MHP on the problem with the ‘perfect victim’

Updated

On Friday evening, while potential Republican presidential contenders scurried to Iowa to court support, and East Coast residents hurried home to beat the snowstorm, and those of us in cable news cracked ourselves up with under-inflated balls jokes, a New York Times Op-ed columnist was on Twitter sending some advice to activists, tweeting quote:

“Activists perhaps should have focused less on Michael Brown, more on shooting of 12-yr-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.”

And that is why my letter this week is to Nicholas Kristof.

Dear Mr. Kristof,

It’s me, Melissa.

Just wanted to say thanks for the strategic advice you offered Friday afternoon. It was a great reminder of how important it is to endure injustice until just the right victim comes along.

Back in 1955 it was Claudette Colvin who had to learn this hard lesson. She was 15-years-old when she refused to move when the driver on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, ordered her to get up. She endured arrest and eventually challenged the law in court.  But civil rights leaders felt the working-class, pregnant teen was the wrong symbol for the movement. So they waited nine months for the unimpeachable Rosa Parks to do exactly the same thing Colvin did. Then they launched a movement. After all, what’s nine months of injustice if it ensures you have just the right symbol for organizing?

I presume that is the point of your tweet, Nick? To encourage activists to find palatable and pitiful victims so that skeptics will be forced to admit a wrong has been committed.

After all, who can be sure that Michael Brown didn’t deserve to be shot – six times – while unarmed? Who can say for certain that it was a bad thing for his body to be left lying under a sweltering Missouri sun for four hours? Who has the right to label that a travesty? Apparently not a community of mostly black people whose schools remain effectively segregated, whose voices feel silenced, and who are policed by a department of mostly white officers. And clearly not the prosecutor or Grand Jury who refused to even bring the officer to trial for Brown’s death. And not the thousands of allies and organizers who stood in solidarity with the people of Ferguson for months.

No, no, the Michael Brown slaying was far too murky, because he was “no angel.” Activists should not have organized against the brutality they perceived or drawn attention to the militarized response of police they endured.

Your tweet was a reminder that they should have waited. Waited for more than three months after the August 9th death of Brown until November 22nd when Cleveland police would offer a more perfect victim, a more palatable protagonist to dramatize the fragility of black lives. Tamir Rice was just 12. He was killed on a playground and within seconds of officers arriving. And he was killed in full view of a video camera. A camera that even captured the horror of his 14-year-old sister being wrestled to the ground and handcuffed.

If only those impatient activists had waited! And while I am sure you must be right – after all – you are Nicholas Kristof, I was just thinking about how hundreds of activists did organize in Cleveland just days after Rice was killed. They actually didn’t need to wait for the New York Times to tell them a wrong had been committed in the January 22nd article you helpfully tweeted along with your advice. And I was thinking about how many of those activists were activated because of their outrage over the events in Ferguson months earlier. And I was thinking how those activists articulated connections rather than distinctions between the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and John Crawford and Tamir Rice.

And I was thinking how many of them even saw links with the killings of Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride and Kajieme Powell and Jonathan Ferrell and even Emmett Till and Jimmy Lee Jackson.

I was thinking how – unlike you, Nick – these activists were not searching for perfect martyrs to tell a neat story. They were responding to the realities of loss and experiences of injustice as they happened.   These activists - who you felt the authority to counsel on Friday afternoon – didn’t wait for Rice because they were dodging tear gas in Ferguson and stopping traffic in New York and disrupting shopping in Minnesota because they did not want another unarmed man, woman, or child to be killed. Because they believed that justice delayed is justice denied. Because they took Martin Luther King seriously when he said we cannot wait because:

“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”

And because these activists are wildly foolish enough to actually believe that all black lives matter. Thank goodness you set them straight about that!

Sincerely,

Melissa

Melissa Harris-Perry and Melissa Harris-Perry Open Letters

MHP on the problem with the 'perfect victim'

Updated