Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown because he was black. After months of investigation, many inquiries, protests, much social commentary, and a non-indictment, this seems indisputable. And Wilson’s own grand jury testimony corroborates it. Even though the white St. Louis police officer is just as tall as Michael Brown’s 6 foot 4 frame, he said, “I felt like a 5-year-old” in comparison. In their confrontation, Brown looked to Wilson like a “demon,” an “angry,” “aggressive” black “Hulk” who would certainly kill him – despite his being unarmed.
We have seen this scenario before. Indeed, it is as old as our country. The specter
of the brutish, animalist, demonic black man, who is superhuman in strength and devoid of feeling, character, or fear. He is a threat to society, as well as to the racial order. So Wilson, bearing the weight of this history, fired his weapon directly into Brown’s body multiple times. Threat eliminated. Racial order restored.
I began to think about this history some months ago with another case of a police brutality. On September 4th white South Carolina state trooper, Sean Groubert, stopped a black man named Levar Jones – allegedly on a seat-belt violation – as Jones pulled into a convenience store on a busy street in Columbia. With lights flashing, siren screeching, and dashboard camera rolling, Groubert asks Jones, “Can I see your license, please?” When Jones reaches back into his vehicle to comply, Groubert screams, “Get outa the car, get out of the car” and simultaneously begins firing. Four shots. Jones’s wallet can be seen flying as he is pushed out of sight of the camera, falling to the ground, struck in the hip. Off camera he can be heard groaning and asking, “What did I do, sir?” “Why did you shoot me?”
Although this case has received far less attention than the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases – likely because Jones survived – it is no less significant. I think Jones’s question – “Why did you shoot me?” – is one of the most important ones to emerge in the aftermath of the Garner and Brown killings. It gets at the core issue in every instance in the spate of shootings and killings of black people in the last several weeks – and I would argue, for a much longer time than that. Groubert’s response to Jones was, “well, you dove head first back into your car.” This answer is rooted in a deeper history that transcends that encounter. Why did Groubert shoot Jones?
Because he moved! And historically black bodies in motion in this country have always spelled danger to the white power structures. Groubert later explained that he felt his life was in danger (as Wilson has done) because he was certain that when Jones “dove” back into the car he “saw something black in his hands.” The reality of the situation can be found when we amend that response to simply say – he “saw something black.” And it was moving.
As a scholar of the Great Migration, I have spent most of my career trying to understand the multiple meanings of black bodies in motion. If I’ve learned anything from my explorations, it is that a black body in motion is never without consequence. It is always a signifier of something, scripted and coded. And for the most part, throughout our history black bodies in motion have been deemed a threat. This is the common denominator in every case in this recent reign of terror on black bodies. Michael Brown’s real crime was that he was a black body with his hands up, moving forward. John Crawford’s crime was to move through Wal-Mart and end up in the proximity of toy guns. Tamir Rice’s crime was to simply hold one while walking on a playground. Renisha McBride’s mistake was to think that it was safe to seek refuge on Theodore Wafer’s porch. She moved. He shot her in the face.
This irrational fear of black bodies is deeply ingrained in our national psyche and has at times received the full support of most structures of our society, including our religious institutions. During the slave era, for example, the threat of insurrection prompted a series of oppressive restrictions on black assembly and black movement – for slaves and free blacks. Some churches either fully embraced or turned a blind eye to Jim Crow discrimination, terrified at the prospect of interracial worship. Anti-loitering laws in this country were steeped in racial bias with the overt implication that a group of black men congregating – with seemingly no “purpose” – constituted a “gang.” The legacy of this is that there is no such thing as a singular black body. Patricia Williams calls this the “massed, multiple others,” where one is many; two is a mob; and all are threats.
We cannot change this history overnight, but if we are ever to live up to our ideal of a “Christian nation,” we must move beyond rhetoric and business-as-usual. And we all have work to do, perhaps particularly our nation’s churches, divided as they are so problematically into categories of “black” and “white.” These institutions can no longer claim to be beacons of morality without showing some moral courage. Black churches must become more than simply warehouses of resistance, and it is time to question the “Shall” of “We Shall Overcome.” White churches, drunk as they are on the Eucharistic wine of their own self-satisfaction, must realize that it is not enough to be a “white ally.” Black Americans are fellow citizens and fellow human beings with all the rights that God and the government bestow. Any effective alliance must be based on that truth. In my view, the only way to make this right is to fundamentally change who we are as a nation. Only then can we give alternative answers to Levar Jones’s prescient question, “why did you shoot me?”