with Janee Woods
When Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson finally identified Darren Wilson as the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, the police department also released surveillance camera footage, photographs and a police report that they said implicated Michael as a suspect in a convenience store robbery. Chief Jackson cited freedom of information requests as the reason for the release.
Interesting timing. Community members were outraged that the identification of the officer happened in tandem with this sudden revelation of an alleged robbery. Michael’s family issued a statement that they are “beyond outraged at the devious way the police chief has chosen to disseminate piece mil information in a manner intended to assassinate the character of their son, following such a brutal assassination of his person in broad daylight.”
Hours later, Chief Jackson stated that Officer Wilson had not known that Michael was a suspect while stopping him and a friend for blocking traffic because they were walking in the street.
Yet many people are talking about this robbery like it can sanitize or has some bearing on the fact that a police officer fired multiple shots at Michael while he stood with his hands up in the air, a universal sign of surrender and an indication that there is no threat of weaponry being used against the officer.
Let’s be clear. Michael Brown might have robbed a convenience store. That could be true.
And now let’s be crystal clear with laser focus. Michael Brown might have robbed a convenience store but that doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter because, in the perfect words of a friend who talked with me about this today, this is a “smoke-and-mirrors publicity stunt which implies that alleged shoplifting is justification for killing and obscures a real discussion about engrained institutional racism, the social construction of criminality along lines of race, class and gender, and the unequal social value of human life.”
What does matter is that all this chatter about Michael Brown being a strong-arm shoplifter completely plays into the disgusting old racist lie that black men, especially poor black men, are criminals who need to be controlled with force. This lie tricks people into believing that if black men are criminals then their lives are worth less or worthless. This lie fools us into believing that black male bodies and psyches are inherently violent in nature so we are justified in inflicting violence upon them.
What does matter is that holding up the possibility that Michael Brown was a thief, whether it’s true or not, places the blame on the victim and instead shifts the focus away from the deadly wrongdoing of the person with the gun. Even if Michael is proven to have committed the crime he is still a victim because the officer did not know about the robbery when he shot Michael repeatedly even though it seems that he could have been taken into custody alive.
What does matter is that by focusing on the robbery that has nothing to do with the interaction that lead to the shooting we are taking our attention away from the real evil at work here- systemic and structural racism that is killing men of color in our communities. One black man is killed extrajudicially every 28 hours. Michael Brown. Ezell Ford. Eric Garner.* Oscar Grant.* I feel pain in my heart typing those names and the list is much, much longer but I can’t finish it. I just can’t because it hurts too much. Whose name will we be adding tomorrow in memoriam?
Michael Brown might have robbed a convenience store but that doesn’t matter. Repeat this with passion to every person you hear saying otherwise.
*Warning: Graphic video content showing the death of a black man at the hands of the police.