I remember I had an online argument about the coverage of the cruel death of the adjunct instructor Margaret Mary Vojtko, abandoned by her institution. Slate offered a “full profile” about Vojtko, a “corrective” of the viral story of her death, showing how difficult and proud and unwilling to seek help she was, and so on.
I objected that this was a journalistic smokescreen, a cynical way of diverting criticism and obscuring the real responsibility for her penniless, lonely death, which belonged to DuQuesne University, and to the structural imbalances in higher ed more generally. My interlocutor held that I was rather guilty of hagiography of Vojtko, which — well, I forget why that was bad, exactly, beyond its being simply false — and that it was important to know the whole picture. My position was that this particular “whole picture” was itself a kind of falsification of the truth of the matter, which was the sheer injustice visited on Vojtko — in an important sense, it didn’t matter to the moral equation who she was, in all her human particularity, except that as a person she did not deserve what she received. Because nobody does.
I wonder how this quarrel might look now, when a far graver thing has happened, as the New York Times runs a nearly identical profile on Mike Brown. He was “no angel”, in the now-famous phrase — he smoked pot, he drank, he “rapped”, he got into a fight, he may (or may not) have robbed some phillies from a store, whatever.
Naturally there is a firestorm of criticism directed at the Times, because those things don’t separate Brown from the ordinary run of humanity, they’re red herrings, and positioning them that way in a profile printed the day of his funeral feels like they’re giving cover to the police who murdered him.
On the one hand, it’s important that we understand there are no perfect victims. There are no angels. Being angelic is not a requirement for receiving the protections of one’s human rights, nor is it necessary to be perfect to be deserving of justice. We enjoy our rights and we deserve our justice by virtue of of our status as human beings. A “full picture” of Vojtko or Brown serves that end, in a way, by dispelling the myth that victimhood is divine, and not human.
But it doesn’t work that way, does it? The gofundme that the police union in St. Louis put up for Officer Wilson got a lot more contributions than the fund for Brown’s family. The comments (now taken down) on the campaign amounted to a torrent of hateful sewage. All took as obvious the certainty that Brown was a beast, abstracting from precisely the material given in the profile as a “whole picture” that “humanized” Brown.
When your aim is to humanize, it seems to me that this is an explicit admission that your subject is not generally regarded as human. In that case, what seems to humanize may simply continue to demonize.
In a way Mike Brown’s victimhood is divine, because it doesn’t have anything to do with his particular humanity. His own foibles and virtues, the qualities that made him an individual mortal person, had nothing to do with what was done to him. Everything that the cops saw, that they targeted for death, was wholly general: the broadest categories, the biggest stereotypes, the most commonly imposed conditions. Not him, not a person, but his race – or rather, their racism. His neighborhood. His socioeconomic class. Because of the judgments they made about these categories, they knew he couldn’t be a real human being. He was an animal to them, or a target outline.
And…I think that what matters for those of us who hate what happened to him, and want justice, those of us who believe all people should receive the full measure of their human rights, and not just a part, is, again, not the specificity of Mike Brown’s life. Those blunts he smoked, if they even existed, don’t matter. How much his family loved him doesn’t matter. His college plans don’t matter. He was a human being, and human beings should be treated justly. But he was black, so they disqualified him.
Mike Brown’s human individuality is what makes this a tragedy; his mere status as a human being is what makes it an injustice.
The essence of Mike Brown’s murder is the divide in America that separates the easy humanity that someone like me (white, bourgeois) is permitted to enjoy and the denial of humanity meted out to Mike Brown, which is still intensifying even after they put his body in the ground.
That divide is structural, it is social, it is economic, it is material. It is not just a bad idea in the cops’ heads. It is everywhere. It is in biased network effects in school admissions and job hiring, it is in our country’s legacy of racist housing policy, it is in the funding mechanisms of the public schools, it is in the militarization of the police, it is in our absurd approach to gun policy, it is in the very condition of the pavement Mike Brown was walking on that day. This is what we all need to know about; this is what we all need to see.
How was this divide made, how is it perpetuated, and how can we destroy the structures that perpetuate it? Those are the questions.
Knowing that Michael Brown was a human being like we all are — shouldn’t everyone have known that already? Isn’t that where everyone must begin?