I am grateful for the thoughtful replies to my essay, though left largely unmoved.
Of course black lives matter, as several respondents point out. But the facts matter too. The fact is that Michael Brown was not killed for stealing a pack of cigarillos. He assaulted a police officer, fought for the officer’s weapon, retreated before aggressively running back toward the officer, and ignored repeated orders to desist. Only then, with the officer fearing for his own life, was deadly force employed. That was a grand jury’s finding after deliberating for three months and assaying all available evidence. Brown was not murdered. He was killed in an act of self-defense. As the President has said, we live in a country governed by law, and this call was the grand jury's to make. Any public argument that begins with the contrary premise—that assumes Brown was victimized by an oppressive political order, which views people of color with contempt—will not be taken seriously by a majority of our fellow citizens and does not deserve to be. No matter how well that argument fits somebody’s historical narrative about the protracted struggle of the descendants of slaves for equal citizenship in this country, it will not compel the public.
It would be wrong to define this moment in terms of the historic black freedom struggle.
I decidedly am not practicing any kind of “politics of respectability” when saying that Brown was no Rosa Parks. Brown’s unfitness for poster-child status does not derive from the fact that he wasn’t squeaky clean. Rather it derives from the manner in which he met his end: engaged in contemptible behavior for which there is no justification. I object to using Brown’s death as the occasion to mount a movement on behalf of racial justice precisely because his death was not a racial injustice. There are many injustices in this society, racial and otherwise. They should be addressed. I have spent a good deal of my time as a social scientist addressing them. I have argued at length in other settings that the war on drugs is a wrongheaded policy that perpetuates racial injustice; that stop-and-frisk policing unfairly burdens many black citizens and should be curtailed; that concentrated poverty, and the social exclusion that results from it, unduly impair the quality of citizenship of poor folk in America; and that this is disproportionately the case among people of color. I have conjectured that the abomination of mass incarceration as our primary societal response to antisocial behavior at the economic margins must reflect the values of policymakers—specifically, the devaluation of the mainly young, nonwhite men who suffer most from this domination. I have speculated that if those in power cared more about the lives of those consigned to misery by the butt-end of our criminal justice system, then the policies undergirding mass incarceration would surely have been abandoned. I have written and said all of this, often.
These are matters to which any progressive movement for equality and democracy should attend. But none of these concerns has much to do with the tragedy that befell Brown. He did not die because of zero tolerance policing, or because of the war on drugs, or because of a militarized police force. He died because he unwisely chose to place an armed police officer in justifiable fear for his life. His case has virtually nothing in common with those of Eric Garner or Tamir Rice—except that each of these cases involves black males dying at the hands of police officers who, so far, have avoided being charged with crimes. This similarity does not, in my mind, constitute sufficient basis for using these disparate cases to define a general problem of oppression. Indeed, imputing a racial motive in these cases is itself a dubious exercise in racial stereotyping of the (white) officers involved.
I am puzzled by the idea that Brown’s demise should call to our minds the violent domination of black bodies that one associates with the era of lynching and Jim Crow. Brown is no Emmett Till, either. I am further puzzled by the notion that, if our goal is to stop the killing of young black men, then what we mainly need to do is rein in the cops. Far fewer blacks are being murdered in New York City today compared with twenty years ago. Presumably this has something to do with the police in that city, among many other causes. This is not to endorse order-obsessed policies such as stop-and-frisk, which has been so controversial and, so far as I am aware, has not been shown reduce violence. It is merely to say that the police deserve some credit for this palpable improvement in the safety of that city’s residents, which has especially benefited young black men because they are more likely to be the victims of homicide. Why, as a general matter, should we view the police as the enemies of the ones whose lives they may have saved?
Of course there are problems in urban policing. I agree that the warrior-cop mentality is rampant in some police departments around the country, that it is fed by demonizing narratives about black criminality, and that it results in oppressive treatment of the residents of many high-crime areas in our cities. Thus I echo the call of those respondents seeking improved police-community relations and cooperative efforts to produce safer streets and less crime. Alternative models of policing, such as that developed in High Point, North Carolina, can make people safer while preserving the legitimacy of law enforcement. A city of a hundred thousand sandwiched between Winston-Salem and Greensboro, High Point created a new approach to drug enforcement that essentially eliminated “overt drug activity” there, according police. Social service providers, members of the community, police, and drug dealers’ families meet directly with dealers to convey the town’s message that dealing is unacceptable. Dealers and police have frank discussions of racial injustice, right and wrong. Offenders are shown the case against them but given a chance to avoid charges if they halt their illegal activities, and service providers offer assistance in transitioning away from criminality. Police departments, especially when operating in predominantly black areas, should be encouraged to pursue alternatives such as this.
But, again, none of this has much to do with the Brown case. Nor, as far as I can see, will the time of transformation from the warrior-cop mentality to the community-policing mentality be hastened by calling Wilson a murderer or by demanding his head on a platter. Only time will tell about the extent to which recent protests will develop into a sustained and productive challenge to the political status quo. The same forecast was made about Occupy Wall Street three years ago and appears to have been faulty. Perhaps this case will be different, but if the mantra remains “hands up, don’t shoot” in honor of Brown, I seriously doubt it.
The reflex to define this moment in terms of the historic black freedom struggle is understandable, but it is a mistake. It is, moreover, a betrayal and trivialization of that great effort. It is the responsibility of black intellectuals such as me to say this even if I am alone in doing so. This critical function, operating from within the black community, is every bit as important as denouncing the racial inequities of mass incarceration and the war on drugs. I am not arguing against myself here. Rather, I am being true to my calling as an intellectual, a black man, and an American citizen.