she were nonwhite or poor.

From the start, Adam Lanza clearly had problems – with sensory integration, language processing, and more. But unlike countless children, Adam’s parents had abundant financial resources and, at least as far as his mother was concerned, near-limitless time and willingness to devote to managing his issues. Until she lost her job in what appears to have been a case of workplace discrimination stemming from her second pregnancy, Adam’s mother, Nancy, was a high-powered, successful Boston stockbroker who left her job with a large settlement in her pocket and then turned her energies toward raising her children full-time. When Adam’s father, Peter, became a Vice President for Taxes at a major subsidiary of GE, he purchased the family a 3,100-square foot home in Newtown, a wealthy bedroom community where the median family income hovers around $100,000 a year. Peter was a workaholic and a self-identified “weekend father” who left the domestic labor to his wife, but when they divorced in 2009, their separation was amicable. Peter left Nancy the house and committed to making alimony payments that ranged from $250,000 to $290,000 a year, assuring her she would “never have to work another day in her life.” Crucially, Peter also committed to keeping Adam on his own insurance plan and to footing his medical bills.

Just as Adam’s family could afford to pay for the individual care he needed, there were dozens of providers willing and eager to offer it. The OCA report chronicles countless encounters with pediatricians, child development specialists, and mental health practitioners who diagnosed Adam with a more-or-less consistent suite of comorbid problems: Sensory Integration Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Anxiety and Major Depression, Anorexia, and Asperger’s (the latter of which has since been superseded in the DSM-V by the broader category of Autism spectrum disorders). As Adam’s primary caretaker, Nancy Lanza was regularly recommended treatments for Adam, ranging from boutique talk therapies to high-tech neurological scans, all of which she consistently declined. Instead, Nancy opted for a direct, hands-on approach in which she served as the primary, even sole caretaker of her son, and as the ultimate arbiter of what “truly” ailed him. To this end, Nancy retained the services of a “community psychiatrist,” a private practitioner who did not cooperate with the OCA, and who appears to have only seen Adam infrequently. This psychiatrist’s primary function seems to have been to write doctor’s notes for Adam, at first excusing him for missing classes and then justifying his withdrawal from school altogether – over and against the dire warnings of numerous mental health professionals that what Adam needed was not less interaction with children his own age, but more.

The OCA report exposes an undeniable pattern: as Adam’s symptoms worsened, as more people around him became more concerned about his welfare, and as more opportunities were made available to him for care, his mother correspondingly exerted herself to downplay the severity of his condition, to accommodate his symptoms, and to shelter him from institutional interventions. What matters here is less Nancy Lanza’s motivations – although I will address these below – than the fact that authority figures consistently deferred to her even when it was clear that her decisions were actively contributing to Adam’s deterioration.

As far as interactions with healthcare institutions are concerned, two examples will suffice. Consistent with his diagnostic profile, Adam’s OCD symptoms increased markedly during his middle school years, to the point that, in September of 2005, Nancy took him to a Danbury emergency room for a “crisis evaluation.” In the ER, the report documents, “Mrs. Lanza described AL [Adam Lanza] to health care providers as having had ‘borderline autism’ in the past, but having since outgrown it. She reported that AL was having trouble in school, trouble in groups, and exhibiting repetitive behaviors which had gotten worse in recent days…[She] reportedly feared the ‘beginning of possible autism.’” Staff psychiatrists, clearly troubled by Adam’s agitation, his unwillingness to be touched, his hyper-vigilance, and his cowering, “overwhelmed with fear,” recommended that he be held for an extended evaluation. They encouraged Nancy to pursue placement for Adam in a therapeutic educational program in Connecticut’s Center for Child and Adolescent Treatment Services (CCATS), and additionally offered to do a full clinical evaluation of Adam in order to expedite his admission into the program. Nancy declined both the evaluations and the referral, and instead demanded that Adam be discharged immediately so she could take him home, where he would be “better off” and “more comfortable.” In fact, as she explained to hospital staff, her sole reason for coming to the ER in the first place was to get Adam issued an absence note for missing several days of school due to the “agitation” produced by the hospital visit. ER staff gave her this note, with the caveat that she promise to seek a consultation with a specialist to arrange an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for Adam within three days. And yet this meeting did not occur until December, a full three months later. Why hospital staff were so quick to accede to Nancy’s insistence that Adam was better off with her than under their supervision, and why they appeared to have not followed up on his discharge remain unclear – but whatever image Nancy projected to them, they clearly deferred to it.

