It took all of five seconds after the news of Ferguson, Missouri teen Mike Brown’s shooting broke for the media to begin the standard image makeover that transpires whenever a black man is killed by authorities.
NBC News came hot out of the gates with an image of Brown perfectly tailored for speculation about his potential gang affiliations, for example. Fox News, predictably, has had a field day writing Mike Brown-based fan fiction, circulating the specious and since-debunked claim that Officer Darren Wilson had suffered a fractured orbital bone after being assaulted by Brown. The Ferguson police played directly to the crowd themselves, releasing the images of Brown’s alleged convenience store robbery in an attempt to justify his being murdered.
Much like we saw with the Trayvon Martin fiasco, this is how the well is poisoned. The narrative shifts from the murder of an unarmed boy to the somewhat understandable use of force against an aggressive man to, by the time we’re done digging through his trash, the heroic dispatching of a thug who had it coming. This is why the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag on Twitter was so poignant and telling: Which of us, if we were in Brown’s shoes, particularly young black men, could not be made out as a violent criminal based on the images of ourselves available online?
Look no further than the hundreds of thousands of dollars being raised by so-called supporters of Wilson, many of whom have left the most vile comments imaginable, for evidence of how thoroughly this re-branding has worked. Hell, open any comments section on any website in existence, including this one, for reams of evidence for how absolutely convinced some people are that Brown was basically The Wire‘s Avon Barksdale incarnate.
More sober institutions of journalism like the New York Times, you might expect, are expected to stay away from this sort of biographical cherry-picking.
You would be wrong about that.
Not content to frame Brown simply as a troubled young man, a piece they published yesterday digs all the way back through Brown’s entire life, beginning with his early days as a criminal in goddamn diapers, in order to set the record straight. There are more dog whistles in this piece than a PetCo.
Author John Eligon, who is himself a young black man, tells us that Brown was, unlike any other teenager to have ever existed in the history of teenagers, “grappling with life’s mysteries.”
He’d recently taken a picture of the sky in which he saw the face of God. You know who else sees images in the clouds? Drug users. Did you know, incidentally, that Brown, unlike any other teenager, had occasionally used marijuana and drank alcohol? Was he doing both at the time he was shot? The piece doesn’t say, but reasonable people can probably invent all sorts of potential scenarios in which he was.
Brown, you see, “was no angel.” We know that not only because not a single one of us is an angel, and this is common sense, but also because Eligon literally writes those words. Need further evidence of this? Brown had—sit down for this one—“taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar.” He’d also gotten into “at least one scuffle with a neighbor.”
Whoa, whoa, hold on here—I thought we were talking about a kid who was shot in the street six times over some bullshit, but I guess he did have it coming after all.
To be sure, Eligon does follow this up with his own “to be sure” graf. Brown, he reports, sometimes smiled. But, just to keep things in perspective, we’re reminded that Brown was, after all, 6-foot-4, so who’s to say what a smile from a black man so large even looks like?
Brown, we go on to learn, was the child of teenage parents (if you know what I mean). Eligon reports, he was something of a handful as a child. “When his parents put up a security gate, he would try to climb it.”
“When they left out pens and pencils, he would use them to write on the wall.”
“He used to tap on the ground, so his parents got him a drum set; his father played the drums.”
LISTLESS MUSICIAN TYPE.
What else? Brown played video games, including violent ones, wore headphones, and was a big fan of rap music. “He knew of Kendrick Lamar before he became famous.”
Not only was he a thug, he was a hipster thug!
All of which clearly explain why, in the ninth grade, Brown found himself in a position where he was accused of stealing in iPod. Did he actually steal the iPod? No, his mother had a receipt for it. But this is an important detail for the entire country to know about Brown’s life.
Much worse things were in store for Brown, however. One time, unlike any other teenager you’ve ever heard of—including myself—he used his parents’ ATM card to buy something he didn’t have permission to. On top of that, he sometimes posted frustrated emotional messages on Facebook. Later on in life, and this right here is the smoking gun that gets Brown dead to rights, the neighbor that he got in “at least one scuffle” with? He swung at Brown, who then pushed him back. And, well, that seems to be about it.
Why didn’t he just kill him with his giant black hands?
This paragraph is a true marvel of convolution:
Mr. Brown rarely got into physical confrontations, [his friend] said, because he was so big that nobody really wanted to test him. Mr. Brown tended to use his size to scare away potential trouble, Mr. Lewis said.
He never got in fights, but he totally could have if he wanted to. Again, he was a very large black man who liked video games, and rap music, and marijuana. Case closed.
Darren Wilson, on the other hand, as another profile in the Times points out, was a “well-mannered, relatively soft-spoken, even bland person who seemed, if anything, to seek out a low profile.”
“He was a gentle, quiet man,” one of his chief’s said.
“He was a distinguished officer.”
He liked to grill, and played sports. It doesn’t mention what type of music he liked.