By Lee A. Daniels
We’ve now moved to a new stage of the racist reaction to the police killing of Michael Brown: the largely overt assertion that he deserved to be killed.
In the immediate aftermath of Brown, though unarmed, being shot “multiple times” after being stopped while walking in the middle of the street, the “ballad” being played in some quarters went like this: we don’t know all the facts so we shouldn’t rush to judgment.
But, once the Ferguson police released the video of Michael Brown purportedly snatching a box of cigars from the convenience store and intimidating its clerk, that advice was quickly replaced by that old standby: criminalizing the person who was killed.
Now, the slimers have simplified their defense of Brown’s killing. He was not an 18-year-old teenager, but a man-sized Black male 6’4” tall and well over 250 pounds was a threat to public safety. In other words: a “thug” – and therefore someone whom any White person should be able to execute with impunity.
That’s the first-level meaning that saturates many of the racist reader responses to articles on Brown’s killing in the blogosphere. Those kind of responses vividly recall the crude, cowardly mental states-of-being that animated not only the mobs of racists who gathered in Southern cities and towns to harass and beat the civil rights demonstrators during the 1950s and 1960s but also their enablers among most of the White South’s civic and political leadership. Last week, it was most succinctly expressed by two conservative commentators who’ve long shown their willingness to justify any injustice.
Appearing on the Fox News channel, Linda Chavez said that describing Brown as unarmed at the moment of his encounter with Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was misleading. “That description,” she claimed, “in and of itself actually colors the way in which we look at this story. We’re talking about an 18-year-old man who is 6’4” and weighs almost 300 pounds, who is videotaped just moments before the confrontation with a police officer strong arming an employee and robbing a convenience store.”
Ben Stein, a conservative pundit familiar to most of America as a pitchman for a brand of eye drops, showed up on Newsmax television, to make the point in even simpler terms: “The idea of calling this poor young man unarmed when he was 6’4”, 300 pounds, full of muscles, apparently, according to what I read in the New York Times, on marijuana. To call him unarmed is like calling Sonny Liston unarmed or Cassius Clay (sic) unarmed. He wasn’t unarmed. He was armed with his incredibly strong, scary self.”
These comments exemplify both the conscious and the subconscious character of the racist reaction.
Stein’s and Chavez’s primary intent is to assert that Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, the police officer were equally armed – that Brown’s size and weight was a weapon as equal in its ability to cause harm as the bullets Darren Wilson carried in his gun and fired at Brown from a distance of more than thirty feet.
That perverse distortion was used to justify myriad lynchings of Black men, women and children during the nation’s Jim Crow decades – and its continuing utility was most recently demonstrated in George Zimmerman’s defenders claiming that he, who stood 5’8” and weighed 200 pounds, had no choice but to shoot to death the unarmed Trayvon Martin, who stood 5’11” and weighed 158 pounds.
Trayvon Martin was far from the height and weight of Michael Brown, but that didn’t save him from being criminalized because of the most salient feature they shared: skin color. In other words, both were transformed into that fearsome monster of the White racist imagination: the ‘hulking’ Black brute. This is an image that to this day was best given life by the notoriously racist – and profoundly influential – 1915 Hollywood film, “The Birth of A Nation.”
The film, which celebrated the reconstruction of White supremacy in the South and brutal oppression of Black Americans, had as its centerpiece White men murdering a “Black brute” bent on raping White women. “Birth of A Nation,” in short, perfectly expressed White racists’ psychosexual fear of Black people. That visceral fear was most obviously seen in their need to “control” by any means necessary Black males of any size, weight or age – and Black women, too – who in any way real or imagined challenged their pathological need to dominate Black people.
But White racist pathology can’t obscure this blunt fact: police officer Darren Wilson, who was armed, shot to death Michael Brown, who was unarmed, from a distance of more than 30 feet.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.