Michael Brown, a Black 18-year-old, was shot by Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. In the aftermath of that shooting, citizens took to the streets in protests that at times turned ugly. The police came in wearing riot gear.
It looked like the 1960s revisited.
Over the past several weeks, Michael Brown has been labeled a “thug,” a “criminal,” someone whose death should be cause for celebration. Self-proclaimed critics attempted to tie him to the Gangsta Life of the rap songs and violence, concluding that a kid with no criminal record was no better than a thug. Others decried African Americans as a group, concluding that we do not care, ignore criminal activity, and actually support it.
Perhaps these critics have forgotten, or never knew, about times in the past, when young children idolized the pirates of the 1700s, the cowboys of the 1800s Old West, and the gangsters, bank robbers and killers of the early 1900s, who were all celebrated during their respective eras for their criminal exploits. Perhaps the critics forgot that those young people who imitated these criminals often got themselves into trouble that frequently proved fatal.
Back then, however, there were good people who stood up against such criminal behavior. Some paid with their lives. Critics sought to paint entire communities (Italian, Irish, Jewish) with broad brush stokes, condemning them all due the acts of a few.
We, in the African American community, are facing a similar situation: that same broad brush has painted us all as “thugs,” “potential thugs” or “thug wanna-bes.” It makes no more sense to paint us as collective criminals than it did to condemn other ethnic groups who also had criminal elements.
And today, like then, there are good people who stand up against the criminals.
There are good people like the Dawson family in Baltimore, who were burned alive in their home in 2002 because the mother testified against a local drug lord.
Angela Dawson went to the police about drug dealing in her neighborhood. She’d had confrontations with the dealers. After she reported her next door neighbor as a drug dealer, he made a plea deal with prosecutors and pled guilty to illegal gun possession. He was placed on probation. This thug, a real one, painted profanities on the outside of the Dawson’s three-story home. He attacked Mrs. Dawson whenever she tried to remove the stains. On October 2, she testified against him in court. The next morning, two Molotov cocktails were thrown through a window of the house and burned the kitchen before the Dawsons succeeded in bringing the fire under control. On October 16, after the failed attempt to torch the house, the dealer’s crew kicked in the Dawson’s door and poured gasoline all over the first floor. They set the house ablaze, killing everyone on the floors above as they slept.
Angela and Carnell Dawson, and all five of their children, died.
Having taught in inner city Baltimore, I worked with adults who had a collective stake in the lives of Black children. We understood the challenges urban schools faced, and we went into these classrooms on a mission. I taught at two of the “tougher” schools in the city. We had a battle on our hands as we tried to compete with the lure of drug culture, which offered quick money to teenagers who sought relief from tough circumstances.
I sponsored an after-school theatre club. The students performed classic works, rewritten for modern times. We invited teachers, and even the principal, play parts in the cast and crew. That way we had enough cars to get the children home after late-night rehearsals. The youthful performers were featured on NPR, and performed for the governor’s wife as well as for a then-city councilwoman who is now the mayor.
We reached many. We lost many. One of my students was beaten nearly to death for not joining a gang. Another rejected the life of his drug dealing family, and is now in Job Corps in another state. Several others have gone to college – one in Pittsburgh, one in Baltimore, one in New York. Another of my former students recently texted me to let me know he had enrolled in community college, seven years after graduating from high school. These are victories, but they are not enough. We often lose good children to the real thugs.
So what is a real thug?
Hip hop mogul Marion “Suge” Knight, has been the prototypical thug. He’s made a fortune doing so. Knight is best-known as the co-founder of Death Row Records, home to such rap stars as Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg. On August 24, Knight was shot and wounded, struck by six non-fatal bullets when a gunman fired on him at a club in West Hollywood during a party in advance of the MTV Music Video Awards. There have always been Black entertainers who would take the money to perpetuate stereotypes: Knight’s “act” is no different than the minstrel shows from back in the day. His history as a thug is a testament to his act:
- In 1996, Knight was sent to prison for a probation violation.
- In February 1997, he was sentenced to nine years for the violation. He was released in August, 2001.
- In 2003, he was sent to prison again for violating parole when he struck a parking lot attendant.
- In 2006, he got into a beef with Snoop Dogg after Suge’s ex-associate insulted Knight in a Rolling Stone magazine article.
- In May, 2008, Knight brawled over money outside of a Hollywood nightclub. He was reportedly knocked unconscious for three minutes, then taken to the hospital, where he refused cooperate with the Los Angeles Police Department.
- In August, 2008, he was arrested on drug and aggravated assault charges in Las Vegas. When police arrived at the strip club, he was beating his girlfriend and flashing a knife. Reports alleged he was under the influence of ecstasy and hydrocodone.
- In March, 2009, he was implicated in the robbery of music producer, Noel “Detail” Fisher. Reportedly, five armed men broke into Detail’s house to collect a debt on Knight’s behalf. More than $170,000 in jewelry, a locked safe, stereo equipment, and the key to a Mercedes were taken.
- In February, 2012, Knight was arrested again in Las Vegas, after police found marijuana in his car. He is currently serving three years unsupervised probation for driving with a suspended license.
That is what a real thug looks like.
Michael Brown was not a thug, but he was also no angel. He made a lot of mistakes. His parents and friends described him as a handful. Not a hardened criminal, but he was a difficult child at times. He also was on a path that might lead him to a better life — enrolling in a trade school to learn a skill that could put him in a position to support himself and be a productive member of society. He had problems and he had promise. His last mistake cost him his life. And now his parents have buried their child.
Darren Wilson was also a troubled youth. His mother had been convicted of stealing and forgery in 2001. Darren also made a few bad choices, including a couple of minor thefts. Then he grew up, grew out of that, joined the police force. He came up in a department that had some issues, which included a fellow officer who was fired for a wrongful shooting, and others who were busted on corruption charges. By all reports, he managed to sidestep all of that confusion and have a solid career.
When Michael and Darren met, perhaps for the first time, Michael had grabbed a box of cigars and forced his way out of a convenience store, after shoving the owner aside. Darren saw a jaywalker and attempted to pull him over.
A few moments and six bullets later…
We never know how a person’s life will turn out. But this is not a time to celebrate a death. Any death of a young person should be seen as tragedy. I have seen some good kids and some bad kids. Some went on to be like Darren. Some went on to be like Suge Knight. Some did not live long enough to become anything other than a gigantic heartbreak for their parents.
At the end of the day, the death of Michael Brown is a terrible tragedy. Lives have been damaged due to bad choices. Michael clearly made a choice that proved fatal. It remains to be seen what, if any, bad choices were made by the officer.
Promise and problems…