– Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, speaking to Al Jazeera America about former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, Darren Wilson
When I went to Germany, eight years ago, my friend in Hanover was less than enthused when she found out we had been to visit the museum at the Dachau concentration camp, near Munich. She wasn’t angry. She just expressed herself in what might be described as a very resigned, German way.
“It’s a shame,” she said with a shrug, “that whenever people think of Germany, they think of Nazis.” Maybe, but murder leaves a mark. Racist hate leaves resentment and anger. Evil leaves a stain.
Evil is blind, too. It draws conclusions in shallowness because it lacks the vision, or the compulsion, to look deeper.
It’s quite callous, the way former police officer Darren Wilson recently described his feelings about Michael Brown, one year out from their fatal encounter on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. In an article in the New Yorker, Wilson tells writer Jake Halpern that he dismisses claims of historical, cultural abuse at the hands of whites as an excuse that Brown and other young people of color use to justify resenting authority and behaving badly.
“People who experienced that, and were mistreated, have a legitimate claim,” he told Halpern, referring to those he calls the “elders,” who lived through Jim Crow. “Other people [meaning young people, who grew up post-civil rights era] don’t.”
Wilson goes on to claim that, despite what the article describes as a difficult childhood, he has been able to persevere and build a life, but it comes across as an “I did it, why can’t they” attitude. “What happened to my great-grandfather is not happening to me,” he said, “I can’t base my actions off what happened to him.”
His obvious lack of understanding doesn’t bother him in the least. He thinks he doesn’t have to understand more than what’s going on in the moment. “We can’t fix in thirty minutes what happened thirty years ago,” he told Halpern. “We have to fix what’s happening now. That’s my job as a police officer. I’m not going to delve into people’s life-long history and figure out why they’re feeling a certain way, in a certain moment.”
But doesn’t community policing require more of an effort at understanding the community you’re policing, rather than making assumptions about who they are and what they are capable of? Not according to Wilson. To him, they are as free to make the same, sound choices he has.
“They’re so wrapped up in a different culture than — what I’m trying to say is, the right culture, the better one to pick from.”
Halpern didn’t let that statement go unchallenged:
“This sounded like racial code language. I pressed him: what did he mean by ‘a different culture’? Wilson struggled to respond. He said that he meant ‘pre-gang culture, where you are just running in the streets—not worried about working in the morning, just worried about your immediate gratification.’ He added, ‘It is the same younger culture that is everywhere in the inner cities.’”
Wilson says he is certain that families in the community are to blame, and definitely in the case of Michael Brown’s family. “Do I think he had the best upbringing,” he asked Halpern rhetorically, in a tone the writer describes as “striking.”
“No,” Wilson concluded, answering his own question, “Not at all.”
Given that his own mother was a “compulsive” thief, who Wilson warned his own friends against, who left his father, then put his stepfather $20,000 in debt the first year they were together, it makes one question his frame of reference for what is and is not “the best upbringing.”
“His acts were devilish,” Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden told Al Jazeera, Wednesday morning, “and we definitely know he didn’t have the right upbringing, because those are words that you just don’t use, especially after you took somebody’s life and you know you had no reason to.”
Wilson has looked at Michael Brown’s life and just doesn’t care anymore, if he ever did, except that he is being sued by Brown’s family. “Do I think about who he was as a person? Not really, because it doesn’t matter at this point,” he explained to Halpern.
“He can’t hurt me with his words,” responded McSpadden. “What he did hurt me really bad, so his words mean nothing to me.”
It’s a shame. It’s a shame that in communities of color – in Ferguson, in Staten Island, in North Charleston, in Baltimore, in Cincinnati – that when people think of white police officers working in those communities, they think of careless, frightened, hair-trigger murderers.
This need not be the case.
Many law officers have been caught escalating too quickly to violence, asserting superiority over unarmed men and women, too quick to draw their weapon, shoot a fleeing suspect in the back or physically abuse a prisoner already in custody.
There is a problem with training that says, “You have a gun. You’re in charge.” If that’s your philosophy, go join the army, if they’ll have you. They need people who will shoot to kill.
But police should be working with communities, not against them. Cops need to be evaluated not by how many tickets they write and how many arrests they make, but on how they get along with the communities they are sworn to protect and serve.
Asked whether she could ever forgive Darren Wilson, Michael Brown’s mother answered simply, “Never. Never.”
It’s a matter of respect – the kind that police expect and the citizens deserve. Killing officers only reinforces this us vs. them attitude. As long as one lives in fearful resentment of the other, people will be as uncomfortable in their own neighborhoods as the cops who patrol them.
Unless full, mutual respect is achieved, citizens will die, families will be torn apart and police who kill will remain the face of evil for entire communities.