The body of Michael Brown lay in the street for over four hours.
Nearly every conversation I have had or story I’ve consumed about Brown has focused on the circumstances or the politics surrounding his death. We have focused on what led up to the shooting, about the character, the police, the press, the people, the tear gas, the government, the militarized engagement, each piece a point of contention and an opportunity for antagonism and debate. Each piece has been political.
Almost as if this has been by design. Almost as if what we don’t want to talk about is the body. The body of the young man shot six times. The body that was big. And black. And young. A body that lay on the street for way too long.
Every story included this detail. Every story has mentioned that Michael Brown was shot, that the circumstances were (sort of) disputed, but each one included the fact that after Brown was shot, his body was left in the street. No ambulance. No paramedics. Not even a coroner. He was left for hours in the street, blood pooling and drying on the pavement.
This detail is so unlike every other shooting death I have ever heard of. Never have I heard of a body left. Never have I heard of paramedics not being called. Never. If a gun goes off, 911 gets called. If an officer fires his gun, he calls it in.
During my CPE term at Covenant Healthcare, a hospital in Saginaw, Michigan, we had several cases in a few weeks of gunshot victims brought in, people who were put in secure locations for their protection. Every shooting leads to emergency personnel. Shootings lead to sirens and awareness and rushing and help swooping in quickly to save the victim. This is what I know and expect. Even in Saginaw.
So this story causes a cognitive dissonance that I have not, until now understood.
Nobody swooped in. Nobody checked to see if Michael Brown was alive or dead. Nobody involved with the shooting itself seemed to care. That’s the only logical conclusion that could be made. If I witnessed somebody getting hurt, I would call 911. If I caused someone to get hurt, I would call 911. As a clergy person, if I find out that someone is being hurt, I am required to report it.
So how could this young man’s body be lying there? There is no good reason. No just reason, anyway. You can’t give me “he deserved it.” Our world doesn’t work like that. You can’t give me “he was dead anyway.” Again, our world doesn’t work like that. This is the point:
Our world does not work like that.
The excuses, the arguments, is all political avoidance of justice. It is a dog whistle for the racist politics of the last 50 years. And we fall into the trap. Every time! We watch the people who hear the whistle jump up and move to action and we respond to their action, condemning them and calling for justice. It is a move staged to support white privilege and provoke fear. We all fall for it each time. We fell for it this time.
What is different for us today is that Michael Brown was left. Nobody swooped in quickly and delivered his body to a hospital, or some other place, out of our view. He wasn’t cared for or given proper respect. He wasn’t even treated like a human being.
He was left to rot in the sun like roadkill.
This is not neutral. This is not defensible in any conceivable way. It is not a product of a left/right political divide or community action vs. law-and-order ideology. It is that a young man, a teenager was left in the street. And we don’t do that. Not without race or racism. Not without hatred or evil. The body in the street.
Two weeks later, the police drove over his memorial.
Avoid the dog whistles. Avoid the traditional politics of race. Avoid the media’s favorite template of covering yet another shooting.
Focus on the body. Focus on the young man. Focus on Michael Brown.
He is more than a face. He is more than his future. He is more than his parents’ memory of him.
He was a young man who didn’t get the help every young man deserves. He was shot. He was left to die. He was ignored. All he is to us now is a body.
[Note: please click the above links to two powerful stories. One is about the politics of the dog whistle by Ian Haney López and the other is a story for On the Media about the media’s template for covering shootings, and how the media helps us normalize the politics.]