For some Americans on opposite sides of a national debate, Michael Brown has become a symbol, epitomizing their polarized views on who bears the blame for the toll of young black men killed by police officers. Brown was a gentle giant, in one version. A defiant troublemaker, in another.
Yet as more details of the 18-year-old’s life and death emerge, his legacy in the eyes of many is more nuanced, reflecting the ups and downs and challenges faced by many young Americans.
“He was someone trying to come into his own, trying to grow up in a world that’s not that friendly to young people,” civil rights lawyer Barbara Arnwine said.
“Other young people see themselves in him. They’re not looking for someone who’s perfect. It’s his vulnerabilities that appeal to them,” said Arnwine, president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
In the days after Brown’s Aug. 9 shooting death at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a warm, upbeat portrait emerged.
After academic struggles in high school, he had buckled down to get his diploma last summer and was soon to enter a technical college. Friends and family recalled a sizable young man — 6-foot-5, nearly 300 pounds — with a gentle, joking manner, a fan of computer games, an aspiring rap musician.
“His biggest goal was to be part of something,” said Charlie Kennedy, a health and physical education teacher at neighboring Normandy High School. “He was kindhearted, a little kid in a big body.”
Subsequently, some less flattering details surfaced. A toxicology report showed that Brown had marijuana in his system on the day he died. Ferguson police released a video showing Brown snatching some cigars in a convenience store and shoving the store clerk earlier in the day he was killed.
Then came the release of evidence and testimony presented to the grand jury that decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Brown. Wilson testified that Brown scuffled with him while he was in his patrol car, trying to grab his pistol, and moments later — after stepping away from the car — started to charge back at him.
“The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked,” Wilson testified.
Some grand jury witnesses disputed Wilson’s testimony, saying Brown did not make a charge. But to Brown’s detractors, the officer’s account reinforced negative feelings about the young man and further fueled their efforts to make him a symbol for their pro-police arguments.
“Here’s the lessons from Ferguson America,” wrote rocker and conservative activist Ted Nugent on his Facebook page. “Don’t let your kids grow up to be thugs who think they can steal, assault & attack cops as a way of life & badge of black (dis)honor.”
The Rev. E.W. Jackson, a conservative black pastor based in Virginia, depicted Brown as “in many ways a typical kid growing up in the black community.”
“He imbibed a lot of negative attitudes about what manhood is all about,” Jackson said. “I wish this kid could have been redeemed to go on to live a wonderful life.”
“But something is wrong when you start wrestling with a police officer over his gun,” Jackson added. “I have nothing but sympathy for his parents, but you can’t absolve Michael Brown of responsibility for this situation.”
Arnwine, the civil rights lawyer, was infuriated that Wilson’s negative testimony had been made available to the grand jurors and to the public.
“It was meant to portray Michael Brown in the worst possible way, as a foul-mouthed, violent, rude, aggressive person,” she said. “It was meant to give people the impression of this scary black man who deserved to die.”
She said the turnout of throngs of young people of all races at rallies and protests nationwide gave a truer picture of Brown’s legacy.
“When you see their passion, hear the pain in their voices, you can see they honestly relate to this young man,” Arnwine said. “They feel that he absolutely embodied the struggles that they are going through.”
“He was someone struggling to create his identity, make his music, hang with his friends,” she said. “You’re caught betwixt and between, trying to be an adult but still in your teens.”
The president of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks, said he met Brown’s parents and some of his young friends in the aftermath of the shooting.
“Michael Brown contained all the virtues and all the flaws of a great many young people, irrespective of race or class,” Brooks said. “There was something about him, and what happened to him, that inspired young people to transform a local social-justice challenge into a global civil rights issue, something that spoke to their sense of conscience.”
The intense scrutiny of Brown’s life and the accompanying moral judgments have angered some of those following the case.
“It’s not for us to say if he was angel or if he would have become a billionaire after he got his college degree,” said James Peterson, director of Africana Studies and an associate professor of English at Lehigh University.
“I hate the narrative that it’s more sad that he was two days away from starting college. What if he wasn’t?” Peterson asked. “It doesn’t matter what we think his legacy was. He was a human being who didn’t deserve to have his life snuffed out.”
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