In the same vein as those who call terrorists who fly planes into tall buildings “cowards,” Fox’s Bill O’Reilly pled for calm during the terrible Ferguson rioting on the grounds that such violence dishonors the “the legacy of Michael Brown.”
Unfortunately for young black men who will be affected by the death of Michael Brown, the Ferguson riots – and the violence that ensued – have become his legacy. Indeed, the prelude to the riots and the disgusting destruction of the livelihoods of many law-abiding small businessmen was—fittingly—Michael Brown’s strong-arm robbery of a cigar store. It was almost Michael Brown’s last act on this earth.
The video of the 300-pound Brown shoving the small and frightened clerk should make your blood boil, which is perhaps why I wasn’t so interested in considering his “legacy.” If we want to have an honest conversation about what happened in Ferguson, MO, and how to prevent similar incidents in the future, we ought to spend less time blaming the system and more time unraveling the culture and motivations that enabled Brown’s actions and ultimately his demise.
Certainly it is distasteful to speak ill of the dead. Yet not speaking the truth about Brown is a sin and a disservice against black youth—especially young black men. That’s because not addressing Brown’s actions removes all agency from young men. It strips them of their free will and tells them they don’t, in fact, have any control over their lives – that a white patriarchy really does still exist.
Michael Brown, like all of us, was complicated. It shows a good side that he struggled to make up credits to graduate from high school and was heading to for-profit Vatterott College to learn to be an air conditioning technician. But this is not the Michael Brown who, according to the grand jury report, ran at Officer Darren Wilson that fatal afternoon.
Still when the New York Times did a well-reported piece that concluded that Brown was “no angel,” there was uproar and subscriptions were cancelled. Is it really better not to know that Brown had drug and alcohol problems? Or that he collaborated on disturbing rap lyrics? Shouldn’t these facts serve as warnings to other young men?
Brown has been applauded for not having been a member of a gang. His mother Lesley McSpadden told the Times, “You may see him on a picture with some friends that may have been in a gang. He wasn’t in a gang. He just knew how to adapt to his surroundings. Michael was so cool that he could just get along with anybody.” Perhaps a comment expected from the boy’s mother, but why not open our eyes to the fact that Brown’s violent actions almost certainly led to his death? This more than anything may have the potential to shake other young men into reality and realize their behavior can and does have lethal consequences.
Instead of addressing these issues head-on, consider how members of the Congressional Black Caucus streamed onto the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, holding up their hands and saying, “Hands up, don’t shoot” (words we now know that Michael Brown almost certainly never used). Message to young black men: if you are stopped by a policeman, it makes no difference whether you put up your hands or go for his gun. Certainly as the Eric Garner incident indicates, police can be too aggressive; but it appears that race was not a factor when Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown.
The question we should all be asking is who really puts young black men at risk? Activists who promote their own careers by spreading this vicious but ultimately lucrative lie? (It’s telling that The White House’s Ferguson adviser and all-purpose inciter of racial animosity Al Sharpton began his public “ministry” by perpetuating the Tawana Brawley lie back in the 1980s.)
In the wake of Ferguson, President Obama is spending $263 million on body cameras for the police (a good idea) and more training for law enforcement. If there is racial bias plaguing our police departments, we have a responsibility to call it out and to correct it. Still no evidence has been uncovered that Ferguson policeman Darren Wilson acted because of racial prejudice in shooting Michael Brown in self-defense.
What’s especially insidious about only addressing the racial bias of the police is that it relieves us as a society of the burden of talking about the other side of the story. We don’t have to talk about the culture from which Michael Brown comes and the culture he leaves behind. Democrats want to make this about race, but it is really about families, missed opportunities, failed government policies, discipline, education, and personal responsibility.
President Obama’s response to Ferguson makes one wonder if his much-praised My Brother’s Keeper initiative, an idea that came to him after the death of Trayvon Martin, will address the issues that cause young black men to come to harm or will simply engage in race baiting the police. There are many aspects of black culture that My Brother’s Keeper could help change. Michael Brown, for example, grew up being shuffled back and forth between his parents and living for long stretches with his grandmother. It appears to have been a far from stable environment. Like all kids who grow up in such environments, he deserved better.
But if President Obama were serious about healing the culture that caused Michael Brown's death, he would start by never ever inviting the Rev. Al Sharpton to the White House. Instead he would rethink critical policies in education, welfare, tax policy and regulations, that could actually help restore these communities and bring opportunity to thousands of Michael Browns.