Finding the words

Responding to racism, trauma, and the murder of Michael Brown in Maine
By NICK SCHROEDER  |  August 21, 2014


A YOUNG MICHAEL BROWN One of many circulated images of the victim in Ferguson.

Up until the Phoenix went to press on August 19, there were steady reports of what increasingly resembled a war zone in Ferguson, Missouri: heavily militarized police forces throwing canisters of tear gas throughout residential neighborhoods, in some instances arresting and firing rubber bullets at civilians on sight.

The death of Michael Brown, the 18-year old man who was shot while unarmed by a white police officer in Ferguson on Saturday, August 9, was enough to ignite protests. But the events that have occurred since—arrests and intimidation of journalists; militarization of cops against their fellow citizens; racial biases of mainstream media; and the deployment of tear gas, a chemical weapon banned in international warfare—have brought Ferguson to the forefront of national attention, sparking critical discussions about structural racism, police brutality, and national media throughout the country that don’t seem to be going away soon.

As Brown’s death has detonated a powder keg of rebellions and protests throughout the suburban St. Louis region, a startling array of facts have been released in the last week. Some of them tell the story quite well—like how Ferguson is an area with a population 63 percent black, and which employs a police force 94 percent white. More sobering statistics: In Ferguson, 86 percent of all those stopped by police are black, and nearly 93 percent of all arrests. Brown was shot six times while his arms were raised in an act of surrender, as an autopsy released August 17 confirmed. His body was left in the street by police forces for four hours.

While the tragedy and its aftermath have occasioned a national conversation that was badly needed, few other developments coming out of the St. Louis suburb can be considered positive. On Thursday, it had seemed that the inclusion of Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol had defanged the situation, walking with the protestors and mollifying their anger with a powerful speech that included, at least symbolically, the appearance of a heartfelt apology on behalf of law enforcement. But by Saturday, Johnson was another one of many cops ordering the arrests of journalists in the region, and later that night the violence as a response to a state-imposed “curfew” escalated higher than it had ever been.

In the ten days since his death—each of them, remarkably, filled with protests—national media have gone through several lenses to depict Brown. Police released a video which appeared to link him with a theft at a convenient store earlier in the day, a development which, while certainly deserving of a place in any would-be trial, its inclusion in the discussion of his Brown’s murder is absurd—it wasn’t even the reason Officer Darren Wilson had stopped him. This invoked a conversation about the politics of respectability—that the release of evidence which implied question marks about Brown’s character would justify that he was shot unjustly, criminally, out of one can only assume racially motivated reasons.

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