My friend Michael Ramirez is the most successful conservative editorial cartoonist in America. He is a superb artist and a provocative political satirist. Ramirez’s recent cartoon about Michael Brown – the young man who came out on the bad end of a confrontation with a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. – shows just how provocative he is willing to be.
Ramirez drew a near-realistic portrait of Brown with a caption that reads, “The person responsible for the tragic death of Michael Brown.” The cartoon received a big spike in “likes” on Facebook and a bunch of comments on his website, mostly sympathetic to the view that Brown’s death was his own fault. One post in the comment string made a succinct case against the African American teenager who has become the focus of protests all across the country:
“In the last hour of Michael Brown's life we witnessed his total disregard for the rule of law. He strong-armed a storeowner and stole from him. He was observed by a police officer walking down the center of a street. He was witnessed pushing himself into a police vehicle and grabbing a police weapon and assaulting an officer of the law.”
That unappealing image of Michael Brown is very different from the media’s common shorthand description of the 6-foot-4 18-year-old: “An unarmed black boy.” The discrepancy has been noted, not just by white conservatives, but by some liberals who are not entirely comfortable with Brown being presented as a completely innocent victim who bore no responsibility for escalating a tense encounter with a cop.
The particulars of the Brown incident aside, though, the reality of toxic, deadly relations between police and black communities remain. It is a glaring symptom of a deep chasm at the heart of American life that goes unaddressed year after year. Dismissing Michael Brown as just another thug looking for trouble will not make it go away.
We will never know precisely what happened in the Brown incident – too many witnesses made too many conflicting claims – but we do have videos of other situations where police used extreme force and black males died. In the news right now is the case of Eric Garner, a middle-aged African American who was killed by a chokehold in July when New York City police were arresting him for allegedly selling cigarettes on the street. As in the case of the police officer who shot Michael Brown, a grand jury failed to come up with an indictment of the officer who may have been most responsible for Garner’s death.
There is also the awful incident in Cleveland on Nov. 22, where Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old, was hanging out in a park, tossing snowballs and goofing around with a pellet gun. A surveillance video shows the boy being gunned down within two seconds after a police car raced into view, way before the cops could have made a full assessment of the situation.
Ramirez and the conservatives are right that changed behavior and personal responsibility could have altered some of the tragic interactions with police, but preaching about personal responsibility skirts the hard fact that centuries of racism have left a legacy of disenfranchisement, despair and anger that cannot be swept away by mere good manners. Instead of making it a national cause to do everything we can to bring these troubled communities fully into the American family, we have avoided our own personal responsibility to make our country more just and whole. We have passed the buck to police officers, expecting them to keep the lid on a boiling pot.
White Americans who look askance at the current street protests would be wrong to think it is all about Michael Brown. The Brown shooting was just a tipping point. Underlying the fury now on display in the streets is a simmering sense of injustice. It starts with the countless examples of indiscriminate police harassment suffered by even the most successful, economically integrated black males, from New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker on down. It is also inflamed by incarceration run amok. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul - making a bold argument for a conservative – cites harsh drug laws and unequal justice for sending huge numbers of young black males to prison, permanently warping and wasting their lives. While blacks are 13% of the U.S. population, nearly 40% of inmates are black. Even if you believe every single one of those individuals deserves their punishment – a highly dubious assumption – it is a perverse phenomenon that blights poor neighborhoods and demands a remedy.
Instead of an occupying army of police, struggling African American communities need an army of teachers, job trainers, life counselors and willing employers. Building such an army should be at the top of our national agenda. It shouldn’t be a black versus white thing or a conservative versus liberal thing. Healing America should be our thing – every one of us.