It’s been interesting to watch information go back and forth on the shooting of Michael Brown, and to watch people’s reactions to that information.
After initial reports that Brown had been shot in the back, early autopsies showed that the bullets actually entered through the front (one shot which grazed the hand may have come from the rear). After claims that Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, had a fractured eye-socket, it was discovered that he just had a swollen face.
Yet no matter what information comes out, most people have stuck firmly to whatever narrative they accepted from the beginning. Discussions about the facts of the case have also been very loud and emotionally charged.
This is because conversations about what happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown are not really about what happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. The case is actually serving as a symbol for two other questions, more fundamental and much broader in scope.
The first of which is: “Are the police out of control?”
The way people are talking about this case seems to imply that if Wilson’s use of force was not in necessary self-defense, the police are out of control – and if it was, everything’s fine. No matter how the facts of this particular case turn out, though, the answer to this question is yes.
Even if Darren Wilson turns out to be a near-perfect moral exemplar, the police are out of control. Some estimates say that police kill roughly 400 Americans a year, but the real number is likely much, much higher due to issues with the way that statistic is calculated.
Furthermore, while there is unfortunately no footage of what actually happened that night between Wilson and Brown, Ferguson has since then given us plenty of evidence of lawlessness from the police. Police have used tear gas, rolled through in military vehicles, raided churches, screamed “I’ll f—ing kill you” at crowds, attacked reporters and just generally wreaked chaos on the Missouri town.
The second question that many people are really asking when they ask what happened to Michael Brown is, “is the criminal justice system of the United States still especially skewed against people of color?”
Here, too, we already know the answer is yes. Maybe Darren Wilson is literally incapable of seeing race. Maybe he is the least racist white person in all of Missouri. Even if that ‘s true, it is also true beyond a reasonable doubt that people of color, especially young black men, live under constant attack from the police.
As has been widely reported, blacks in Ferguson are stopped by police at an alarmingly higher rate than whites and are also subject to a disproportionate number of arrests. Ferguson is not unique here. Institutional racism is unfortunately just another part of the American experience.
Despite whites being more likely to use illegal drugs, blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. Racial disparities in the prosecution of gun crimes are even larger. It’s not for no reason that black families have somber talks with their sons about how to deal with the police.
Because these figures are just numbers to most people, they often fail to inspire change. This leads those living their reality to rally behind a symbol like the fallen flesh and blood of Michael Brown.
Since so much has happened to so many people that has never gotten the news coverage this case has, Brown serves as a stand-in for what’s happened to them or those that they know. They don’t see Darren Wilson, they see the cop who murdered their brothers, framed their cousins or shoved guns in their faces at an early age. They don’t see the Ferguson Police Department, they see the prisons that overflow with people who look like them for “crimes” that hurt no one.
Given Ferguson PD’s failure to be forthcoming with their side of the story, the actions they’ve taken in response to protests and proven lies from nearby departments, it’s probably safer to be skeptical of their claims. Even in the unlikely event that they’re right, though, there’s still more than enough reason for the public to take a strong stance against the police. Not just in Ferguson, but everywhere.
It’s not just Michael Brown getting killed. It’s not just Ferguson where the police are an occupying army. It’s not just Darren Wilson and it’s not just a few bad apples. These problems are structural and have to be addressed at the root.