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Amid the tear gas and arrests of reporters in Ferguson, we must not lose sight of Mike Brown

The shooting of an unarmed black man by police in the small town of Ferguson, Missouri has provoked civil unrest, media fury and a debate about the community’s reaction. But riots, reporters' arrests and black anger are not the issue here – the death of Mike Brown is.

Demonstrators protest the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo: Getty
Demonstrators protest the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo: Getty

Mike Brown: this is about Mike Brown. It’s important to write his name twice, because he is in danger of disappearing from view. It is the appalling fate of young black men like him to be lynched twice: first when they are killed, and then afterwards, when their reputations are dragged so far through the dirt that all remaining of them is a shapeless, shadowy mass of black criminality. So the speculation about Brown’s life has raged away, as if there were somehow in his past a misdeed so terrifying that people could somehow feel that, even though he had allegedly been tracked down and shot in the back, justice had been done. The events unfolding in Ferguson are about many things, including the militarisation of the police and the corresponding chokehold being placed upon any form of protest in public spaces. But, above all, they are about the local police’s vigorous defence of their right to kill an unarmed black teen in peace.

Perhaps that sounds strong. But nothing else explains the impunity with which these forces continue to operate. Meanwhile, Mike Brown’s body is in danger of becoming the mere canvas on which the latest grand failure of an institution is painted. His story is already drifting from view, submerged beneath two things: the police’s treatment of journalists, and the fierce initial media interrogation of black people’s response to this tragedy.

The latter of these issues is what may be referred to, again and again, as “the black reaction on trial”. Put simply, the behaviour of black people in response to a horror that they have suffered is examined more keenly than the horror itself. That explains why, in this case – as noted by Chris Hayes of MSNBC – their news network, and not the police, were the first to interview the key witness in Mike Brown’s death. The death of Mike Brown is not so remotely interesting to the law enforcement authorities – or, indeed, some sections of the media – as what black people will do by way of reaction. This also explains the apparent disappointment with which so many reporters first on the scene sidled away from the action, or lack of it, concerned that the protests were not aggressive enough for their tastes.

Why, then, have black people not taken to the streets of Missouri and mown down every white policemen that they have set eyes on? It is not because they have otherworldly powers of emotional restraint, because that would be to suggest that they were somehow less human, less sensitive, than any other group suffering their fate. No: it is because they are mourning a member of their community, and they are looking for justice. It is impossible, on that note, to imagine that Mike Brown been white he would have been left lying on the tarmac for so many hours after his death, the latest gruesome testimony to America’s racial inequality.

Why, again, are black people not unleashing a vengeful hail of bullets? Because they get it: they get why they are killed by authorities with unerring regularity. President Obama gets this, even though he called for “reflection and understanding” in the wake of Brown’s killing; as if there were anything left to reflect upon or understand. The answer was set out clearly by none other than James Baldwin in his short book of two essays, The Fire Next Time. As long ago as 1963, he explained the surprising calmness of African-Americans in the face of these atrocities, and why they comprehend the actions of the policeman who gunned down the fleeing Mike Brown, even as they do not forgive them.  

“The American Negro,” wrote Baldwin, “has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honourably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbours or inferiors. . . Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents – or, anyway, mothers – know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.”

Baldwin got it then, and black people get it now: while we consider the fact that these scenes are as vivid and visceral as they were in the Sixties, evidence of a system so efficient that it erases the individuality of each of its victims. So, again: Mike Brown; Mike Brown; Mike Brown.

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