by Mia McKenzie
The killing of an unarmed Black teenager named Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, which has resulted in protests in that town and harsh police push-back and brutality against even more of its citizens, and which, via social media, has gotten the attention of people around the world, probably isn’t even the latest occurrence of unarmed Black people being killed by cops or vigilantes, at just three days old.
Talking to people on Twitter about Mike Brown and what’s happening in Ferguson right now, I’ve noticed (again) how easily folks get distracted when Black people are murdered by the police. It seems as though every detail is more interesting, more important, more significant—including looting of a Walmart in Ferguson, which a local Fox news station focused its entire coverage on—than the actual life that was taken by police.
So, to get folks back on track to focus on what matters most here—the killing of yet another unarmed Black teenager—I’ve compiled this list of 6 Things To Stop Being Distracted By When A Black Person Gets Murdered By the Police.
1. Over-Simplified Talk of “Riots”
According to media outlets and some residents, there’s been rioting in Ferguson since the killing of unarmed teenager Mike Brown. There have been reports of peaceful protests turning less than peaceful, with people confronting cops, throwing things at them, etc. I don’t know if the stories of rioting are true. Most of the video I’ve seen of Ferguson shows the protesters themselves gathered or marching relatively calmly. Angry sometimes, sure. But anger is a perfectly normal response to your unarmed teenage neighbor being gunned down in the street by police (police who have now showed up at your peaceful protest with attack dogs and riot gear).
But let’s get something straight: a community pushing back against a murderous police force that is terrorizing them is not a “riot”. It’s an uprising. It’s a rebellion. It’s a community saying We can’t take this anymore. We won’t take it. It’s people who have been dehumanized to the point of rightful rage. And it happens all over the world. Uprisings and rebellions are necessary and inevitable, locally and globally. This is not to say that actual riots don’t happen. White folks riot at sporting events, for example. Riots happen. But people rising up in righteous anger and rage in the face of oppression should not be dismissed as simply a “riot”.
Don’t be distracted by terms like “rioting”. Whether you’re for or against uprising and rebellion (side-eye if you’re against it, though), it’s a tool, not the issue itself. The issue is yet another Black teenager murdered by police. His name was Mike Brown.
Looting is often part of the “rioting” narrative. Peaceful protests that turn violent are often accompanied by looting. During the first night of the Ferguson protests there was looting reported at various locations nearby. Looting—stealing merchandise from vandalized businesses during a protest—happens separate from the actual protest taking place and its actual organizers and participants in every case I’ve ever heard about, anywhere, ever. Looting is often an opportunists’ game.
Looting, too, is about power. When people have nothing and something happens to remind them, in a big way, that what little they do have can be taken away in an instant, including their lives and the lives of their children, they may reach for any semblance of power or control they can get. That might mean breaking a window or even starting a fire. It may mean taking something. Something you’ve been told you can’t have because you’re not human enough to live, let alone prosper.
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Also (and this important), looting as a crime is NOT on par with the taking of someone’s life. Property is not a life. In this country, police protect property while killing human beings. Sometimes they, as well as civilians, kill human beings in order to protect property. That’s wrong. That’s savagery.
Whatever you think of looting, though, remember this: it’s not the issue, either. The issue is yet another unarmed Black teenager murdered by cops. His name was Mike Brown.
Please don’t get distracted by celebrities. At times like this, famous people sometimes say really important, helpful, intelligent things. Other times, they open their mouths and the most ridiculous hot ass-garbage comes pouring out. (I’m looking at you, Morgan Freeman/Bill Cosby/Don Lemon.) Then everyone spends all day talking about the celebrity and what they said rather than talking about the issue.
The issue is yet another unarmed Black teenager murdered by cops. His name was Mike Brown.
4. The Murder Victim’s Past
I wish I didn’t have to tell some of you that victim-blaming when a Black person is murdered by police is a huge no. That it doesn’t matter if they were on the honor roll, or smoked weed sometimes, or were going to college, or what brand of hoodie they wore, or even if they spent time in jail at some point. That the right to walk down the street without being a target for murder by the police isn’t a right one should have to prove themselves worthy of. That we should all just have that right by virtue of being human beings.
