The Mike Brown tragedy has brought to surface a number of systemic failures that contribute to the oppression of Black Americans. From political disenfranchisement which allows a city two-thirds black to be represented by a city council that’s 80 percent white to the militaristic police-state response used to control and limit the agency of black people (also, everyone), systemic racism and prejudice pervade every aspect of American life.
Particularly fascinating is our collective and pervasive fetish with portraying black victims as menacing. In the case of Mike Brown, the image most widely shared has him standing stoically on a porch, the camera angle such that Brown — already 6’4″ — looms even larger over the viewer. He’s wearing a red Nike tank that reveals beefy muscular arms — one of which is raised chest level with his hand contorted into a peace (gang?) sign. He is not smiling. Brown looks much older than his eighteen years.
Needless to say, one look at this image and a lot of folks think they know exactly what happened between Mike Brown and the police officer that shot him dead. A picture is worth a thousand words and the story some get from this one is that Mike Brown had it coming.
Mike Brown isn’t the only victim who has been portrayed widely as hostile. Indeed when Trayvon Martin was gunned down by George Zimmerman, an email chain emerged which transformed the 17 year old Martin into a 32 year old man complete with muscular physique, facial hair and tattoos on his face, neck and arms. Of course this wasn’t Martin, but that’s not the point. The point is that how we feel about racial justice and inequity in this country is determined by how blacks are talked about and portrayed in public discourse. And now, as always, we have portrayed them as nothing short of predators.
But in today’s world where citizens can respond to and shape a story just as much as journalists and editors, people struck back with a brilliant hashtag; #iftheygunnedmedown.
People started posting side by side images of themselves. The first photo was designed to mislead, typically showcasing the individual in a way that allowed for other people’s fears and stereotypes to take hold. The second photo often aimed to shatter those stereotypes with many of the subjects draped in graduation gowns or with family members or in uniforms of service. They challenged preconceived notions and forced you to see them as three dimensional human beings and not just the stock menace.
That’s me. Nearly 8 years ago, roughly the same age as Brown. It’s a photo from my freshman year of college.
I’m sure, that if you didn’t know me, this photo would speak volumes. #iftheygunnedmedown and this was the photo the media decided to share, I could imagine someone turning to a buddy and saying, “He looks like a thug.” (Note, Cara feels that I’m totally overplaying this photo “It’s not thaaaaaaat menacing.” Fair enough.)
But if you did know me, this photo says absolutely nothing. It tells you nothing about my obsession with karaoke, or about how much I love baking. You’d never know that I spend my weekends digging through heaps of thrift store clothes searching for wacky shirts and skinny jeans. You’d never know I started and manage a blog that deals with issues of racism and sexism. You’d never know.
I have no idea of what kind of person Michael Brown was, but I do know that his existence consisted of 360 degrees. He had hobbies and things that made him laugh. There were things that kept him up at night and insecurities that sapped his confidence from time to time. He had frustrations and dreams for himself and his future. I’m sure he made mistakes and hurt people from time to time. I know these things about him, because I know he was a human being.
Because he was a human being, his death — and the way we’ve handled his death — is a tragedy. The fact that he was shot while unarmed by a member of the police, who are supposed to protect and serve us, yes all of us, even black men, is a tragedy. And it’s for all of these reasons that his friends, family and his community have taken to the streets to mourn and protest. And #iftheygunnedmedown I’d hope for the same.
Oh, and fyi the picture below is the one I’d hope they’d use should the unspeakable ever happen. It was a damn good caramel apple