Schools and Culture: The Death of Michael Brown

Summary: Prior to his encounter with Officer Wilson on the streets of Ferguson, Michael Brown in many respects was a relatively normal teenager on the cusp of adulthood. His death poses a challenge to the manner in which we empower police, and the American mythology which lives within.
Michael Brown, he of Ferguson, Missouri, beneath the media image of an enraged out of control young man, turns out to have been very much like the many teen agers of all colors I have known. Though this not be a story about schools, it is about the kids we teach, and the culture in which we try to teach.
According to a New York Times background account of Mr. Brown’s life prior to his demise on the streets of Ferguson, he struggled in school, though unlike a large portion of his counterparts, he did the makeup work needed to graduate on time. He was a child of divorce of teenage parents, but maintained important ties to his family, complaining on occasion of their treatment of them. Parents of the world, does this sound familiar? He dabbled in music, in themes that echoed his generation’s rap, and in his last weeks seemed to be asking penultimate questions of faith and existence, right on schedule with his peers. Occasional use of alcohol and marijuana hardly qualifies him as an outlier. He had no juvenile or adult record with the law, according to interviews with family and friends, and some perusal of public records. One minor physical conflict with a neighbor was resolved by the intercession of adults and was an anomaly in Mr. Brown’s short history.
In the limited pre-incident profile available, Mr. Brown could have easily been one of my own students, with whom I sweated to get graduated on time, and whom I attempted to guide toward his intended career in heating and air conditioning. Normal American teenager is the characterization to which I keep returning.
This profile as reported is difficult to reconcile with the bully who pushes a much smaller convenience clerk as part of a theft on a surveillance video the day he died, as well as the enraged and contentious figure Officer Wilson reported he faced the day of the fatal gunshots.
Something doesn’t add up. Perhaps Officer Wilson embellished and polished his account to elude prosecution. The at times wildly conflicting accounts of the critical 90 seconds fail to convince either way, toward either individual’s innocence in the escalation of the conflict.
Perhaps, as suggested in an interesting if a bit over the top piece in Slate, in the panic of the moment, Wilson fell prey to an old stereotype of black men as “giant brutes” of “superhuman” strength, with a bit of demon thrown in for extra kick, and so both Wilson’s fear and his own actions escalated.
And how are we to understand Brown’s theft, the alleged walking down the center of the avenue, even an apparently uncharacteristically venomous verbal challenge to police authority? From a psychological perspective, I can imagine it. He’s been basically a good kid, but now has crossed the membrane to the early stages of adult life. He no doubt shares the experience of virtually every young black man of being stopped by police for no reason other than being black. Now he is aware of entering an adult world in which opportunity for black men is littered with obstacles reserved for them, and in which slights both accidental and purposeful are a common occurrence.
Honestly, what is really the wonder is that more black men don’t go off in some unacceptable fashion. I don’t know how black folk do it. Instinct for survival, I suppose.
But Michael Brown is not really an adult, despite the big body. Like many his age, he thinks he has already earned his spurs, thinks of himself as a man, but he lacks understanding of what that fully means, is still in throe of adolescent angst, with some years yet to age 25 when frontal cortex and his capacity for self-control will be more developed. Maybe he thinks adulthood means doing what one wants, like taking from the corner convenience store, like walking in the middle of the street, confusing those actions with self-assertion. And maybe the marginal heroes of the inner city streets have a bit too much of a hold on his imagination. So his stealing, and his walking in the street are like a coming out party, in his adolescent mind, which is rendered a bit confused (though not violent) under the influence of marijuana.
The search for villainy on either side runs aground on the dawning realization that both characters, the cop Wilson, and the kid Brown, are real humans reduced to two dimensional figures or, even more directly, to symbols of skin color on the American stage. To Brown, Wilson is the oppressor of his dreams; to Wilson, Brown is the community which views his police uniform with suspicion and animosity. Neither are allowed their humanity. The dust clears, and Brown lies in a pool of blood.
An altogether too common theater, with tragic consequences.
There’s another piece to this, as I follow my own logic.
Just why is it that a well trained professional policeman, presumably psychologically inoculated to manage his own emotions under duress, finally deems it necessary to resort to lethal force to subdue an unarmed even if threatening 18 year old? How has he allowed the confrontation to come to that point in the first place? Adult males, not police trained, but weathered by experience, should know the first thing about turning the temperature down when conflict and tempers threaten to spin out of control. Why not this police officer, this police department? Did Wilson, exasperated at Brown in the street, escalate by the tone of his order to “get to the sidewalk?” Faced with escalation even after a first violent encounter, why did he not wait for backup? On another level, was use of a taser rather than a gun ever an option?
Ah, the gun. I swear, as I have read over accounts of the tragedy, I kept seeing a peculiarly American set piece. A street. At one end, a gun man. At the other, a combatant turning to face him. They close……
A scene out of the OK Corral, or innumerable twentieth century westerns, all part of our collective consciousness, the myths which drive us.
In this slice we handle our problems with lethal violence. We empower the individual gunslinger cum sheriff who protects the community by shooting the bad guy. Our hero as single minded, barely verbal, uncomplicated, getting the other before he is gotten.
The myth has become codified into rules of engagement for police that sanctions deadly force to an extent that a temporarily wayward teenager is shot and killed for a petty offense. Against all sanity, Wilson apparently can be judged as having acted appropriately within the rules and training he is given, yet encounter outrage in the human court of morality. In New York, another black man, Eric Garner, dies in a choke hold in the context of another minor offence.
Police encounter circumstances in the street that can breed cynicism, which can dehumanize, and which can breed fear; it can only be humanly challenging work. All the more reason to train carefully, hire wisely, and dispatch with a mindset dialed back from the misapplied aggressiveness in the Brown and Garner deaths.
Before we brand the police evil, remember we citizenry, we culturally put these players in a context we either ignore, or sanction, and they do our bidding unless we instruct them otherwise.
The gunslinger myth is ours; it animates senseless gang violence as well as those serial events in which the cop kills the black man or kid, and even the implacable postures of the black man or kid in that same scenario. How do we acculturate to alternate forms of resolution? Not only police departments need take note.
Meanwhile, I see Michael Brown’s young life as similar to that of students I have known and valued. This vision brings home his death a half continent away.

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