In Richard Wright’s Native Son, Bigger Thomas kills a white woman and is later captured by a mob. As they drag him through the snow someone screams “kill that black ape.” Bigger Thomas was in a sense a victim-he internalized social conditions which led him to crime. But for the whites in the story a black man could never be a victim. He was simply an ape or beast.
The image of a black men as a beast resonates in cases that have come before the courts. In March 1991 Rodney King violates local traffic laws and then leads police on a high speed chase through the streets of L.A. When the police finally stop him several officers proceed to “beat him half to death” while King is helpless on the ground. Police break the bones holding his eye in its right socket, and they fracture the bones at the base of King’s skull. This is famously captured on video.
Four officers were tried. The officers who brutally beat King counter the video with a story: they portray King as a “hulking beast so dangerous they were justified in beating him “(Newsweek)” King was not an angel. He had a prior robbery conviction. But that had nothing to do with the beating. The Simi-Valley jury bought the story. They acquitted white brutality.
A similar narrative was used in the Trayvon Martin case. Zimmerman’s lawyers portrayed Trayvon as the aggressor despite the fact that Trayvon was unarmed while Zimmerman was. Zimmerman’s lawyers brazenly argued that Trayvon was an urban thug who “used the sidewalk as a weapon.”
Drugs play in role in these dehumanizing stories. In both the King Case and the Zimmerman case lawyers for the defendants argued the black males were on drugs which gave them superhuman strength.
Three witnesses came forward to testify that Darren Wilson shot mike Brown six or seven times while Brown’s hands were raised in the air. In response Darren Wilson told a now familiar story that Brown possessed superhuman strength. “The only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” Wilson, who is 6’4 and 210 pounds, said of Brown, who was also 6’4.
Wilson tells a Detective how after he shoots Brown at the police car Brown runs away but, now shot, Brown turns around and charges back at Wilson, the man who has just shot him. “When he stopped he made like a grunting noise and had the most intense aggressive face I’ve seen on a person.” Later during the Grand Jury proceeding Wilson elaborates on the “intense aggressive” face Brown made at him, when Brown, supposedly turned to charge, “The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”
This story about Mike Brown charging back toward the gun that had shot him seems inhuman, more like the behavior of a wounded animal than an unarmed teen. But notice Wilson describes Mike Brown as super human, with Hulk Hogan like strength, “looking like a demon.” And “He grunted.”
This is a blatant appeal to racist stereotypes of black men as beasts. Again, as in the King Case the jury apparently bought the story. At one point one Ferguson juror asks if Mike Brown’s body could not be considered a weapon.
During the grand jury testimony Prosecutor McCullough, acting as Wilson’s lawyer, introduced evidence 40 times that Mike Brown had marijuana in his system. There was a hint that this marijuana was laced with PCP. But no PCP was found in Brown’s’ system. Marijauna is not associated with violent behavior.
Part of the problem is the media has illicitly knotted together black people, violence, drugs and crime. The overwhelming number of blacks are law abiding . But as Robert Entman showed in his famous study news media disproportionately cover violence and drug use in the black community. Three decades of hood films television shows like “The Wire” portray the black community as a “jungle” populated by criminals and thugs-modern day Bigger Thomases. At the same time white police officers are presumed not only to be innocent but protectors of order and justice. Jurors bring these racialized narratives with them into the jury room. What should be a decision about what happened is captured by fear of crime, fear of black men and the narrative these black men are always the aggressor always guilty.
It doesn’t matter whether the victim is a big black man like Mike Brown or a twelve year old boy like Tamir Rice.
There are those who say we can solve the problem simply by telling our children to pull their pants up. Denial is not just a river in Egypt. If we are to write a new chapter in this story of police officers killing unarmed black men with total impunity we have to address a pervasive racial mindset in which it is impossible for a black man to be a victim. That mindset is in Ferguson. Ferguson is everywhere.
Donald Jones is Professor of Law at the University of Miami, School of Law. His most recent book is Fear of a Hip Hop Planet: America’s New Dilemma (2013) available on Amazon.com.