As a white mom of two biracial daughters and a kindergarten teacher devoted to teaching my students how to recognize and combat racism, I am devastated by Darren Wilson’s acquittal. I struggle to find the words to describe this event to my older daughter, whose immediate response over dinner last night was, “I’m not sure I want to say this in front of you, but…white police officers are bad.” She looked at me questioningly, watching my reaction.
There were many things I immediately wanted to say, including, “This was an unjust case, and there are many fair and just police officers of all races.” And I found myself wanting to know more about why she wouldn’t want to say this in front of me, and what this says about her perception of my comfort level in talking about racism. That led me to wonder how comfortable I really am with it, but, for a moment, I sat there and thought about Darren Wilson. I thought about the testimony he gave to the grand jury, released after his acquittal, in which he describes Michael Brown as a “demon,” with an “intense, aggressive face.”
I wondered, sitting at a quiet restaurant facing my nine-year-old daughter, how much Wilson’s description of Brown influenced the jury’s decision—more than the witnesses who testified that Brown had his hands in the hair and was trying to surrender when he was shot. How much did Darren Wilson’s bestial, demon-like portrait of the man he killed contribute to his acquittal?
Wilson’s testimony depicts a beast charging at him. When describing grabbing Brown, he says he felt like a “five year old holding on to Hulk Hogan.” He says Brown made animal-like sounds, “grunting”, and “looking right through” him. Wilson frequently describes Brown as aggressive and overpowering even though, in reality, Wilson and Brown are the same height, and, Wilson was the one with the “lethal option”—the gun.
Wilson had to prove his innocence to the jury in light of the fact that he was the one with the weapon, that, in truth, he had other, non-lethal options, including a baton, flashlight, and mace. In an attempt to prove his innocence despite these facts, Wilson reaches back in our history (not too far, only as far as the killing of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and many others) to the tired but true American tradition – of viewing whiteness as innocent and vulnerable and blackness as scary and overpowering. In this narrative, even white police officers with guns who won’t carry tasers because they are “uncomfortable”, are somehow more innocent and human than the unarmed black men they pursue. This is a powerful narrative as it appeals to a collective desire to justify needless acts of murder and inhumane treatment that date back to slavery and continue today.
Each of Wilson’s descriptions contribute to an overall image of Brown as inhuman, and, in this animal-like state, incapable of acting in such a way that would call for humane treatment. Wilson’s depiction of Brown is about the inevitability of his murder; it’s about a scared white man being charged by a big black beast and the only thing to do when being attacked by a beast, even when the beast is retreating, is to strike it down, and kill it. The jury accepts this narrative and finds him innocent. The sad and tragic truth is the dehumanization of Michael Brown worked.
Tonight, over another quiet dinner, this time at home, my daughter asked me, “Why won’t the police officer go to jail?” How do I explain this to my daughter? How do I explain racism that does not come in the form of explicit laws and overt, blatant prejudice? How do I talk to her about an inherently racist justice system, that rears its ugly head in places like Ferguson, where the white prosecutor, with deep ties to the town’s majority white police force, may have had more invested in proving Wilson’s innocence than in proving the necessity of an indictment? “It’s not fair,” I managed. She nodded and added, in between bites of spaghetti, “We need to do something about that.”
I feel compelled to take my daughters with me to protests, to take to the streets in support of people who are feeling this verdict on a much deeper level than I am. I want to put my lesson plans on pause and spend the next several weeks exploring issues around racism and empathy with my students. I want to evaluate my classroom library and curriculum content to ensure it is rich with characters and content of all races. I want to have explicit conversations with my daughters and students about the necessity of recognizing the humanity in one another, and especially, the importance of fighting injustice and racism whenever we see it.