Making the rounds lately is a series of unintelligibly grainy security photos that looks like it may be of Michael Brown, the teen whose death at the hands Officer Darren Wilson sparked the recent tumult in Ferguson Missouri. Here, take a look:
The photos show someone stealing something from a convenience store and a clerk trying to stop him, the perpetrator gets physical and leaves. The Ferguson police department has been using this supposed altercation to justify the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. They’ve also been desperately pointing out that the preliminary autopsy that was performed on Brown showed that he had marijuana in his system. The amount of sheer vitriolic hatred and fallacious argumentation beg to be condemned, so let’s look at this situation with clarity.
If he was the perpetrator in the video did he deserve to be killed? Is the rioting in Ferguson justified? What’s really going on here?
Let’s first point out some things that should be obvious to everyone: stealing a cigarillo is wrong and it’s illegal, but it’s not a capital offense punishable by death, not even in Raqaa. Being 18 and smoking marijuana is illegal but it’s not a capital offense punishable by death, not even in Pyongyang. Jaywalking is stupid and illegal but it’s not a capital offense punishable by death, not even in Tehran. These arguments about his character are completely irrelevant to the case at hand. The only thing that matters is whether or not he was an immediate threat to another person’s life or bodily security. No hard evidence has yet been presented to the court of public opinion that exonerates or incriminates Michael Brown or Darren Wilson. What we are seeing however, is that one side wants desperately for Darren Wilson to be guilty and they look for evidence to support that presupposed conclusion; and the other side wants desperately for Michael Brown to be guilty and they look for ways to prove that presupposed conclusion. Both modes of thought are wrong and skeptical atheists should serve as a voice of reason and compassion.
These attacks on Michael Brown’s character are particularly disturbing because the argument being made is either “he deserved to be killed because he shoplifted and smoked weed” or “he deserved to be killed because he was the type of person who shoplifted and smoked weed” and either of those arguments are terrifyingly false as well as implicitly racist. No amount of justification, of selectively thuggish media portrayals, or subliminally racist reports justifies killing another human being. The argument that he deserved to die is being made by those who presupposed that he deserved to die and now they’re looking for evidence to support their claim. Don’t let it work on you. Michael Brown may very well have done something to warrant the use of lethal force but the only eyewitness accounts openly dispute that claim. Furthermore,until it can be proven that he was an immediate threat to someone’s life he, as a human being, should be assumed innocent until proven guilty. The media is doing a really good job of avoiding the heart of the matter. African Americans are revolting because they’re tired of being treated as subhuman, and of their lives being seen as expendable or somehow less important. They’re tired of being framed as a generalized other or as the enemy. But when police dressed in military surplus battle armor point their fully automatic rifles and grenade launchers at unarmed civilians they make very clear who they see as their enemies, and when one puts forth or accepts the argument that “he was a thug so he deserved to die anyway” they reinforce the unforgivably false notion of African American inferiority. We’re better than this, racism is truly a disease of the mind and we can be the cure.
I’m white, I’m male, and I’m straight, so growing up I didn’t experience institutionalized discrimination. But I’m also an atheist, and I know what it’s like to have people profoundly resent you, to actively root against you, to think that you’re incapable of being a good person, to tell you you’re worth less than they are, and to truly hate you. But I can easily get away from it. I can just bow my head when they pray at Thanksgiving; I can just lie and say I believe in God when someone at work asks (although I don’t). Unfortunately you can’t hide your race, you can’t hide your sex, and you can’t always hide your sexuality; but more importantly you shouldn’t have to. All people should be seen and treated as equals. The most egregious and widespread misapprehension of the matter in Ferguson is that African Americans and protesting and revolting because one kid was killed. That’s false. This is the culmination of almost 400 years of another, if not the most, despicable cycle of institutionalized discrimination the Western world has ever seen. This is what happens when society subjugates an entire race of people, and their countrymen ignore their plight. Let us not forget that only 149 years ago our federal government declared that all African Americans were human beings instead of chattle property with the Emancipation Proclamation. Only 60 years ago our federal government declared that African American children have the right to a quality education with Brown v. the Board of Education. And only yesterday a CNN anchor suggested dusting off the water cannons to control the majority African American crowd in Ferguson.What’s happening in Ferguson is what happens when you ignore the suffering of others.
When I was 16 or 17 I went through a kleptomania phase. I had principles about it too. I only stole from big box retailers, the sort that could spare a 512mb flash drive that costs $120 (I’m showing my age here) or an value pack of condoms. One day a friend in need asked me to swipe a few pregnancy tests for his girlfriend who was afraid she was pregnant but was too afraid to buy a test out of fear of being seen by someone her parents knew (it was a pretty small town). No problem, we went to the sex stuff aisle, grabbed a few things, went to the toy aisle where I knew no camera could see, unboxed some stuff and hid the boxes behind Nerf guns and went on our way. On the way out a guy asked me for the time, I looked at my watch and he grabbed my shoulder… Oops. I was processed, they took a picture of me, made me call my parents (I called my cool aunt who I knew wouldn’t snitch), and let me go (at which point I gave my friend a pack of condoms I managed to hide in my pocket and avoid detection). I’m technically still banned from that K-mart, and a few months later they sent me a letter in the mail saying they wouldn’t press charges if I gave them $100 (which I’ve always thought was technically extortion), but more interesting that what happened is what didn’t happen. I didn’t get shot at by police. I didn’t even get the cops called on me, I didn’t get prosecuted, I didn’t even get roughed up, and every time I tell that story no one tells me that I deserve to die for it. But imagine if I were black.
Religious indoctrination promotes perceived binaries: Muslims vs Infidels, Jews vs Goyim, and Christians vs Heretics. The perceived adversity causes adherents to be more susceptible to false social dualities: Black vs White, Female vs Male, Gay vs Straight, and Religious vs Secular. But we know better, and we ought to step high upon a soapbox to cry loudly and clearly that which we know.. We who understand that all humans are literally related, the matter that makes up our bodies is shared by all forms of life on earth as well as the vast cosmos; we must reject those false binaries and we must be seen rejecting them. To those of you who are swayed by the ad hominem attacks against Michael Brown I issue this challenge: when a person is killed by the police, or by a private citizen as Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin were, don’t look at it was “a black person was killed by a white person,” or “a brown person was killed by a slightly less brown person,” look at it as “a fellow human was killed by another human.” In that worldview you may find more pain and anguish, for every human life is equally significant, but in that pain you’ll also find more beauty and truth. We should mourn not just for the life of a young man but for the state of humanity. We should be ashamed that we would allow an entire race of people to be subjugated so oppressively and for so long that they feel they have no option to lash out. We should not fall victim to prevalent straw man arguments and we should stand up for equality and solidarity.