Since Saturday, the tragic shooting of unarmed teenager Mike Brown by police has turned into a story about looting and rioting and frightening black rage, and not about the brutal response of police to the fruits of their own brutality.
No, I'm not talking about the looters, some of whom were arrested, and most of whom, police say, were not even from Ferguson, Mo. The media has chosen to conflate their actions with the widespread anguish of the people of Ferguson, and those watching in the wider world, but as Brittney Cooper has said, these are the actions of an opportunistic few. Asking for their condemnation is like asking for a denunciation of the flies that gathered around Mike Brown's body as it lay in the street for hours after his execution. It is beside the point, except to the extent that it gives people an excuse (that they didn't even need) to ignore the very real causes and effects of the anguish in Ferguson.
By now, you've probably seen the videos of looting in Ferguson, and maybe you've noticed something missing in those scenes: the hundreds of police in riot gear and armored vehicles that could have prevented it. On Monday night, those police were still busy tear-gassing and shooting citizens indiscriminately:
“I was just trying to get to my sister’s house,” cried one 23-year-old, who lay sobbing on a lawn.
He said he was walking home when officers approached him and sprayed tear gas in his face and peppered him with rubber bullets.
“These m———— came out of the cut and sprayed me in the face like this is a f—– video game or something.” the man said.
Police also dragged six months-pregnant Mikiesha Wickerson from her car, guns drawn, maced her, forced her onto her stomach, and according to Wickerson, it was all for mouthing off:
Since police are always believed over black people (unless there's video, and then only maybe), most media accounts of police force have toed the police line that their use of gas and rubber bullets has been in response to rocks thrown from the crowds, the same sort of rote justification they always use, right up there with "struggle for the gun."
Last night, however, local Fox reporter Andy Banker seemed to have gotten the truth out of the cops before they had a chance to get their story straight. He reported that police began firing on demonstrators to disperse them, with no mention of objects being thrown, and even reported being gassed himself:
"You know, it's dark, and they can see our cameras, but they can't really tell whether we're demonstrators, media, or whatever."
Of course it's possible, even likely, that rocks were thrown at some point, but it matters who shot first, it matters who did the shooting, and it matters what happened before that.
Mike Brown was shot down in the street, unarmed, on Saturday afternoon. As his body remained in the street for hours, anguished residents were met with overwhelming force, including tactical units and officers from 15 jurisdictions, who used police dogs to move the crowds. There were over a hundred police on hand to handle a crowd that reportedly numbered several hundred. You can debate whether such a show of force was necessary to protect public safety, but it certainly seems like the same sort of panicky reaction that leads to so many of these tragedies in the first place.
What isn't really up for debate, though, is the complete absence of any effort to deal with the understandable anguish of Ferguson residents with anything other than force. For nearly 24 hours, there was absolutely no communication from police regarding the shooting, and even then, residents were treated to a seven-minute press conference at which the police chief laid out the cop's version of the story. That's it. With a community already in turmoil, expressing itself angrily but peacefully, no attempt was made to reach out to the public, to provide an outlet for communication. Only force. If all you get is a hammer, pretty soon everyone feels like a nail.
As if that weren't bad enough, though, the police, while promising a "thorough investigation," still had not, and still have not, interviewed Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown when he was shot. From the minute that police officer shot Brown down, to the minutes following that shooting, the lines could not have been drawn any more clearly.
More broadly, the relentless procession of events like these continues to clarify the lines that have been re-drawn, in the "post-racial" age of Obama, that make it possible for Mike Brown and Renisha McBride and Eric Garner, and the next black person who makes someone feel threatened because they exist, to be killed. Media outlets that focus on looting, and ignore the unmistakably brutal context in which this story exists, are making those lines bolder.
Update: President Obama issued the following statement at 4:33 pm, Tuesday afternoon (via email from The White House):
Statement by the President on the Passing of Michael Brown
The death of Michael Brown is heartbreaking, and Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to his family and his community at this very difficult time. As Attorney General Holder has indicated, the Department of Justice is investigating the situation along with local officials, and they will continue to direct resources to the case as needed. I know the events of the past few days have prompted strong passions, but as details unfold, I urge everyone in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country, to remember this young man through reflection and understanding. We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds. Along with our prayers, that’s what Michael and his family, and our broader American community, deserve.