Nearly a year after that ER visit, Nancy (in part apparently due to Peter’s insistence) brought Adam in for evaluation at the prestigious Yale Child Study Center. The clinical psychiatrist who evaluated him was deeply alarmed by what he saw. Quoting the report:

“[The doctor] diagnosed Adam with “Pervasive Developmental Disorder or Autism Spectrum and he recommended further evaluation to clarify cognitive, social, and linguistic strengths and weakness. Psychological and speech and language evaluation was seen as essential. Treatment, the psychiatrist stated, would be difficult to implement outside of a broader therapeutic day school setting.”

Like the Danbury crisis team, the Yale evaluators stressed the need for Adam to be placed in a specialized therapeutic environment instead of keeping him in a traditional school. They were also clearly troubled by the character of Nancy’s engagement with Adam’s teachers: by this point, Nancy had been regularly maintaining an at-times daily correspondence with them, dictating details ranging from what Adam should do in class, to how he should be treated during fire drills, to what he should and shouldn’t be allowed to read (“[a]nother thing we might have trouble with,” she wrote, “is boy-meets-girl type [of literature]…an adapted reading list is being provided as a substitute for the standard curriculum.”). Against this type of hovering micro-management, the Yale clinicians wrote:

“We believe it is very important to reframe the discussion with school from issues of curricular content to much more urgent issues of how to accommodate AL’s severe social disabilities in a way that would permit him to be around peers and to progress, rather than regress, socially, as well as academically.”

They were even more worried by the possibility – which ultimately did come to pass – of Nancy withdrawing Adam from school altogether and securing “homebound” status for him:

“We believe that there is a significant risk to AL in creating, even with the best of intentions, a prosthetic environment which spares him having to encounter other students or to work to overcome his social difficulties. Having the emphasis on adapting the world to AL, rather than helping him to adapt to the world, is a recipe for him to be a homebound recluse, unable to attend college or work productively into his twenties and thirties and beyond with mother becoming increasingly isolated and burdened.”

The Yale team was also concerned about the extent to which Nancy herself appeared to have entered a relationship of toxic co-dependence with Adam and about her increasing accommodation of his OCD symptoms and controlling behavior – for example, changing her shoes so that the clicking of her heels would not trouble him, or taking particular, pre-determined routes through various rooms so as not to upset him. Presciently, one of the clinicians who evaluated him in a series of follow-up visits noted both the toxic situation in his own household and the potentially tragic trajectory that could result from increased confinement there:

“His judgment about how social/family dynamics work in a therapy situation is no more on target than his views regarding doorknobs and hand-washing…He wants to control how the treatment goes because his anxiety is nearly unbearable if he can’t feel he knows what’s going to happen. I understand that. At the same time, he can’t control the treatment because his thinking is distorted and irrational. I can’t agree to follow his lead! … I told him he’s living in a box right now, and the box will only get smaller over time if [he] doesn’t get some treatment.”

Predictably, Nancy was not happy with the Yale evaluators or with their recommendations. She told them that they were “torturing” her son – much as, a year earlier, she had perceived the Danbury ER Crisis Team’s holding him for evaluation as the equivalent of “abusing” him. In one of her last emails to the Yale group, Nancy struck the same business-like, directive tone she also adopted in communicating with his teachers:

“I wanted to let you know that the options you presented are not going to work at this time. I would like to save you any further investment of your time… As I mentioned during the telephone conversation previous to our meeting, AL’s OCD component is strongly tied to Asperger Syndrome and he is adamantly opposed to medication. The OCD component is now based on superstition or in an effort to influence outside events or luck. I thought I had been clear that I was looking for individual intervention, perhaps some sort of behavior modification, for the Asperger Syndrome foremost, sensory integration disorder, and the two OCD like components that are impacting his ability to attend school. His refusal to take medication would make it impossible for him to be part of the study group and will just further agitate him. He was quite angry about the line of questioning that the interview took. As you might expect from an Asperger child, he had no understanding of the metaphors, and was quite disturbed by the fairy godmother scenario you gave him. You mentioned that the wait list for treatment for Asperger is quite lengthy, and that the study group was the alternative. However, participation in a study group, with the implied possibility of medication, will not be helpful in this case. So while I very much appreciate your effort, this is not the right course of treatment for him.”

