Michael Brown never had a chance to receive a trial, but in many ways the Ferguson case turned him into a defendant, post-mortem. Here are two competing images of the victim:
One image of Michael Brown, according to those who knew him: a sweet, angel-faced big boy, who occasionally smoked weed and always played video games, like most teenage boys growing up in America. He got along with everybody. He was visiting his grandmother the day he was shot six times. He wrote fairly amateurish rap songs instead of doing his homework on time. Sometimes he did dumb things, as again, most teenage boys hopped up on testosterone and peer pressure are wont to do. But he was never known to be a fighter, despite – or maybe because of – his size: he typically “tended to use his size to scare away potential trouble.”
Unfortunately, this tendency may have contributed to Michael’s death. Here’s the image of him from Officer Darren Wilson’s testimony:
…Brown looked up at him “and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked. He comes back towards me again with his hands up.”
Officer Wilson knew none of the context of Michael Brown’s abbreviated life. All he came armed with was a lifetime of images of angry black men, negative reinforcement from interactions with previous suspects, high levels of cortisol and adrenaline. Oh, and a loaded gun.
It is during rapid-fire moments like these, when prejudice becomes fatal.
I don’t know what to do about institutional racism. It’s a problem far beyond me, or the scope of my generation, a problem that has been brewing ever since the first slave ships arrived on the shores of this fledging country. Time heals most wounds, but not these – a dark and shameful past reechoes itself in modern-day iterations of Jim Crow.
What time can do is potentially save lives. In their official statement to the press after the verdict, the family of Michael Brown called for a “campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera.” One of the many reasons for this being that police, feeling the extra layer of supervision and accountability from being filmed, will think twice before deploying what might constitute excessive force. Cameras alone cannot solve the problem of black men being disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. But they have been shown to deescalate situations on both sides of a law enforcement interaction (reality TV notwithstanding, people tend to be on their best behavior when cameras are rolling).
On that hot, fateful August day, the presence of a camera might have slowed things down enough to spare Michael Brown his life. It looks as though prevailing sentiment is on board with body cameras, with police departments around the country in process of adopting them into their routines. More studies should be done to definitively assess their effects. And no camera, no matter how Google-advanced, could capture all subtleties and nuances brought to the table in a hostile police encounter.
But if the widespread adoption of these cameras can avert needless deaths, simply by virtue of psychological effect, then perhaps the death of this young man will not have been totally in vain. There is currently a police body camera bill set to become law in Baltimore City — unless Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issues a veto, which she is likely to do. Time to hit the streets?