Michael Brown has been killed and no one will be held responsible. When the grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, this is what they were saying. But why and how is this possible? How can an officer kill an unarmed teen and not get indicted?
To be clear, I am not implying guilt here as I don’t know all the facts of the case. But to not return an indictment means no trial to determine guilt or innocence. In other words, Michael Brown doesn’t even get the benefit of having his case heard. Not only was his life taken, but now the very worth of his life is dismissed. The grand jury effectively shut down any chance at justice. Simultaneously they have deemed Darren Wilson’s actions beyond further investigation, or explanation.
What was the rationale behind this? How did the grand jury come to a decision that legally cast aside Michael Brown?
The answer is found in a vinculum of race and power that transformed Michael Brown from victim to the appropriate target of violence.
From the second he was gunned down we saw an exercise of power over the body and spirit of Michael Brown. The act of killing him clearly demonstrates the power over life and death, but what happened after was violence to the spirit and memory.
We see the first sign of this when his body is left out under the sun for 4 ½ hours while officers walked around the crime scene. Michael Brown was denied the common courtesy afforded to even the basest criminals. In a country with a sanitized view of death, where dead bodies are quickly hidden from sight, funerals of soldiers are not televised, and the dead themselves are relegated away from the cities full of life, the act of leaving his body exposed was an exercise of power that illustrated how Michael Brown was becoming transformed from part of the citizen body into something outside it.
Next came the video. Within days of the shooting, before any talk of indictment was even a twinkle in the eyes of the prosecution, the Ferguson Police Department released a video allegedly showing Michael Brown robbing a convenience store only moments before his death. To be clear, when Michael Brown was stopped and killed by Darren Wilson, it had nothing to do with the convenience store. Michael Brown was not a suspect of a crime, he was simply a teen walking down the street.
The video was the police response to the protestors who held up images of Michael Brown as a child, a son, and a member of the community. The protestors reminded us of Michael Brown’s humanity, of his membership in our community and therefore his basic rights as a citizen. The video by the police was the counter to those images. It aimed to remove him from the citizen body, to remove him outside the boundaries of rights.
The act of removing an individual from the political or citizen body in order to make their killing justified is explained by philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer. He traces the idea of homo sacer from ancient Roman law that allowed the sovereign to remove a person from the protection of the law, by deeming them an oath-breaker, and therefore making their killing acceptable and justifiable. Agamben argues that in the modern nation state, the power rests not with the sovereign but the state itself as an aspect of biopower. The state can strip an individual of its political life to bare life. In the most extreme examples of this process there are concentration camps and Guantanamo Bay.
A similar process was at work in the case of Michael Brown. In his case, the state’s ability to justify the killing relied on its use of racial fear.
The video spread like a virus. The video was disseminated throughout social media and the very platform that was used to organize protests became the space where Michael Brown was stripped of what made him one of us. State power fused with social media. Memes, images, posts, and other videos popped up everywhere. Most of which didn’t even depict Michael Brown, but that was exactly the point. The convenience store video stripped Michael Brown of what made him Michael Brown. He was no longer Michael Brown the son, or Michael Brown the member of the community, he was transformed into a criminal, a thug. The process of stripping him of membership of the citizen body produced the perfect canvas to project racial fears. There is the power over life and death, then there is the power over the spirit; to rewrite a person’s history and identity. Power and race worked together to create the ideal rationale.
He was no longer Michael Brown, he was a “thug,” he was a “criminal,” and “he had it coming to him.” There is a perverse irony in which the very people who most vehemently denied that there was anything racial in the killing of Michael Brown were also the people who relied the most on the racialized language of fear to justify his death.
At one point some on facebook vented their frustration against President Obama himself for racializing the situation by showing sympathy for the dead teenager, but not police officers. This type of reasoning speaks to the hegemonic and disciplinary power of racism that individuals who would not identify as racist have their very thinking transformed by racial ideology. They do not see how they themselves become a constitutive element of the process that destroyed Michael Brown in order to produce the criminal.
There is nothing new about the racial fears invoked in this case. When Darren Wilson described Michael Brown’s face full of such hate that he became a “demon” he could have been reading verbatim from some archival Jim Crow records. It is a historical white fear that transforms blacks into the Other, into an inhuman devil. Yet here it was in the 21st century spewing out of the mouth of a police officer.
The process was complete.
So when the prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, got up to the podium and said, “The law allows all people to use deadly force to defend themselves in certain situations,” I knew what was coming. The ugly marriage of race and power had done its job. A trained and armed police officer was clearly defending himself from an unarmed teenager because that teenager was deemed outside the protection of the law, he was a criminal, he was a thug, he was a demon. Michael Brown became the canvas upon which the white fear of black people was projected.
We’ve seen it countless times before and will likely continue to see it. Only a couple days after the grand jury decision, 12 year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed while playing with a toy gun. Shot by a police office. Again the same force has gone to work. Two days after the shooting, a news report was released about the domestic violence reports filed against his father. What his father’s history has anything to do with Tamir’s shooting has yet to be explained, but it isn’t a hard stretch to see why it was released.
In both cases, race and power demonstrate their transmutative ability to make the senseless, sensible and to make violence, rational. That is a terrifying force all on its own.
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life
–. State of Exception
Delgado, Richard. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction
Williams, Patricia. Alchemy of Race and Rights.
Wise. Tim. White Like Me