Nancy ultimately cut off further follow-ups with the Yale group, and when Adam reacted negatively to medications he had been prescribed, she stopped giving them to him. From then on, Adam’s sole encounters with mental health professionals appear to have been with his community psychiatrist, only infrequently at that. For her part, by this point, Nancy seems to have been preoccupied only with accommodating her son’s ever-increasing obsessive demands and palliating his symptoms, not with offering him meaningful treatment – much as, several years prior, when Adam’s obsessive hand-washing became so vigorous that his fingers and knuckles grew bloody, she had taken him to a pediatrician, who gave him a prescription for hand lotion and sent him home.¹ After 2008, it appears that Nancy no longer sought any medical treatment for Adam whatsoever.

When it came to Adam’s interactions with various teachers and school officials, the pattern should by now be familiar: Adam shuttled between numerous schools, watched over closely by his mother, who took a highly directive role in all aspects of his schooling. Nancy expended tremendous amounts of time and energy making sure that teachers treated Adam in the ways she deemed to be in his best interest. Working to formulate Adam’s Individual Education Plan (IEP), Nancy took a “hyper-vigilant” stance when it came to communicating with the “educational team” tasked with Adam’s care:

“There are times when emails between Mrs. Lanza and school staff were being exchanged every day of the week. The tone of the emails—which were often efforts to specifically manage AL’s day or his academic experience—was often one of cordiality and even partnership…It is clear in the correspondence as well from present-day interviews with district personnel, that the educational team felt they were ‘thinking outside the box’ for AL, and making deliberate and well- intended efforts to meet AL’s complex needs through careful and extensive partnership with his mother. However, the emails appear indicative of a partnership around a strategy of habituation, or even of appeasement, without a skilled, therapeutic, expert-driven approach that would help AL adapt to the world.”

Yet there were red flags throughout Adam’s time in school. In one particularly striking episode, Adam and a fifth grade classmate collaborated on an illustrated booklet called “The Big Book of Granny,” in which the eponymous “Granny” and her sidekick, “Dora the Berserker,” go on a series of ultra-violent adventures – shooting children, eating them, setting them on fire, and stuffing them to make taxidermic specimens. “I like hurting people . . . especially children,” Granny pronounces, before she herself is murdered by Dora. Although the assignment itself was only 500 words, “The Big Book of Granny” clocks in at no less than 34 pages. According to the OCA report:

“‘The Big Book of Granny’ suggests that while in many ways AL appeared to be positively developing, by the age of ten, on some level, he was deeply troubled by feelings of rage, hate, and (at least unconscious) murderous impulses…While many children, and especially boys, of this age contend with anger and violent impulses in their play and creative productions, “The Big Book of Granny” stands out, to mental health professionals, as a text marked by extreme thoughts of violence that should have signified a need for intervention and evaluation.”

Despite this, the report notes, “there is no evidence of communication in any form between the school and AL’s parents about this book.”² Meanwhile, as Adam matured, the red flags grew even more alarming. As one teacher recalled: “I remember giving creative writing assignments to students, instructing them to write a page or two on whatever they wanted to talk about . . . AL would write ten pages obsessing about battles, destruction and war…I have known 7th grade boys to talk about things like this, but AL’s level of violence was disturbing.” And still, no action was taken.

When Adam floundered in school, his mother would regularly intervene to prevent disciplinary action from being levied against him. The report notes:

“Mrs. Lanza appears to have navigated his disabilities entirely through hypervigilance and management of his symptoms. She wrote to a school staff in 2007 that AL had a bad day and therefore his homework was not complete. She explained that she had ‘interrupted him’ by cooking her dinner the night before, even though she knew the smell of food upset him. She added that a repairman had to come to the house in the morning and that as a result AL was ‘highly agitated.’ She said that the staff member should make the day ‘as smooth as possible,’ and that she would sit in the car and come if he couldn’t tolerate class.”

When Adam did manage to show up for classes, “[Nancy] seemed to want to set up each day for him as he could handle it, but to ensure that he would not know of any special treatment or accommodation.” As to why teachers and school administrators were so willing to accommodate not just Adam but her, the key factor appears, once again, to be her self-presentation as “on top of things”: “The overall impression school professionals had was of a concerned and engaged parent who knew how to manage her son’s unique needs.”

