David Alm on Michael Brown and America’s parallel history.
By David Alm
The death of Michael Brown on August 9th has become part of American history. Not the history that includes the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, and Johnny Appleseed, but a parallel history, an ugly one, one that is still being written.
Michael Brown may not have been a saint. He had, after all, just stolen a $48 box of cigarillos from a convenience store and violently shoved its owner on his way out. But he also had no criminal record, and he was planning to start college in a few weeks. Like many 18-year-olds, he was at a crossroads. He might have kept stealing and built a life of crime, or he might have gone to medical school.
We’ll never know. We’ll also never know what really happened in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9th, 2014. We’ll never know if Brown assaulted Officer Darren Wilson in his car, or if Wilson shot Brown despite the young man complying with the officer’s demands. We’ll never know if Brown threatened Wilson; if Wilson truly felt “like a five-year-old” beside a hulking, 292-pound “demon”; or if the police officer simply murdered, in cold blood, an innocent “gentle giant.”
But facts are largely beside the point now. Despite radically conflicting accounts by Wilson, numerous eyewitnesses, and Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown the day he was shot, of what, exactly, happened that day, one indisputable fact remains: an unarmed black teenager was killed by a white police officer in a predominantly black neighborhood in Missouri.
In death, Brown has thus become a symbol, cemented in a history that no one wants to be a part of: a history that includes Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, and Emmett Till. The only thing that connects each of those men is that each of them was young, male, and black.
Martin was an unarmed 17-year-old with no criminal history when he was shot by a neighborhood watchman in February 2012; Diallo was an unarmed 23-year-old West African immigrant who, in 1999, was shot 41 times by four New York City police officers in the Bronx; Till was a 14-year-old boy who was beaten, shot, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi by two white men for flirting with a white woman in 1955. And the list continues to grow: On November 22nd, an unarmed 28-year-old man named Akai Gurney was shot and killed in the stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project by the police.
These names are only four in a list that could fill numerous Vietnam Memorials, if only we knew what those names were. Most are forgotten or unaccounted for, or their deaths were attributed to something else: drugs, gang violence, prison.
But in this parallel American history, drugs, gangs, and prison are not the problem; rather, they are symptoms of a deeper problem: a pervasive, unconscious system of oppression that extends back to the first slave ships to land on American soil nearly 400 years ago. Why is it that roughly 40% of incarcerated American men are black? Why is it that, according to a 2013 study by the Sentencing Project, one in three black men will spend part of their lives behind bars? It is not because they were born violent and prone to crime; they simply exist in a society in which skin color determines a great deal, including how a police officer talks to a man walking down some street in some town in the Midwest.
Brown’s death is doubly tragic because, like Trayvon Martin’s, the details are so murky, and so hotly contested. But even those who were there when Brown was killed, including Dorian Johnson and Darren Wilson, may not know what actually happened, now or ever. The mind has a way of shaping our memories of events in ways that serve us, and in time, we come to believe those memories to be singular and true. “When memory is called to answer, it often answers back with deception,” wrote the journalist David Carr in his 2008 memoir of crack addiction, Night of the Gun. “How is it that every warm bar stool contains a hero, a star of his own epic, who is the sum of his amazing stories?”
And we’ll never know if Darren Wilson would have acted differently if Brown and Johnson had been white, but America’s parallel history suggests that he would have. Whether we want to believe it or not, the benefit of the doubt is conferred on whites far more often than it is on blacks. Gurley, Martin, Diallo, and Till: four names etched permanently into our collective memory of senseless deaths caused not by imminent threat, but by presumption, anxiety, and fear.
After a grand jury announced early last week that it would not indict Officer Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, riots erupted in Ferguson and demonstrations were held throughout the United States to protest the decision. While there was some violence and destruction, especially in Ferguson, most of the demonstrations were peaceful, even mournful. And those, like the demonstrations following the deaths of Martin, Diallo, and Till, might just nudge that parallel history toward a better tomorrow. If nothing else, they prove that in every tragic death lies an opportunity to draw attention to injustice.
In 1963, Bob Dylan memorialized Emmett Till in song, and regardless of what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9th 2014, his words are worth repeating today:
This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan
But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live
This article originally appeared on Ask Men.
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