By T.M. Bonner
time Norma L. McCorvey was 21, she had abused drugs and was on her third child.
While carrying that third child, her scheme to falsely claim she was raped in
order to obtain a legal abortion put her in the path of attorneys seeking to
challenge U.S. abortion laws. Those attorneys who would make her (as “Jane
Roe”) the lead plaintiff in a landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case that would
make abortion within the first three months of pregnancy legal for all women in
America and halt the deadly practice of amateur, underground abortions: Roe v. Wade. Subsequently, McCorvey, despite her background, became a national
symbol of women’s rights and the fight against female oppression.
an angel? No. Was McCorvey free from teenage and young adulthood missteps? No.
Was her right as a woman to make decisions about her own body worthy of justice
and defense –regardless of her sketchy background story? Yes.
Michael Brown, 18, of Ferguson, MO (2014).
unarmed Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9,
2014 in Ferguson. Community uproar and
demand for accountability, justice and legal recourse for police brutality followed
the shooting. Then on the day Ferguson police officials released Wilson’s name
to the media, they also released a video allegedly showing Brown stealing
cigarillos from a convenience store right before his shooting. Several days
later, it was ‘leaked’ that an autopsy revealed Brown had marijuana in his
system on the day he was killed.
message being sent from the video and marijuana leak was clear: Brown wasn’t an
angel. Therefore, because there were no wings found on his dead body, the
legitimacy of the community and others fighting for his rights and seeking
justice against police brutality should be questioned.
looking to understand why McCorvey’s backstory did not alter public and court perception
about the need for justice in her case while the exact opposite plays out in
the Brown case need only know this: McCorvey is white. Brown was
situation in both the lives of McCorvey and Brown intersected with a
long-standing discriminatory American policy/law, thus garnering demands for
change. The difference is that in America, there is an expectation steeped in
racism that African-American victims of injustice and/or those
African-Americans fighting for justice should be beyond reproach, while white
victims or justice fighters can be ‘flawed’ or ‘complex.’
look at the African-American symbols of injustice in some of the most
significant U.S. Supreme Court cases and justice movements in history: James
Meredith, who integrated the University of Mississippi; Rosa Parks, who brought
national attention to Jim Crow laws on public transportation; little pigtailed
Ruby Bridges, 6, who stoically endured racists and violence while integrating a
white Southern school; and Mildred Loving, the other half of the couple in Loving v. Virginia that struck down laws
against interracial marriage. These people were so squeaky clean that if they
were a floor, you could eat off of them.
America is quite comfortable with its white heroes, leaders, and activists being
flawed. What does it matter that Thomas Jefferson had essentially a second
family with his slave Sally Hemings while President of the United States? Why
should politician David Dukes let a little fact that he was a former Grand
Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan stop him from being voted in by the American people as
a Louisiana State Representative? And who can forget the Oscar-winning
performance by Julia Roberts of Real-life Environmental Activist Erin
Brockovich. As the film portrays, Brockovich, a struggling single mother, was
able to expose corporate environmental crime after being hired by a boss who, when
first meeting her, was able to overlook her dressed with certain upper body
parts hanging out to see her ‘passion’ and ‘potential.’
Brown case illustrates, even teenagers are not spared from this ridiculous
double-standard. For teenagers doing teenager stuff resonates quite differently
when that teen is African-American. I can speak from past professional
experience working in a treatment center serving white, rich kids, that
marijuana use is not exclusive to African-American teenagers. Many of those kids
had lied and stolen to support their drug habits. Some have been violent right
before my eyes toward their parents seeking help for them. But with these teens
– as with the infamous “affluenza” teen, Ethan Crouch, who killed four people while
driving drunk and was sentenced to not-so-hard time in a treatment center – we
are supposed to understand that not being fully mature, teenagers need our
support, understanding, and second chances because they have – “potential.”
contrast, the news that Brown may have had marijuana in his system, whether
true or not, has been used to illustrate his being unworthy, a “thug” (aka,
N-word), not deserving of empathy, but very deserving of being shot at least
six times (twice in the head) by Wilson. One need only read Twitter feeds, listen
to commentators on television news programs, or read the comment section of
virtually any newspaper covering the story to see examples of this thinking.
video of the alleged cigarillo ‘robbery’ was released, and the judgment was
swift and decisive. “HP” wrote in the New York Times comment section that the
video has convinced her “that incident is no longer between a Gentle Giant and
rogue cop. It is between a felon and a cop.” And then in the same comment
section, “David” of Chicago reminds us that Brown could reasonably have been
expected to act aggressively toward Office Wilson because “as any psychologist
will tell you, past behavior predicts future behavior.”
