In any case where a young person of color has been beaten, shot and/or killed at the hands of law enforcement, there are inevitably two competing narratives: one where the victim is described by parents, family and friends in the most positive and loving light as possible and one where the victim is reduced to that of either a mere criminal or a potential criminal.
Prior to Michael Brown's fatal encounter with Ferguson P.D. Officer Darren Wilson, Brown was featured on surveillance camera at a nearby convenience store, where it appeared that he was involved in a strong-arm robbery. The events, as they unfolded on-screen, fed into the "Michael Brown is a Criminal" narrative trotted by CNN and many other mainstream news outlets. It also gave many with an already-low opinion of Brown and black Americans like him all the justification necessary to consider his life forfeit at the hands of Wilson. In other words, to say that Michael Brown deserved to die, but without actually uttering those words.
Narratives are a powerful thing. They can easily influence how Americans think or feel about an issue and sway opinion from one end to another. The pictures and footage of 1960s-era civil rights advocates suffering assault after ruthless assault at the hands of a cultural and state apparatus intent on status-quo preservation created a powerful narrative that swayed many on the side of justice. But even that narrative had to compete with the equally powerful narrative firmly codified by D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation and ruthlessly reinforced by the behaviors and actions of both cultural and state actors.
Painting Michael Brown as a deadly giant of a criminal wipes any sympathy that anyone has for what happened to him that fateful day. It encourages a mindset that figures, "he was a natural-born criminal and he had it coming. He deserved to die."
He didn't deserve to die, but that's all academic at this point.
As it turned out, he did pay for what he was suspected by many of stealing. But I suppose that's also academic at this point, too.
Michael Brown's designated status as a deadly giant and a vicious beast is nothing new. Trayvon Martin was described by many in the media and elsewhere as a powerful Uber-Negro with innate MMA training and the capacity to destroy innocent lives by sheer force of his own blackness, nevermind his actual physical appearance. The powerful narrative of the black man as a superhuman beast is a common one, carefully cultivated over the centuries as proof of his suitability and destiny in the fields of the planter class.
Sheena C. Howard's Huffington Post piece goes into detail about this powerful and long-lasting narrative and how it's shaped this country's perception of black men and women. By highlighting this prolific and persistent pathology, it's easy to understand why the American public is both in awe and in fear of the black specimen:
During the Reconstruction Period (1866 -- 1877), many Whites argued that free Blacks were a danger to society because they were animalistic beasts and savages that needed to be tamed by White slave owners. In 1901, the writer, George T. Winston stated, "The black brute is lurking in the dark, a monstrous beast, crazed with lust. His ferocity is almost demoniacal. A mad bull or tiger could scarcely be more brutal. A whole community is frenzied with horror, with the blind and furious rage for vengeance". These sentiments are eerily consistent with the ways in which Officer Darren Wilson describes Mike Brown as a "demon" in his testimony.
Since the 1930's scientists have been trying to generate evidence of superhuman physical features that characterize Black people to explain their exemplary success in sports. The century old-debate of the "slave gene" seems to resurface every four years, particularly when athletes of African descent outperform competitors at the Olympics, -- most notably in track and field.
The supposedly untamable, animalistic nature of the black man justifies mainstream America's fear of him while, at the same time, justifying his return to his proper lot in life (under the watchful eye of the slave holder). It also justifies dealing with the so-called superhuman in the most final manner possible. So instead of merely talking a man out of wielding his weapon or spending minutes ordering him to surrender peacefully, law enforcement officers are expected to respond to the dire life-or-death presence of the superhuman Negro by ending said Negro's existence, full stop.
America's pathological obsession and fear of black men, a current that runs deeply underneath the national bedrock, was useful as a way to destroy any sympathy for the black creature as he was used and abused on the farms and plantations. It remained useful for severing any sense of solidarity between poor freed blacks and their equally impoverished white counterparts, while keeping the rest of America in fear of their mere presence. And today, it's used as an effective narrative to continue justifying the actions and tactics of law enforcement agencies throughout the nation, as well as the corrupt actions of the prosecutors and the judiciary.
Sadly, enforcing that narrative always comes at a cost. For Michael Brown's family, it cost them their son. For black families across the U.S., it cost them their peace of mind and sense of justice. For America, the cost is its morals and, as some would say, its soul.