There’s a natural human pull to tidy stories about martyrs. When it comes to injustice, we gravitate toward figures that exemplify idealized qualities because the resulting narrative is easy. An angelic figure is just living his/her aw-shucks life, evil bogeymen enter the scene and brutalize said angelic figure, and we can all feel simplistically justified in our disgust and outrage. But life is seldom that straightforward, and the slain are rarely without flaw.
Not That Simple
Logically, the character of a single victim shouldn’t solely affirm or negate legitimate discussion of the social problems at play, but it’s often portrayed in the media as a zero sum game. In the case of Ferguson, Missouri, critics of police tactics have spent great energy touting Michael Brown as a “gentle giant” who “didn’t mean harm to anyone.” He was headed to college in the fall; he was simply jaywalking; he conceded to the officer without struggle. Advocates against police mistreatment seem to think they must paint Brown as utterly blameless, or their cause could be voided.
But an increasing pile of facts indicate he was probably—to put it bluntly—a bully. It appears that he robbed a neighborhood store by lording himself over the owner, and then held up traffic by walking in the middle of the road for no apparent reason. Bullies know no racial boundaries—they are present in every population. And I would posit that it’s just as racist to assume that minorities are universally kindly as to assume they are all thugs.
Here’s the crux: It doesn’t matter what kind of guy Michael Brown was.
What matters is the injustice of this case, and that the broader community clearly has massive grievances over treatment by the institutions in their lives—grievances that were bubbling beneath the surface, looking for an escape. Brown’s death was the catalyst to spark widespread protest because knee-jerk police violence toward members of the community is likely all too common and indiscriminate, not because he was specifically the best possible representative of an innocent victim.
Take the Arab Spring. It was often touted that a self-immolation in Tunisia helped spark sweeping democratic movements across the region. Again, deep-seated and widespread resentment toward oppressive authority figures was the key factor, not the specific integrity of the man who set himself on fire.
There are plenty of valid issues to examine here about structural violence toward minorities, and heavy-handed police tactics lobbed at people of all ethnicities and genders in our country. Let’s not undermine those important discussions with desperate and misguided attempts to salvage the image of Michael Brown at all costs. He doesn’t have to be a hero for Ferguson to matter.