Brown, whom authorities have verified did not have a criminal record, is now
labeled permanently in death as a “felon.” But, of course, that’s a fair
assessment because, as “David” points out, what was done in your past is always what you will do in the future.
again, such reasoning only applies to African-American victims.
20-year-old Caroline Giuliani, daughter of former New York City Mayor Rudy
Giuliani, was arrested in 2010 for shoplifting at a Sephora in Manhattan, the
worst she was called was “rebellious” (New
York Post). The New York Daily News
even went so far as to try to milk sympathy for her plight by calling her a
“Poor Little Rich Girl,” while even interviewing a psychologist on what could motivate
someone like her to steal. They even included a photo of her as a cute little
girl to further drive home the point of her innate innocence to readers. Absent
were the references to predictions of “future behavior” of the then Harvard
student –– flawed, but worthy of a chance at a bright future. And unless my
ears and eyes are failing me, I missed that psychological assessment in media
accounts of Brown’s alleged cigarillo swipe.
double-standard extends to those who are fighting against injustice, as well.
Lest we forget, the Occupy Wall Street Movement took over – let me repeat – took
over a park in downtown Manhattan for months, met police efforts to shut
them down with righteous resistance. They disrupted as they raised awareness
about economic inequality between the 99% and the One Percent. Yes, people were
tear-gassed. Yes, people were arrested. Yes it was mayhem. Yes it was chaos.
Yes it was an uprising watched worldwide. These people meant business. Now, there
was some public and media resentment toward the movement, including Newt
Gingrich famously telling the large hipster contingent of the movement to “go
get a job right after you take a bath.” But unless my ears are failing me, I
don’t recall these activists being referred to as “animals” deserving of being
murdered by the police, despite whatever flaws critics thought Occupy
“animal” has actually been mild compared to other things said about African-American
protestors in Ferguson. Some Americans have consistently questioned the
protestors’ right to speak out about injustice toward the black community by
whites because of “black on black crime,” looting,” and other irrelevant topics.
In other words, how can a race of people, whose issues and actions are
‘complex’ and not perfect like their grandmother’s sweet potato pie, think they
have the right to demand justice against police killing unarmed black men and
women? That’s like saying white Americans should just sit back and accept the
murders of loved ones at the hands of serial killers because the vast majority
of serial killers are white males.
then, again, one can’t really expect a logical assessment of Ferguson
protestors from people who view them as racially inferior people whose lives
are not worth much at all. “If looting and firebombing, destruction of property
and violence is their reaction to everything, perhaps we haven’t shot enough?”
asked “Kevin,” of Kansas, on a New York
Times comment section, without any shame.
every white person in America is drinking that Kool-Aid. Some get the double
standards in both word and deed. One poignant Ferguson protestor sign carried
by a white male captured on Twitter read: “At 18 Yrs old in Festus, MO, I shot
a cop with a BB Gun. Why am I still alive?”
who are looking for perfection from fighters for justice are living in an
alternate reality. For as history has shown, those who are willing to risk it
all to right a wrong or correct injustice are not usually those who have the
most to lose in the way of big and shiny things like cars, houses, boats, and
the corner office. It is usually those with nothing left to lose, nowhere to go
but up. And life at the bottom ain’t no
crystal stair. Therefore, the people at the bottom will not be perfect. They
may look the brother in the now famous Ferguson protest photo, who slings a fiery
object back at police with one hand while holding a bag of potato chips in the
other. But they will be courageous.
Baldwin, himself a participant in the black Civil Rights’ Movement of the 60s,
understood this formidable combination when he said: “the most dangerous
creation in any society is the man who has nothing left to lose.”
be misled that this powerful fact is lost on those participating in the smear
campaigns of Michael Brown, Eric Garner before him, Renisha McBride before him,
Jordan Davis before her, and Trayvon Martin before him.
in focusing on the imperfections of victims and protestors is to silence
minority concerns through de-legitimization. Their goal is to create a smoke
screen to blind others to the obvious injustices. Their goal is to steer the
discourse off-topic in hopes that it will remain there and never find its way
old tactic. It’s a pretty transparent tactic. But people still accept it in
reason is as clear as black and white.
T.M. Bonner is a writer, filmmaker, MBA, Social Justice Advocate, and is also a professional in Social Policy/Social Service in New York City.