Michael Brown on Trial

//Philip Conklin

“Most afternoons Eric Garner could be found around Tompkinsville Park, not far from the Staten Island Ferry terminal, hawking loose cigarettes and making conversation.”

The New York Times, “Death of a Man in Custody Adds Fuel to a Dispute Over a Policing Strategy”

[John] Crawford was a high school graduate who had two young sons. On the evening of 5 August he was at the Walmart in a suburb of Dayton, with his girlfriend, Tasha Thomas. They were there to buy ingredients to make S’mores for a family cookout.”

The Guardian, “Doubts cast on witness's account of black man killed by police in Walmart”

[Ezell] Ford had a history of mental illness and had been convicted of marijuana possession and illegal possession of a loaded firearm. In January, he was put on probation for trespassing in Long Beach.”

The Washington Post, “Ezell Ford: The mentally ill black man killed by the LAPD two days after Michael Brown’s death”

“In the ninth grade at McCluer High School in Florissant, Mr. Brown was accused of stealing an iPod. His mother said she went to the school, eventually showing a receipt to prove the iPod was his.”

The New York Times, “Michael Brown Spent Last Weeks Grappling With Problems and Promise”

When a young black man is killed by police, there inevitably follows a process of judgment. Implicitly or explicitly, the media and the public need a period of time in which to decide whether or not he deserved it. Obviously, there is the legal procedure of determining the guilt or innocence of the killer. But, whether embedded within the legal procedure or apart from it, we are also prompted to assess the victim’s character, based on our knowledge of him.

© 2014   Erica Hernandez  ,  "Untitled"

© 2014 Erica Hernandez, "Untitled"

In the case of Trayvon Martin, [1] both in the trial of George Zimmerman and in media coverage, evidence of Martin’s marijuana use, and the allegation that he had bought the ingredients to make “lean” just before he was shot, were considered relevant facts. In the film Fruitvale Station, which depicts the police killing of unarmed black man Oscar Grant III, the tragedy presented is not that Grant was killed, but that he was killed just days after deciding to live a more just and moral life. On the other hand, there were also articles which claimed that the film’s bias obscured the more unsavory truth about Grant. Either way a judgement is passed, and no matter the verdict, it’s always a question of information. What do we know about this victim, and how does that inform how we should think about his death?

Whatever side these arguments are meant to support, what’s troubling is not their conclusions but their nature. While we argue over whether they condemn or defend the victims, we don’t stop to consider the effect of the discussion itself. These conversations, articles, investigations are not an analysis of the crimes, but are an expression of the same system of judgement and punishment that causes tragedies like this. Nowhere is this more clear than in an August 24 article in the New York Times called “Michael Brown Spent Last Weeks Grappling With Problems and Promise.”

The article, a sober and apparently objective account of the victim’s life, details everything from Mr. Brown’s interest in videogames to his “rebellious streak” to his drug use. We’re presented with a series of character traits and anecdotes — “Mr. Brown was not the best student. ‘His grades were kind of edgy,’ Michael Brown Sr. said,” or “’It seemed like Mike was probably the person that was the most serious in that class about getting out of Normandy, about graduating,’ said Terrence Hamilton, the Normandy athletic director” — seemingly meant to present an unbiased view of the 18-year-old; his flaws, his strengths, his potential for success or failure.

What is the purpose of this article? Why has an esteemed publication like the New York Times found it necessary to publish a piece that chronicles and catalogs the life of this murder victim?

The article does nothing more or less than put the life of Michael Brown on trial. It would be wrong to claim that it asks you to decide whether or not Mr. Brown deserved to be killed. Rather, it presents you with all the information you need, all the knowledge of his life necessary to make some kind of judgment about the incident. However, it would be unproductive to enter into the debate about what it is this article tries to make you decide, a debate with heated arguments on all sides. Because what none of these debates pauses to question is the basic idea that victims like Michael Brown need to be known and discussed.

This article, and all articles like it, aligns the victim as a subject, as an entity to be known and assessed. In this case, Michael Brown is the primary subject in his own murder trial. We learn about his childhood, scuffles with neighbors, his alleged but disproven theft of an iPod in 9th grade, and snippets of rap lyrics he’d written.

If you look at articles written about these incidents, we see a pattern:

Eric Garner was killed by police on 17 July 2014. We know that he was a 6’3’’, 350-pound, 43-year-old father of six, that he had asthma, that he sold loose cigarettes to make money, that he was known as a “peacemaker” in the neighborhood.

John Crawford III was shot by police at a Wal-Mart in Beavercreek, Ohio on August 5. We know that he was a 22-year-old father of two young daughters, that he had a girlfriend named Tasha Thomas, that he was a high school graduate, and that he had been buying s’more ingredients on the night he was shot.

Ezell Ford was shot by police in Los Angeles on August 11. We know that he was 25 years old, had a history of mental illness, that he had been previously convicted of marijuana possession and possession of a firearm, that, according to family members he had “mental complications.”

Not a pattern of behavior, but a pattern of the dedicated search for knowledge. In instances where there are gaps in information, there is speculation: “It’s not clear what Ford was doing;” “’It is unknown if the suspect has any gang affiliations.’” It’s as if, if we uncover all the facts, the truth of this person will be revealed; if somehow we can expose and bring to light every possible bit of knowledge about the individual, their nature, the nature of the crime, and the truth of the crime will become evident. Only then can we gain a full understanding of why they were killed, what part they played in it, and to what degree they are to blame for their own death. But this search for knowledge is disturbing in itself; we should not need more information to recognize the tragedy in these killings, to understand that there’s something wrong when the police keep killing unarmed black men.

There is an obvious power dynamic at play in relation to knowledge; there is someone who is known, and someone who knows. How much is known about a person or a group of people is directly related to the power that can be exerted over them. We see this in the disparity between knowledge about the victims and the police in these shootings; it took six days for the police to release the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown, and two weeks for the LAPD to release the names of the officers who shot Ezell Ford. In articles like these, it becomes clear not just how much we know about these individuals, but also to what extent they were already objects of knowledge of institutions. We know their criminal records, their educational level, their medical history —  what is written about them in the media is really a continuation of the body of knowledge already collected on these individuals. Their position as subjects of judgement follows them after their death.

Much, rightly, is made of the racial dynamic of these shootings. But there is also a racial dynamic at play in the continuous and unabated collection of knowledge about these individuals. Michel Foucault wrote, “There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.” [2] We should not question whether a profile of Michael Brown vilifies or vindicates him; we should question the existence of a discourse surrounding his life, and the lives of victims like him. If these shootings are part of an oppressive institutional apparatus that judges and punishes young black men, then writing an article like this, which constitutes their lives as a body of knowledge, no matter its position, is part of that same apparatus of judgement and punishment.

//Philip Conklin is a co-founder of The Periphery.


[1] Though George Zimmerman is not a police officer, as a white man in a position of power — volunteer in a police-administered neighborhood watch program — the same power relation is at play here.
[2] Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish. page 27


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