When you’re Black, you don’t always get the benefit of being seen as a human being, though. Black people are seen as ‘up to no good’ by default. The truth is that our lives, like anyone else’s, are filled with good choices as well as mistakes, achievements we’re proud of as well as missed opportunities. Successes. Failures. Just like everyone else. But what’s also true is that we, as marginalized people, get fewer do-overs. The system is rigged to punish us at every possible opportunity. Longer prison sentences compared to whites who commit the same crimes and disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion for even Black pre-schoolers attests to this.
If we were to talk about a victim’s past, we would have to talk about it in a context of oppression. But, you know what? We don’t need to talk about it at all. Because it is irrelevant to issue of their victimization. Just like bringing up a victim’s past to justify her rape is wrong, bringing up a victim’s past to justify his murder by police is also wrong. Yes, even when those people are Black.
The victim’s past isn’t the issue. The issue is yet another unarmed Black teenager murdered by police. His name was Mike Brown.
5. Respectability Politics
Respectability politics is part of almost all of the things I’ve listed here already. It plays its part in most of the ways we get distracted when a Black person is murdered by the police. It’s there in the idea that protests should always be non-violent; it’s there in the idea that looting erases someone’s humanity; it’s there in the idea that the victim’s past, if not squeaky-clean by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’s standards, makes their victimization less valid. It’s always there in the way people talk about Black youth.
I’ve seen the following sentiment expressed on Twitter in response to Black folks murdered by police: “Stop giving them a reason to shoot you!” I’ve seen some version of that tweeted by people of all races, but the ones that concern me most come from Black folks themselves.
This country has spent the last several centuries systematically killing Black people. Black death is built into the system. Black death, alongside Native American genocide, built the system. Yet, whenever yet another unarmed Black person is killed by police, it’s somehow our fault? We must’ve been threatening/drunk/holding a BB gun/maybe possibly shoplifted some candy? Because after 400 years of never needing a reason, they suddenly need a reason? No. No. They have never needed a reason.
I understand how hard it is to accept that as a Black person your life means so little in this country that you can be killed by police for nothing. That walking down the street while Black can be the only reason your life, or the life of your son or daughter or father or partner or friend, ends. You want there to be another reason, any other reason.
Yesterday on Twitter, @prisonculture wrote, in response to a tweet suggesting Black people can dress better to avoid being murdered by the authorities:
…”looking the part” doesn’t help you brother…I’m so sorry. I feel so much compassion for you. How do you absorb & internalize that you are killable, always killable? You create your own fictions. To survive, to live. I understand.
I, too, understand that it’s hard. Almost too hard to bear. Who wants to have to carry these things? Especially when you’re young and dreaming of a life without barriers based on your skin color. But pretending we can “respectable” ourselves out of racism is dangerous. And it will not save you.
Please don’t let respectability politics distract you from the issue. The issue, again: yet another unarmed Black teenager murdered by police. His name was Mike Brown.
6. Lies Mainstream Media Tells You
Please understand and remember that MSM chooses what to show you and what not to show you. Remember how that news station I mentioned showed only looting? Well, by accounts of many folks in Ferguson that night, that was happening while the actual protesters were still protesting, their hands in the air, shouting “Don’t shoot!” at police officers in riot gear who were threatening them. Your MSM isn’t likely to show you that part.
Don’t be distracted by the sensationalized version, by the oppressor’s racist-colored lens that only captures nice police officers trying to do their jobs while animalistic Blacks steal TVs and burn shit down. Get your news from sources who stand in solidarity with oppressed people. I’m told that KSDK 5 and KMOV 4 may be non-terrible local news sources in Ferguson. But do your research, ask around, and find legit news. I’ve found the best sources to be Ferguson residents who are on Twitter. Right now, the folks behind This Week In Blackness, including Elon James White, are headed to Ferguson to report on what’s really going down there. Folks in Ferguson wanted them to come, and a quick campaign to raise money to get them there was fully-funded within 12 hours.
The MSM will tell you whatever it needs to tell you to get you to click on another link or watch for another 5 minutes. Pushing back against oppression isn’t on their list of things to do today. Don’t let them distract you from the issue.
The issue is yet another unarmed Black teenager murdered by the police. His name was Mike Brown.
Mia McKenzie is an award-winning writer, a speaker, and the creator of Black Girl Dangerous. Bring her to speak at your college or community event.