White Patience, Privilege, and Michael Brown's Murder: A Process Post

christhinnesUncategorized5 Comments

Chris Thinnes


On one channel a pundit argues that the safety risk of revealing the officer’s name outweighs the public’s claims to transparency; on another, a local politician urges calm, and an open mind, as the investigations continue. One commentator explains that such investigations are more complex than we might think, and that the public ought not jump to conclusions; a reporter indicates that unconfirmed reports suggest the officer may have been injured in ‘the incident.’ One reporter suggests witnesses noticed there may have been a struggle that preceded the shooting; another wonders if the officer may have mistaken Michael Brown’s upraised arms of surrender as aggression, or his panicked retreat as resistance.

Need I mention that it’s White folks who’ve told me that I ought to think this way for now?

These snippets of mindless prattle make me think about the hopes that must be latent in these calls for White Patience in the case of Michael Brown at the moment: one, that further investigation will reveal that the murder was the aberrant act of a lone, bad cop rather than the inevitable consequence of the dehumanizing violence built into the very structures of power in Ferguson. As we have seen countless times before, the media would seize upon nothing more fiercely than the discovery, let’s say, that the officer has an embarrassing history of racialized intolerance – that he is acknowledged by colleagues, in uncomfortable whispers, as a having told crude jokes in the break room; that he resented having been overlooked for promotion to Sergeant when two of the three Black officers in Ferguson had not; that he was a closet Klan member – for this would give many White folks all the opportunity they need to convince themselves that the murder of Michael Brown was the contemptible act of a lone, demented racist. White America would be able – as it did only most recently with Donald Sterling, or with Cliven Bundy before him—to condemn that one man’s pathology as an anomaly, a deviance – a rupture in the fabric in an otherwise harmonious, post-racial society. And thus such commentators might distance themselves from their own complicity in the structures of White power through their shrieks of indignation about the contemptible acts of a villain.

The other Great White Hope in the case of Michael Brown’s murder, judging from incessant calls for White Patience to allow ‘the investigation’ to see its way through, is that someone will discover something about Michael Brown’s background in recent months or years, or his actions in those fateful seconds, that paint a more complex picture of his ‘character’ than what we seem to know suggests. Maybe witnesses will indicate that he did raise his voice in anger; maybe they will suggest that he did struggle with the officer who assailed him; maybe they will indicate that he did, after all, object to being stopped for walking on his street. Or maybe classmates will remember that he bristled at the racialized structures of oppression he saw entrenched in the composition of the city council and the police force; maybe he had spoken out against the excessively disproportionate number of traffic stops, and arrests, of Black folks in Ferguson in the past; maybe he, as a young Black man — to whom most of White America already ascribes a latent instability, danger, or violence until proven otherwise – did something, that day or any other, that could allow folks to convince themselves that the officer was threatened; or felt threatened; or otherwise ‘reasonably’ misunderstood Michael Brown as a threat. Then we could inscribe this abhorrent act of racialized violence as a pitiable, and tragic, misunderstanding.

This morning I trolled around the internet for a little while, listened to substantial sections of the recordings of Ferguson’s police dispatchers released by Anonymous, and thought about what it is that bothers me so much. Not what bothers other folks, or other folks think should bother me—but what bothers me. What bothers me is that some folks expressed outrage about the arrest of journalists more explicitly than they expressed outrage about the murder of Michael Brown. What bothers me is that the police didn’t call in the shooting to dispatch, but that dispatch found out about it on the news. What bothers me is that the police called in for backup before they called in for medical assistance for Michael Brown. What bothers me is that SWAT teams, tear gas, and rubber bullets have been used against peaceful protesters. What bothers me is that an unarmed child – I don’t care what he did or didn’t do; I don’t care if he was headed to college or not; I don’t care if he was a ‘good’ kid, or a ‘bad’ one; I don’t care whether I should think of him as a ‘child,’ or as a ‘young man’ — an unarmed child was shot by a police officer, when his arms were outstretched in surrender. What bothers me is that, in the face of this atrocity, anyone has dared to ask me to be calm.

But what really bothers me, beneath all of this, is that I haven’t said a word until just this moment. The last week I’ve buried myself in books and journals, reading umpteen studies on high-stakes testing and accountability policies for a literature review; periodically poking my head up for air to learn about the hideous commission of a crime in Ferguson; and saying not one word about it. I’ve managed to lob a tweet about education reform into the aether now and again, and to retweet others’ thoughts and observations, but not to contribute a single word in solidarity, or protest, or simple outrage until just now.

And what bothers me about that is that I comfortably send my teenage child into the world each day – to school; into the neighborhood; into other neighborhoods—knowing damn well that his White male body will never be ascribed the same assumptions, conciliations, platitudes, or abject violence as those that have been inscribed, forever, on Michael Brown’s. God forbid that my son should ever be the object of such unspeakable, ineffable horror or that my family should be subjected to such immeasurably oppressive grief. But precisely because of the privileges he has inherited, it seems safe to say it never will.

And if – again, God forbid – if my son were to be dehumanized this way, the nation’s White politicians and pundits wouldn’t dare call for calm.

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NB: Following the original publication of this post, a sentence was removed because it was unnecessarily divisive, unrelated, and distracting.

You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes

  • pgow

    Last August I was surprised to start the school year with nary a word about the Trayvon Martin verdict that extended a pass to his “stand your ground” killer; the helplessness and rage I had experienced off in a little place isolated in the woods hadn’t worn off, and I wanted to process my feelings and vent my anger with peers. But school was school, and new initiatives and new foci pulled attention away. I’m guessing that won’t be true this year, and it gives me all the more anguish to know that this is because of the violence and police overreaction in Ferguson over the last few nights. Does it really take riots and stun grenades to get our attention? We’re talking about our children here, right?

    When we took a Sudanese refugee into our otherwise all-White home as a foster child more than ten years ago, the first thing we did was introduce him to the local police department and all of our neighbors. We made sure that the local paper told his story with a photograph. Why? Because we wanted to make sure that he would never be hassled or harassed for being a young Black man in a White neighborhood. Every story like that of Trayvon or Michael frightens me, not just for our foster son but for every kid who looks like him and could potentially draw the attention, or the fire, of someone wearing garments of righteousness that cover a soul of fear, ignorance, and maybe even hate.

    • ChrisThinnes

      Thank you, Peter, for your comments. I hope these conversations aren’t just afterthoughts to talk about new initiatives at back-to-school meetings as well…

  • BigDogJunction

    Wow… another race-baiting article.

    Now we’re racist, because we want cooler heads to prevail.

    You know what? You’re right. I don’t care. Let Ferguson, MO burn to the ground. I used to live near there. Trust me… we’re better off, without that plague spreading on this planet. So yeah… LET IT BURN, BABY!

    Good job, Sparky.


    Who needs to look at facts,why should we wait to find out how things really happen, we should condemn that man because he’s white. I’m sick of how this country bases everything on laws and waits for the truth to come out. Who cares about facts; Brown was black and Wilson was white, enough said.

    • ChrisThinnes

      It’s hard to tell, more than a year later, whether your comments are intended sarcastically, but I would personally hope they’re not intended to be taken seriously. If they are, you might want to have a look at the facts of the case: those that were known at the time, those that have been discovered since, those that were revealed about the local context by the U.S. Department of Justice, and those thay have long known about the broader contexts of systemic inequity in which this act was situated, but which has been discussed more widely since.

      (Oh, and Darren Wilson was an armed white officer of the law who killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. So there’s that as well.)