And when it came to pulling Adam out of school entirely, which Nancy did for two years – during the eighth and ninth grades – it appears that the system failed to provide any meaningful oversight or supervision, once again deferring to Nancy’s apparently unquestioned credibility. Despite the Yale team’s fervent recommendations that Adam be kept with children his own age in a therapeutic setting, Nancy got her community psychiatrist, who had previously been incredibly cooperative with absence notes, to sign off on a document formally recommending that Adam be placed on “homebound” status – a special category under Connecticut law distinct from home schooling that is reserved specifically for children “deemed too disabled to receive services in school even with modifications and supports.” On the community psychiatrist’s word, and apparently unaware of the Yale group’s recommendations, Adam’s school IEP team appears not to have “considered any potential detrimental effects of this home-bound placement for AL, [even though homebound status is] one of the most restrictive alternative educational options.” Moreover, the entire process of Adam’s placement on homebound status appears highly irregular, both from its inception to the blatant lack of supervision throughout:

“[Adam] was initially informally withdrawn from school by his family, provided a medical “excuse note,” and then via the special education planning process his IEP team agreed to a recommendation that he would be placed on homebound status…Although AL was entitled to receive up to ten hours per week of tutoring from the school district and to work towards the goals in his IEP, at certain times all educational supports from the district were refused. It is not evidenced that these hours were provided, or how many home visits or hours were refused and why.”

It is unclear what happened inside the Lanza household during these years. It appears that he became increasingly withdrawn, that his symptoms worsened, and that his codependence with his mother increased (as Andrew Solomon reports, Nancy was apparently shocked that her son could tie his shoes without her help – at the age of sixteen). When Adam eventually did return to school, his mother arranged not simply for him to graduate early, but even to begin taking classes as at a local community college, further isolating him from his peer group. By this point, his symptoms had worsened: from moving furniture from his room to blacking out its windows with garbage bags to cutting off contact with his father to communicating with his mother solely through email, nearly all of what the Yale nurse had predicted with her image of Adam’s living in a “box growing smaller” had proven true. Adam had almost entirely retreated from the world. And in the interim, he had developed a preoccupation with researching school shootings online, communicating with a network of like-minded murder enthusiasts, meticulously editing Wikipedia pages for serial killers, and otherwise developing an “obsession and attention to detail with mass killing” that the FBI Behavior Analysis Unit has described as entirely “unprecedented.”


How could all this happen? Time and again, it appears, the recurring theme in the OCA report is that Nancy Lanza tirelessly advocated for her child – no doubt with his best interest in mind, but in a way that clearly contributed to his decline. And she did so, time and again, in the face of virtually no resistance from institutions that treat other children quite differently indeed.

To be clear: I am not interested in vilifying Nancy Lanza on a personal level. She appears to have had troubles of her own, including clinical depression and a hypochondriacal conviction that she was suffering from a terminal illness – she told numerous friends that she had been diagnosed with MS, even though a postmortem survey of her medical records revealed no such diagnosis, and an autopsy showed no signs of the disease. Her apparent disconnect from reality also extended to her conviction not only that Adam was far less troubled than he actually was, but also that he was secretly brilliant.³ That said, I do think that her seeming willingness to ignore his increasing depression, abusive behavior, and preoccupation with violence, while simultaneously providing him with access to weapons and firearms training, crosses the line from negligent irresponsibility into the territory of outright denial and moral culpability. Nancy was a firearms enthusiast, and, as the report notes:

“AL grew up in a home where it was common place to use guns for recreational activity. It cannot be overlooked that as his mental health deteriorated and his isolation from the world increased dramatically, his access to guns did not diminish. His parents, and certainly his mother, seemed unaware of any potential detrimental impact of providing unfettered access to firearms to their son… Additionally, there is no mention of access to or use of firearms in any other available educational, medical, or mental health records.”

Nancy didn’t just let her son use her guns, she bought him guns of his own – potentially illegally, given his age – and took him with her to the firing range to “bond.” Between the two of them, Nancy and Adam owned at minimum five firearms – and when police raided their home, they discovered 1,600-odd rounds of ammunition, edged weapons including a spear and three samurai swords, and more. And although Adam reportedly “disliked birthdays, Christmas, and holidays,” police also discovered a check from Nancy made out to Adam as a gift, with a memo indicating that he was to use it to buy himself a CZ 75.

