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May Wilkerson May Wilkerson

Michael Brown Was “No Angel,” Claims NY Times Article. So What?


Allegations that the teen who was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri had "dabbled" in drugs and alcohol, shoplifted and written "vulgar" raps expose only the writer's prejudices.

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Michael Brown was human

Michael Brown was not an angel. He was a human being. Photo via Shutterstock.

Michael Brown was “no angel,” claims a piece published today by the New York Times (a newspaper that claims to be progressive on pot) about the teen who was killed by a police officer on August 9 in Ferguson, Missouri.

“Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel,” says the piece. “Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol.”

It’s unclear what bearing these details have on the circumstances leading to his death (six bullet wounds at point-blank range, the last one fatal). Brown shoplifted. He dabbled in drugs and alcohol. The piece also notes that Brown ”had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar,” and “got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.” In other words, he was a teenager.

The implication is that Brown is not entirely “innocent.” He was “troubled.” He was criminally inclined. And it’s hard to escape the conclusion that by choosing to highlight these incidental details and the “rough patches” in Brown’s community,  the article seeks to minimize the injustice of his killing—raising some telling questions about racial and drug-related prejudices.

As a white teenager in a suburban town, I occasionally shoplifted, skipped school and “dabbled” in drugs and alcohol. If I had been killed by police, would these details have been emphasized by the New York Times? It’s hard to imagine, since white girls are so rarely killed by police.

Both Trayvon Martin, who was also killed while unarmed, and Michael Brown were found to have traces of marijuana in their system at the time of their deaths. In both cases, this was presented in the media as evidence that they were “troubled” and “aggressive” rule-breakers. Even though everyone from President Obama to the Times’ own Maureen Dowd—along with an outright majority of adult Americans—has also used marijuana.

Simon Maloy of Salon deftly highlighted the hypocrisy of this piece when he tweeted:

Touché.

Image credit: By Jamelle Bouie [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons