At this year’s South by Southwest festival, Jason Pollock’s new documentary Stranger Fruit premiered. The film’s name is a reference to the famous Billie Holiday song about the inhumanity of racism. Fitting, given that, with the film, Pollock seeks to humanize Mike Brown by mapping the tragedy of his death through the experiences and emotions of those closest to him, his family.
However, the movie is not simply seeking to recount the events that led up to—and followed—Mike Brown’s death. Instead, it serves as Pollock’s own investigation into the events and attempts to bring to light new evidence in order to complicate many of the assumptions made about Brown.
On the evening of Aug. 9, 2014, Brown, an 18-year old African American, was met by Darren Wilson, an officer with the police department of Ferguson, Missouri. During an altercation, Brown was shot multiple times by Wilson and died as a result, only 8 days after his high school graduation. In the transcripts from his testimony to a grand jury, Wilson asserted that Brown had assaulted him, tried to grab his gun, and charged at him “like a demon.”
A state grand jury would eventually choose not to indict Wilson for the shooting. A decision that follows a troubling trend. One where cops who are involved in the shooting of unarmed citizens are brought before a grand jury by prosecutors, ones who rely on the support of their police department, and are then exonerated. An act that can best be described as empty, performative justice.
The performance of going to court and being absolved by a jury is only meant to aid in the illusion that the officer is innocent in the eyes of the public to prevent public outcry, as opposed to actually establish whether enough evidence to indict exists. This is especially apparent when you understand the vast discrepancy between grand jury indictments against cops versus citizens, the incredible ease of getting an indictment from a grand jury, and that prosecutors can indict without a grand jury.
However; Brown’s death, inhumane treatment, and the subsequent handling of the case by the Ferguson police sparked outrage and protests around the country. Leading to the nation once again having a conversation regarding policing, police brutality, and racism in America. In a cycle that seems to repeat whenever such a death and lack of justice occurs. Furthermore, while the grand jury did refuse to indict, the Department of Justice conducted an investigation into the Ferguson Police Department which made many frightening discoveries.
Most notably, that the police of Ferguson, were engaging in what can best be described as department-sanctioned municipal plunder. Through fines and tickets, police were systematically preying on the predominantly African-American residents of Ferguson in order to fill their department’s coffers.
There was one aspect of Mike Brown’s death that seemed to dominate the narrative in the mainstream. Specifically, that he had engaged in a strong-armed robbery of a convenience store. Surveillance video was released in the aftermath of the shooting, which showed Mike Brown snatching a box of cigarillos from behind the counter and shoving his way past the store’s owner on his way out of the store. Brown’s mother always maintained that the video was a “misunderstanding.” This robbery was a key aspect in the depiction of Brown as a “thug” in the media.
However, with Stranger Fruit, Pollock, a protege of Michael Moore, attempts to contradict this part of the story, by presenting surveillance footage taken earlier in the day at the same store. The video depicts Mike Brown giving the employees a small bag, which is assumed to be marijuana, which the clerks inspect.
They then place the cigarillos in a bag, who inspects them, then hands them back to the employees. Apparently with the understanding that he would be back to pick them up later. Brown’s family, whose point of view this documentary is told from, provides further corroboration for this version of events. They claim that the store in question is known for having connections to drug deals and that this type of exchange is common among people who know each other.
Pollock asserts that this video shows that Mike Brown did not rob the store, but instead was coming to retrieve goods he left for safe keeping. In response to the new evidence, the lawyer representing the store asserted that the video had not been actively suppressed, as Pollock claims, but that is was simply “irrelevant” to the case.
In the wake of this new evidence, the discussions on race and police brutality that Mike Brown’s death started 3 years ago are likely to begin once again. However, in stating that this new evidence is irrelevant, the lawyer is largely correct. This new evidence does not matter, despite the good intentions of the director. That is not meant as some heady, philosophical statement about the inherent lack of meaning in the universe due to its inevitable entropy. Instead, that it literally does not matter.
However, there is merit in unpacking the reasons why people truly concerned with the death of Mike Brown should not engage in a renewed debate about this tape, as it is intrinsically linked to cultural perceptions of Black people, criminals, and myths of respectability politics.
It’s Confirmation Bias, Mike Brown
The manner in which the story of Brown’s death is often presented can obscure that, regardless of whether the robbery was even, in fact, a robbery, Wilson had no knowledge of it and it was not the reason he stopped Brown. Commentators often mislead people by mentioning the robbery along with Brown’s death as though the former led to the latter when in reality the robbery was always a red herring.
This implied causality is certainly the result of a purposeful attempt to muddy the waters on the part of the Chief of Police in Ferguson by releasing the unrelated video. However, the reason this false cause and effect was able to become so ingrained can be attributed to simple confirmation bias. Specifically, the tendency of Americans to interpret evidence retroactively in order to confirm preconceived notions as opposed to coming to an actual decision.
Pollock’s attempt to set the record straight regarding Mike Brown is definitely laudable, and his film communicates a sincere, passionate desire to see justice done for Brown. Mike Brown’s name was indeed tarnished in an attempt to justify the actions of Wilson. However, engaging in a debate, with or without new evidence, as to whether Mike Brown was a “thug” is to misunderstand what the use of the word conveys in modern society and why it is not something to be debated.
It is widely accepted that the term “thug” is coded language. A way for racists to disguise their bigoted views with the thin veneer that their dislike and criticism of Black people is rooted in the conscious choice of Black people to engage in deviant behavior, as opposed to the inherent deviant status that society ascribes to Black people, irrespective of their actions.
This is simply respectability politics. Respectability politics, in this case, refers to the notion that the violence that Black people experience at the hands of the police is the result of behavior they choose to engage in, as opposed to structural racism. It is the idea that Black people can simply perform their way out of the inequality they experience. That is, if they abandon their “thug culture,” and behave respectfully or properly. Language that is usually code for mirroring whiteness. However, the flaws in this premise are especially apparent in the many cases of police brutality.
In reality, Black people attempting to engage in respectability politics find themselves playing a game where the rules as to what is deemed respectable behavior are determined by people with confirmation bias. Individuals in America have been socialized to interpret all behavior by Black people as worse or deviant, due to the inherent criminal deviancy assigned to Blackness.
The view that savagery and deviance are essential parts of Blackness is one that is deeply rooted in slavery and colonialism, having always been excuses to justify, ignore, or actively engage in violence against Black people. Behavior that may be okay for a White person to engage in often takes on a sinister air if a Black person does it. The discrepancy between Blacks and Whites in regards to marijuana convictions and arrests is the best evidence of this tendency.
When combined with new research, we see that this view is also not based in any objective reality. A recent study has shown that simply being Black is enough to make you appear larger, and more dangerous, irrespective of actual size. Wilson’s earlier claims that Mike Brown seemed like a “demon” and made him feel as though he were like a “5-year-old” holding on to Hulk Hogan, gain more clarity with this knowledge. Especially since the two men were only an inch apart in height.
Unfortunately, an attempt to correct the record on Brown by pretending as though his behavior had any bearing on his death or his being viewed as a “thug” is to lend credence to respectability politics. It is to give legitimacy to the idea that the majority of those who thought this, are not prejudiced, and can simply be reasoned out of their view through the presentation of contradictory evidence.
In reality, it is important to avoid the act of engaging bigots in these type of conversations. As the structure and symbolism of these conversations allow those who engage in critiques of Black culture, communities, people, and deaths to act as though they are coming to their critiques rationally.
The contents of the original tape only ever served as post hoc justification of something many people already thought about Brown, that he was a “thug”. In this case, it was something concrete, even if it in no way contributed to his death. But as we have seen in other cases the burden of proof for thuggery is low, as being suspended from school will suffice as evidence of proactive deviance.
Examining what happened to Mike Brown from the lens of the violence that society sanctions against Blacks are insufficient. The fact that the view of a person as a criminal can be used to justify this violence against them also raises serious questions regarding the treatment and violence our society normalizes against those accused or convicted of crimes.
Understanding, both the treatment of criminals and Black people becomes all the more important when realizing that our culture not only criminalizes Black people but racializes those who commit crimes. An act serving to create a feedback loop that simultaneously and brutally dehumanizes both.
To Project and Confirm
An important aspect of this story, one that many might find surprising, is that robbery is not a capital offense in the United States of America. No, it’s true. Furthermore, neither is fleeing from the police nor is resisting arrest, to a certain extent. In actuality, shooting a suspect who is fleeing has been ruled an illegal use of force, unless the officer has reason to believe that they present an imminent threat to the public.
Despite these indisputable facts, both the media and society at large often find the need to include the fact that victim’s of unarmed police shootings were either engaging in a crime at the time or had once committed a crime. The severity of the crime is largely unimportant as selling loose cigarettes or bootleg CD’s or not paying child support can justify summary execution just as well as brandishing a weapon.
A large part of this is due to the existence of projective labeling when it concerns those who commit crimes or those branded as criminals. Projective labeling, a type of labeling theory in sociology and criminology, refers to the idea that once a person has been labeled deviant, that label can be used to predict future action.
Essentially, this means that once you are labeled a criminal, regardless of what you are doing, what crime you were convicted of, and whether you served your time, your death at the hands of cops can be excused or minimized because it is implicitly or explicitly believed that you are destined commit a crime again. This becomes even more problematic as, by all indications, there is a mix of confirmation bias and projective labeling in effect when it comes to Black and Brown people.
The tendency to racialize and dehumanize criminals is also one that is deeply rooted in slavery. As 13th, a documentary by Ava Duverney points out, the 13th Amendment to the constitution made forced labor illegal in America for anyone who has not committed a crime. Therefore, those who saw the need to continue to keep Blacks in bondage because of their inherent deviancy found their mechanism. Eventually leading to a society that stereotypes each group as belonging to the other.
This state they exist in, as a pre-criminal, makes it all the more easy for the deaths of Blacks, even those who have never committed a crime, to be killed without repercussion because of the implicit consensus is that they definitely would have eventually committed one.
Functionally, Black people and those who have committed a crime live in a different America. One that is a mix of Judge Dredd and The Minority Report. Where those branded criminals can be killed for the smallest of infractions and certain groups can be declared pre-criminals and meet the same fate as a result.
More New Evidence Same Old Questions
Coincidentally, while many are engaging in debate over whether this new evidence was suppressed and whether it proves Brown did not deserve to be shot, there is a separate debate going on surrounding other new developments in the case. The family of Mike Brown is currently engaged in a civil suit against Darren Wilson for the teen’s wrongful death.
Whether this testimony delivered by Wilson on Dec 9, 2016, materially contradicts his previous testimony has become the topic of a more worthwhile debate. However, strictly legally speaking, it does not. There are some responses that seemingly indicate that Wilson initiated and escalated the confrontation. However, given the nature of the interrogation, very little has been clarified.
More noteworthy, when asked whether Brown had a weapon on him, he gave an answer that lays bare the fallacy of believing in respectability politics especially when combined with the previously mentioned studies. In response to the question, Wilson replied that the question was unclear because Brown’s body could be considered a weapon or a dangerous object. Brown’s body was enough of a justification for Wilson to feel warranted to draw his weapon and use deadly force, as opposed to a non-lethal option.
How can a Black person be respectable if Blackness is viewed as essentially dangerous and criminal? Undoubtedly, there are some who, if they even believe this new interpretation of events, will simply move the goal posts. Claim that Mike Brown was a “thug” because he sold marijuana. A laughable accusation in a country on the road to legalization. In reality, Mike Brown could have been walking home from church and would have still been targeted by cops like Darren Wilson.