Why John Eligon’s New York Times profile of Mike Brown isn’t as bad as many people think
I certainly understand why so many people are upset about certain aspects of John Eligon’s article on Mike Brown in the Times, specifically the use of the phrase “no angel” and, well, basically all of this:
Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.
And initially I was upset about it as well. Because, honestly, what does any of this have to do with this young man’s murder at the hands of the police of Ferguson, Missouri?
And yet, I think there’s been a good deal of over-reaction to this article, understandable, perhaps, in such a highly-charged atmosphere. Because, really, the article is a comprehensive profile of Brown, not some hit job on Fox News. And if you’re going to write an honest profile of who this young man was, you can’t leave out some parts of who he was, or what he did, just because they don’t make him out to be a saint.
And, further, just because he wasn’t a saint doesn’t mean what happened to him was just — and wasn’t murder. What the police did was wrong no matter who the victim was. The victim just happened to be Mike Brown.
For more on this, for a thoughtful response to the reaction to Eligon’s article, I highly recommend this post by Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog, which includes the following:
“No angel,” as has been endlessly pointed out online, is a phrase the Times has used to describe Whitey Bulger and Al Capone; however, it’s also a phrase used to describe Angelica Pickles from Rugrats and Cherubin from The Marriage of Figaro. It’s a flexible phrase; if we white readers think it damns a young black man, it’s because we think a young black man must be morally flawless to be worthy of respect (whereas a young white man should be cut more slack) — or we believe that other whites believe this.
And I suppose plenty of whites do believe this. But it doesn’t mean that an portrait of Brown has to be written for the racist lowest common denominator. In the immediate aftermath of his death, it was said that he shouldn’t have to be a perfect person to be someone whose shooting outrages us. Now, apparently, he does have to be perfect.
But of course no one is. Let us all mourn Mike Brown’s passing, let us all abhor his killing, let us all demand justice, but let us all also strive for the truth, no matter how troubling, no matter how much it may challenge the comforting narratives we construct to explain, and explain away, the challenges of the human condition.
Mike Brown was not perfect. That just makes him more human, more real, and I respect him more for that, for knowing something of what his life was like, the good as well as the less good.