Saturday, August 16, 2014

Jelani Cobb: "The Race-Tinged Death Story Has Become A Genre"

Jelani Cobb (left) writes in "The Anger In Ferguson" (The New Yorker, 8/13/14) that the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer evokes bitter ironies and the grim familiarity of "the race-tinged death story," which "has become a genre itself" leading to an "unsatisfactory resolution of the central problems":

...The story that witnesses tell is disturbing not only in its details but in the ways in which those details blur into a longer narrative. It’s one we’re all familiar with if we have paid even passive attention, and yet, despite its redundancy, we have yet to grasp its moral. A trivial incident sparks a confrontation, followed by a disproportionate response, then the tableau of grieving parents struggling to maintain composure and the social-media verdicts rendered in absentia, many asking about the culpability of the deceased. Invariably, some self-ordained truth teller will stand up to quote non sequiturs about black-on-black violence.

...after dark on Monday, police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. The ironies of race and policing were readily apparent: law enforcement using force to suppress outrage at law enforcement’s indiscriminate use of force.

Three weeks ago, Eric Garner died as the result of N.Y.P.D. officers placing him in a choke hold, a banned tactic, following a confrontation over selling loose cigarettes. His death echoed that of Renisha McBride, the nineteen-year-old who was killed when she knocked on a stranger’s door following a car accident, which in turn conjured memories of Jonathan Ferrell, who was shot ten times and killed by officers in North Carolina soon after the death, in Florida, of Jordan Davis, shot by a man who wanted him to turn down his music, which in turn paralleled the circumstances of Trayvon Martin’s demise. For those who have no choice but to remember these matters, those names have been inducted into a grim roll call that includes Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, and Eleanor Bumpurs. These are all distinct incidents that took place under particular circumstances in differing locales. Yet what happened on Staten Island and in Dearborn Heights, Charlotte, Jacksonville, and Sanford have culminated, again, in the specific timbre of familial grief, a familiar strain of outrage, and an accompanying body of commentary straining to find a novel angle to the recurring tragedy.

Despite all the variables, there’s a numbing constant. ...Brown was a large eighteen-year-old—six feet four inches, according to his mother—and, in the image that circulated in the media immediately following the shooting, his size is highlighted. He flashes a peace symbol that, in conjunction with his imposing stature, could predictably be assailed as a gang sign. The hashtag was an overt riff on the way a jury, for example, might decide that a slight teen-ager like Trayvon Martin could be justifiably seen as a threat to George Zimmerman, a man with a gun. Imagery counts as a kind of unspoken forensics, with the power to render someone an innocent victim or a terrifying menace. Implicit is a question: Would you be afraid of this person, too?

The truth is that you’ve read this story so often that the race-tinged death story has become a genre itself, the details plugged into a grim template of social conflict. The genre is defined by its tendency toward an unsatisfactory resolution of the central problems. Two years ago, I visited St. Louis to give a talk at a museum. My visit fell in the wake of a rally in which hundreds of local residents turned out to demand an arrest in Martin’s death. (Brown’s family has now retained Benjamin Crump, the attorney who represented Martin’s family.) Martin was killed nearly a thousand miles away, but when I spoke to people about the rally they conveyed the sense that what had happened to him could happen anywhere in the country, even in their own back yards. For those people in Ferguson pressed against the yellow police tape separating them from Brown’s remains, the overwhelming sentiment is that it already has.


Michael J. Mand said...

These events are certainly disturbing and all indications are that these deaths were indeed avoidable. But I still believe in due process and it disturbs me even more that the policemen directly involved have already been convicted in the court of media frenzy and those self-appointed community spokespeople, so that if they are eventually found to be innocent, more violence will erupt in protest.

Jeff Tone said...

Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. But it is remarkable that 5 unarmed black men were killed by the police in a month. That and the militarization of the police are two disturbing trends.