More than 20 years separate the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles and the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. There are stark differences between the two cases but also obvious similarities: both victims were African-American males and their assailants were white police officers. But there is a much darker thread that runs through these two tragic cases and others, including the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
In each case, the black victim was portrayed as a monster, capable of superhuman strength and often fearlessness in the face of a loaded gun. In Officer Darren Wilson’s account of the 90-second altercation on Aug. 9, the day he shot and killed Brown, the unarmed teen rained punches on an armed police officer seated in a parked police car. There doesn't seem to be any clear motivation for this. It's as if Brown attacked Wilson for no other reason than because he felt like it.
In his testimony before the grand jury, Wilson described Brown -- 10 years younger, overweight and nearly the same height as Wilson -- as looking like a "demon". Rodney King, who was shown on video being savagely beaten by LAPD officers at a police stop, was described as “a monster-like figure akin to a Tasmanian Devil” by one of his assailants, according to the Associated Press.
On August 9, a struggle between Wilson and Brown ensued, which eventually led to the officer shooting the teen, he claims, in self-defense.
"The way I’ve described it is, it was like a 5-year-old trying to hold on to Hulk Hogan," Wilson said. In LAPD Officer Stacey Koon’s 1992 testimony, he describes King as an “incredible hulk.”
King, who died in 2012, never disputed the fact that he was intoxicated and verbally combative when he was retained by police. But he testified that he never resisted arrest and the infamous videotape appears to support his claims of police brutality.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, one of only a handful of African-Americans ever elected to the U.S. Senate, penned a column in 1992, when he was 22 years old following an original acquittal of the officers involved in the King beating. On the phenomenon of turning the victims of violence into aggressors, Booker wrote: “I am 6 feet, 3 inches tall and 230 pounds. “Do I scare you? Am I a threat? Does your fear justify your actions? Twelve people believed it did.”
The public outrage with the original verdict sparked days of deadly rioting in Los Angeles. Sadly, little appears to have changed. And the looting and rioting in the aftermath of the Brown grand jury decision only reinforces the idea in some bigots’ minds that black people don’t value their own lives. The callous nature of some commentary on the Michael Brown case, personified by the racially insensitive #FergusonRiotTips tweets on Twitter, show that for some people, black lives really are worthless.
As an African-American male, no matter how I’m dressed or speak I remain painfully aware of the reality that in some quarters I will always be viewed suspiciously. Comedian Chris Rock hilariously, and subversively, captured this truth (or anxiety if you prefer) in the 1991 album "Born Suspect", where he jokes that being black means you can always pretend to have a gun and white people will believe you.
"Everybody's so scared of black people. I walk down the streets, women are grabbing hold of their Mace, everybody's tucking in their chains, people hitting their car doors [locks], people getting into karate stances," Rock quips. "I look up in the window and there's a bunch of old white ladies that will get on the phone and dial 9-1, and just wait for me to do something."
At one point in his encounter with Brown, Wilson testified that he saw the teen reaching into his waistband. The implication seems to be that he thought Brown may have been armed. But in the entirety of their struggle in and outside of his police car, Brown never pulled out a weapon, although Wilson does say that the teen reached for his gun.
George Zimmerman, who was acquitted in the shooting death of Martin, claimed that the unarmed Florida teen, emerged from the darkness, “jumped out of the bushes” and attacked him. According to Martin’s family, the teen was simply running out to buy a snack during halftime of the NBA All-Star game. But according to Zimmerman, Martin was out for blood. Zimmerman told investigators that Martin banged his head on the pavement and ominously told him “You are going to die tonight.” Zimmerman shot and killed the teen seconds later. When faced with the prospect of being shot, Michael Brown is alleged to have said Darren Wilson was too much of “p—y” to pull the trigger, according to the officer's testimony.
Wilson also testified that even after being shot and wounded several times, Brown continued to “charge” at him, with an intent to kill. "When he stopped, he turned, looked at me, made like a grunting noise and had the most intense, aggressive face I've ever seen on a person. When he looked at me, he then did like the hop ... you know, like people do to start running," Wilson testified.
It’s hard to fathom what is more absurd, the idea that a multiple gunshot wound victim would keep coming for more, or that a grand jury would believe it.
I’ve never been accosted by the police, which makes me something of a statistical oddity. I assume however that if I ever am, I would be terrified and I certainly wouldn’t attack an armed officer. I’m not a coward. It's just that I just don’t have a death wish. And, contrary to some peoples' opinions, neither do the overwhelming majority of African-Americans.
This is why it’s hard for many to understand Wilson’s story. Basic common sense tells us that if someone has a gun and you don’t, you don’t pick a fight with them and you certainly don’t run at them full speed with your arms out while being fired on. Brown tested positive for marijuana, but not for a drug that historically associated with aggressive behavior like PCP. Nothing in his history supports the notion that he was prone to sudden, heedless violence.
The concept of physically overpowering black males taunting police to shoot them feels like a myth while the prospect of being targeted by an overzealous white person, who's finger is on the trigger, is a reality that plagues many African-Americans.
And yet some people still cling to the notion that King, Martin and now Brown were somehow inhuman or “had it coming.” They refuse to see the collective tragedy of their stories and instead accept the official line of what took place wholesale. It’s up to the growing chorus of activists who have turned the phrase “black lives matter” into something of a rallying cry to continue speaking truth to this vocal minority in the hopes that someday they too can grieve for black youth slain too soon.