At which point, we can return to the question with which we started: would any of this be thinkable if Nancy and Adam Lanza had been black? We can work backwards, starting with the guns: in a nation where a black teenager can be shot when a federal marshal mistakes his Three Musketeers candy bar for a pistol, or where Tamir Rice can be summarily executed for holding a toy gun in public, how many black mothers would not just give their mentally ill teenager access to an unsecured arsenal, but actually gift him a handgun for his personal use?

And what about the interactions between Nancy, Adam, and his various teachers? Even if a black Adam Lanza had had as relentless an advocate as Nancy in his corner, would his teachers have been as willing to accommodate him when he acted out, or would they have just disciplined him or suspended him? Likewise, if a black child had written “The Big Book of Granny,” would his teachers have done nothing about it? It hardly seems likely, especially since “expressive play” (including violent imagery) by white children is often either ignored or praised, while similar conduct by black children is frequently stigmatized and punished.⁴

Likewise, whereas by all odds a black child with Adam’s attendance record would have had child services show up at his house and potentially haul him away for truancy, Adam’s mother kept him holed up in her cul de sac and hired a psychiatrist to write him notes, first excusing his absences and then pulling him out of school altogether.

The OCA’s report openly wonders: “We cannot know the degree to which Mrs. Lanza may have heightened or mollified the school’s concerns about AL, and she certainly presented as invested and concerned for his welfare.” Although much of that persuasive self-presentation may have derived from Nancy Lanza’s dogged willpower, managerial savvy, and fluency in navigating otherwise baroquely bureaucratic institutions, we’re kidding ourselves if we deny that a large part of it also depended on the simple fact that she was white and had money.

To be very clear: I am not calling out Nancy Lanza as a racist, or as a white supremacist. Nor still am I condoning the heavy-handed, racist interventions of the educational juvenile justice system or the school-to-prison pipeline. Instead, I am pointing out how, in this case, Nancy Lanza existed at the nexus of various intersecting social realities of privilege that allowed her to look the other way as her son deteriorated, that let her throw money at the problem as though that alone could fix it, and that ultimately enabled her son to commit an unspeakable crime. The OCA report itself is not blind to this issue. As its authors ask:

“Would a similar family from a different race or lower socio-economic status in the community have been given the same benefit of the doubt that AL’s family was given? Is the community more reluctant to intervene and more likely to provide deference to the parental judgment and decision-making of white, affluent parents than those caregivers who are poor or minority? Would AL’s caregivers’ reluctance to maintain him in school or a treatment program have gone under the radar if he were a child of color?”

The questions here may be rhetorical, but, by this point, we should have no hesitation in answering: “No, no, and no.”


Scientists are currently sequencing Adam Lanza’s DNA in hopes of somehow determining what went wrong with him. The boutique technologies his mother waved away from helping Adam while he was alive are now being used to examine him after both of their deaths, in the vain hopes of explaining what “caused” the Sandy Hook massacre. But we don’t need ultra-expensive laboratory equipment to see what facilitated Adam Lanza’s actions, what made them possible. The answer to that is staring us in the face.

Here’s the hard truth. If Adam Lanza had been a young black boy, raised by a working-class, single mother, the odds are we wouldn’t know his name. He’d likely be dead now, but not by his own hand – some cop would’ve seen to that, and quite possibly well before Lanza even hit his teens. Or Lanza would have spent his childhood shuttling between juvenile detention, foster care, and ultimately in and out of jail, a “frequent flier,” in police lingo. Or he’d be rotting in some high-security mental health facility, doped to the gills on Seroquel and on an indefinite psychiatric hold, with no release in sight. Or he’d be just another mentally ill young man, charged as an adult, thrown in with gen pop, left to fend for himself.

