The Soft Bigotry of Oversensitivity
During the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown, an unarmed black male shot to death by police, those of us without the editorial budgets to travel to Ferguson watched it all unfold on social media. While on Twitter I noticed a hashtag people were using to show solidarity with the protesters: #IAMMIKEBROWN.
A brilliant writer and poet I know commented on this in a way that struck me as divisive, even though she was trying to show sensitivity. “Fellow white people,” she wrote, “we are not Mike Brown and we are not Ferguson. We are white people and this is not about us. Let people of color speak for themselves.”
While I am certain that my friend was trying to show sensitivity to how the black experience differs from the white experience, at least with respect to police, ultimately I think it drives a wedge further between the two populations who’ve found a cause around which they can unite. A militarized and overzealous police force’s abuses will certainly affect black people disproportionately, but is actually a problem for all Americans. A white person saying “I am Mike Brown” is actually saying “There but for the grace of God (and levels of melanin in my skin) go I.” Perhaps it’s just a problem with syntax; perhaps it should be: #MikeBrownIsMe
The system’s imbalance is not just one of race but also one of economics. White privilege may play into the decision of the police whether or not to arrest a person, but once that person is in the system it’s all about money. Noting the specific experience differences between white and black folks is enlightening and important, but there is far more that we have in common. The threat of a domineering police force is just one of them, maybe the most pressing.
In Matt Taibbi’s book about the U.S. criminal justice system, The Divide, he talks about the power of bail. He quotes Roy Wasserman a public defender in Brooklyn who says, “It’s a resources game…If they have the money to bail out, they fight [the charge]. If they don’t they plead.”
However, to my friend’s earlier point, Michael Brown didn’t make into the system. However neither did James Boyd, who was shot in the back by Albuquerque police for “illegal camping.” Inexplicably, after being shot in the back, the police then fire non-lethal rounds at him. According to CNN, “It is just one more in a long line of police killings that has the city’s Police Department on the verge of federal oversight.” Race — or at least appearing white — also didn’t save Dillon Taylor, who was shot by Salt Lake City police, according to FOX 13 News, because he was wearing headphones and couldn’t hear the officers’ commands.
Is James Boyd Mike Brown? Is Mike Brown Dillon Taylor? Or are they men who were murdered by trigger-happy police officers too quick to take a life? So, fellow white people: if you feel like you are Mike Brown, good on ya. Because under circumstances wholly beyond your control, you could easily end up just like him.
Photo via Twitter