I feel confident stating that neither Brown nor Wilson is an angel — because no one is. But that doesn’t matter, because the two men have been reduced to symbols. Information wars suggest that character is destiny and that character is knowable, as if a handful of snapshots or tweets constitute an autopsy of the soul. They are waged in all kinds of legal battles, from civil suits to contract negotiations to public divorces.
But when there’s a black victim involved, the information takes a different and predictable turn: The victim becomes thuggified. This is an easy leap for many minds, given the widespread expectation of black criminality. If you become nervous when you see a young black male approaching on the street, it is not hard to convince you that a kid who was shot was not one of the “good ones,” that he was scary and maybe did something to deserve it. Information wars thrive on America’s empathy gap — the way some people struggle to see any kinship or shared humanity with strangers who don’t look like them.
It’s worth remembering here that before we knew Darren Wilson’s name, we knew that Mike Brown was a suspect in a shoplifting incident, an incident that Wilson was unaware of when he stopped Brown for holding up traffic. Since then, we’ve been treated to a barrage of dehumanizing images of Brown and assertions about his character.
None of this is unintentional. Wilson’s defenders are seeking to take advantage of the subconscious links most of us carry between Black men and negative stereotypes of criminality. Recent polling suggests that this strategy has been effective.
It does not matter if Mike Brown was stoned when he was shot. It does not matter if he shoplifted some swisher sweets right before he was shot. It does not matter if he was verbally rude to a police officer right before he was shot. None of these are reasons that excuse using lethal force. What matters is whether or not Darren Wilson reasonably believed that Mike Brown posed a threat to his life. And from interviews given by five eye witnesses who have gone public, this does not appear to be the case.