All of these alternative scenarios are unequivocally vile. If Adam Lanza had been black, and any of these things had happened to him, it would also have been horrible. The discrimination and violence inflicted upon black youth by our nation’s schools, police, and courts represents a travesty for which history will judge us and which we must strive to change in our lifetimes. But there’s also a vileness to the double standards that allowed Adam to escape scrutiny and intervention from institutions that were keen to help him even as they refuse to help, and indeed, actively persecute black children. Indeed, in a peculiar way, it was Nancy Lanza’s cultural and financial capital – her entitled attitude towards interacting with institutions on her terms alone, and her privileged blindness to the disaster brewing in her own home – that doomed her, her son, and the innocents that he killed. And here lurks another hard, vile truth. It’s something that becomes clear as you survey the wreckage Lanza wrought, and then contemplate what did (and didn’t) follow it. In less than five minutes, Lanza butchered twenty-six toddlers and teachers, nearly all white, in a posh suburban school in one of the wealthiest states in our country. And yet for all the hand-wringing that followed Adam Lanza’s rampage, not only has the subsequent lack of decisive legislative action been appalling, but gun manufacturers have reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in profit specifically because his actions ultimately increased market demand for their product.

In other words, the repulsive truth is that while we live in a nation where people are staging die-ins and bravely mounting protests to broadcast a message that should be obvious – that Black Lives Matter – we also live in a society where, from the start, Adam Lanza’s whiteness mattered still more, and where money mattered, and continues to matter, even more than that.


Notes

§1: The report describes this encounter, which occurred in 2005, as follows:  “Looking at the pediatric record, the pediatrician knew that AL [Adam Lanza] had significant diagnoses, was losing weight (at times), anxious, obsessive compulsive, had repetitive hand washing that led to excoriation, experienced numerous somatic and probably psychosomatic complaints, and was not attending school with his peers. The pediatrician knew that AL was, for a time at least, seeing a psychiatrist in the community, though there is no indication that the doctor had information from this mental health provider or knew what the frequency and duration of this service was. The doctor also seemed to know that despite his recommendation for a neurological consultation, none appeared to take place, as the doctor received no updates or reports from a specialist. Certainly, as stated earlier, this information was enough to warrant careful follow-up and care coordination from the pediatrician. There is no documentation of efforts by the pediatrician to engage this family with appropriate and sustained mental health care.”

§2: In light of Adam’s Lanza’s toxic home environment, and his highly enmeshed relationship with his mother (which is attested to in their email correspondence), the OCA’s interpretation of “The Big Book of Granny” is suggestive: “What the book does tend to show is a boy who is struggling with disturbing thoughts of extreme violence that seem to have poured out in the form of stories and visual images of a caregiver and child-like character who are alternately victimized by and victimizers of each other.”

§3: As the report notes: “While it is not uncommon for parents to struggle to identify and accept their child as suffering a disabling impairment, the Yale Child Study Center clinicians who evaluated and treated AL felt that his parents, and certainly his mother, may have had greater than average difficulty with accepting the extent of AL’s disabilities…Overall, the psychiatrist and APRN at Yale both indicated, in present-day interviews, their view that AL was profoundly impaired by anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and that his parents, and certainly AL, may not have understood the depth or implications of his disabilities. It may have been easier for the parents to accept that AL was a youth with a “high functioning” disorder, conceptualizing him as someone who was gifted but who had odd or challenging behaviors that needed behavioral modification… AL’s parents (and the school) appeared to conceptualize him as intellectually gifted, and much of AL’s high school experience catered to his curricular needs. In actuality, psychological testing performed by the school district in high school indicated AL’s cognitive abilities were average.”

Adam Lanza appears to have also maintained this impression of himself: not only was he apparently convinced that he would be able to attend college without difficulty, his first-choice school was Cornell – to which his academic transcript clearly precluded him from having even a tenuous chance of admission. Likewise, despite the counsel of his father, Adam adamantly insisted that he try to take no less than five courses a semester at the local community college he attended after graduating early from High School, all of which he either dropped out of or failed. The OCA report notes that these frustrations may have played a precipitating role in his decline.

§4: As psychology researcher Tuppett Yates has argued: “For white children, imaginative and expressive players were rated very positively [by teachers] but the reverse was true for black children. Imaginative and expressive black children were perceived as less ready for school, as less accepted by their peers, and as greater sources of conflict and tension.”

Postscript

I want to thank Janelle Christensen for many of the resources I link to here – many of which are available via Sociological Images; I’m also grateful for the abundant and edifying resources produced and maintained by Mariame Kaba at Prison Culture. Finally, I’m grateful to my friend Jason Francisco for allowing me to share the photo from his remarkable series, “These are the Names,” and to Jim MacMillan of #GunCrisis:Philadelphia for directing me to police data about gun violence in the city.

Any errors in my writing are mine and mine alone – please reach out, let me know, and I will correct them accordingly.

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.

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.