Martese Johnson

Source: Charlottesville Police


I’m no longer certain what’s more taxing: Having to write about yet another unarmed Black person experiencing excessive, brutal force from law enforcement, or having to note that Black man or woman doesn’t have to be pristine to have their humanity respected. Or to have their untimely death be any less tragic or significant because they didn’t behave exactly how others feel they should have. That ultimately, the onus of our brutality is on them.

In her Salon essay, “Stop poisoning the race debate: How “respectability politics” rears its ugly head — again,” Brittney Cooper writes a thoughtful, measured retort to Jonathan Capehart’s Washington Post column over Michael Brown being an “inappropriate symbol” for the Black Lives Matter movement based on the findings of a Department of Justice report on Brown’s shooting. In “Hands up, don’t shoot was built on a lie,” Capehart ultimately does rally behind the movement itself, but essentially places distance between Brown and the movement that lifted his name, given that the DOJ report corroborates Darren Wilson’s account of the events that led to his shooting.

Even if you are to believe Darren Wilson completely – and note, I do not – Cooper is absolutely correct when she argues, “there is no scenario in which a teenager or any other person should be dead for stealing cigarillos and not walking on the sidewalk.”

I honestly laughed when Capehart pronounced: “But we must never allow ourselves to march under the banner of a false narrative on behalf of someone who would otherwise offend our sense of right and wrong.”

It’s idealistic if not naive to claim that we must never march under the banner of a false narrative. That is America. This is so many other countries. And religions. And holidays. And organizations. And so many other institutions.

Two or 17 wrongs don’t make a right, but it should make one thing certain: even something aspirational can have imperfection. To expect perfection and complete truth in a symbol is to kid yourself about how things really work. There is no perfect symbol and there should not be any debate over who ought to be allowed to be a symbol of a movement about Black lives mattering.

To even lightly advance the idea that Michael Brown’s alleged transgressions make him incapable of being a symbol of the movement is to entirely miss its point. When people say Black Lives Matter, they mean every single life. If Michael Brown committed a petty crime and behaved disrespectfully to a member of a police office department that has been since proven to be predatory to its Black residents, it has no bearing on the fact that police officers across this country have bad habits that they disproportionately dish out on people of color.

And no matter who you are and how you behave, you are susceptible to their brutality.

Take for instance, Martese Johnson, an honor student who found himself handcuffed and slammed to the pavement — causing him to bleed profusely and subsequently receive 10 stitches. Despite initial reports of him being in possession of a fake ID, Johnson’s attorney has explained that is not the case. Johnson has been charged with obstruction of justice without force and profane swearing and/or intoxication in public, though.

Does that make him any less of a symbol for the movement? Do Johnson’s alleged transgressions warrant those stitches? Was he, too, not respectful enough?

No one would argue that. Johnson is an honor student. He has a lawyer. He’s still alive. But if he died at the hands of an officer, he’d be treated the same way Michael Brown has been. The way all of the Black lives lost in this fashion in recent years have been.

We’ve long heard about their purported bad behavior and character and how it makes them unworthy of our respect, our mourning, our championing, or our righteous anger. Not being perfect is not, nor will it ever be, the issue. Police misconduct still is.

Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem, and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him @youngsinick.

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