Michael Brown and the racial politics of teenage rebellion
I often joke that I have never moved beyond middle school levels of badassery.
In middle school and high school, I was “no angel.” I skipped class. In middle school I smoked in the girls’ room, and in high school I just left campus to go do so, or snuck out behind the school. In 8th grade my girlfriends and I snuck booze into a pep rally–my friend with screwdrivers and me with a Where’s Waldo thermos filled with about an inch off of every liquor and liqueur in my parents’ cabinet. It would be a long while before I drank after that. Yeesh.
That was also the year I smoked pot for the first time. My girlfriends and I sometimes stole crappy “Wet ‘n’ Wild” nail polishes and Lipsmackers from CVS. I made earrings out of plastic rats. I played guitar, I wrote terrible poetry, I dyed my hair multiple colors, I wore fishnets and steel-toed Docs and I listened to punk rock and riot grrrl. I had a “smart mouth.” I was in detention pretty much constantly. I had many friends who were heroin addicts. I knew a few people who smoked crack. I tried acid once and ecstasy a few times.
And yet, I cannot fathom a world where if I had been shot by a police officer, while I was unarmed at the age of 18, that any of this would be brought up. I cannot imagine a world where said police officer could say he was “in fear for his life” just looking at me, quaking in his police boots over my “Dead Kennedys” t-shirt and safety-pinned zebra skirt. Had anyone claimed this, they would have been laughed off the freaking planet.
Because I was just a teenager. A typically rebellious teenager doing dumb teenager things.
This Sunday, the venerable New York Times ran an article about slain teenager Michael Brown, titled “Michael Brown Spent Last Weeks Grappling With Problems and Promise.” Among some other questionable words, it included the following paragraph, which has, quite rightfully, been torn to shreds on on the internet.
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.
He had “taken to rapping.” He “dabbled in drugs and alcohol.” Well, someone grab my smelling salts, because I believe we have found ourselves a teenager. Grappling with problems and promise are exactly what every 18 year-old on the planet is doing at this very moment.
As my friend Sarah put it this morning, “Being a black teenager doing teenaged shit is a capital crime. Being a white teenager doing teenaged shit is a John Hughes movie.”
White teenage rebellion is practically a celebrated right of passage in this country. From James Dean to the Fonz to practically every sitcom and teen movie in history. In fact, more often than not, said rebels are actually the heroes in these scenarios. We know these rebel kids aren’t really “bad” kids. We know that underneath, they have a heart of gold, and that is just what makes them so compelling.
But because Michael Brown was a black teenager, his slight rebellions were “scary.” His rebellions are the answers some are looking for when wanting to know why an unarmed teenager was shot.
Pictures of him looking “tough” are circulated, the way pictures of Trayvon Martin looking “tough” were circulated, as if to say “See? See what that officer was so scared of?” As though we don’t all have some pictures of us as teenagers looking ridiculous in some way or another.
White conservative talking heads talk about how it’s supposedly “unfair” that the left circulates photos of him just looking like a nice, normal kid. That it’s “unfair” that they talk about how he was planning on going to college when no one will “let them” talk about the ways in which he was not a perfect human. As though that somehow makes it OK for him to have been shot. As though it somehow makes it less of a tragedy.
This is what we talk about when we talk about privilege. The privilege to be a dumb, sorta rebellious teenager without that being considered, in any context, a valid reason for someone to shoot you in cold blood.
We talk about white teenagers smoking pot and black teenagers smoking pot like they are two entirely different activities. We talk about white teenagers being in bands or writing poetry and black teenagers writing rap lyrics as if one is an admirable artistic pursuit and the other a possible indicator of criminal tendencies. While I never heard the end of how “unique” I supposedly was, black teenagers who participate in subcultures, particularly hip-hop, are not called “unique.” We talk about white teenage angst and black teenage anger.
We have vastly different ideas of what constitutes a “good” black kid and a “good” white kid, and a much, much lower bar for what sort of behavior “rationalizes” ones fear of a black teenager. Basically, anything outside of being class valedictorian is “iffy.”
I never had to “be aware” that my mere presence could make someone “fear for their life.” I never had to tread that line. I got to fuck up, and be a dumb teenager and get my shit together later. That’s a freedom that Michael Brown didn’t have.
Michael Brown being a pretty normal, normal-amount-of-rebellious teenager should not in any way, numb the fact that it is outright horrible that he lost his life at the age of 18. It is not necessary to bring up the fact that he was “no angel” because almost no teenager on earth is an angel. Nor should they feel like they have to be in order to not be perceived as a threat and fear they will be treated as one.