Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Devil in Mr. Wilson

By Finbarr Curtis

If Dorian Jackson perpetrated a fraud in his grand jury testimony, he did a remarkably good job.  While not all of the details in Jackson's story are clear, someone crafting a self-serving narrative designed to frame a police officer would not usually volunteer that his friend had committed a crime, that they planned to get high, that he had been stopped by police before, that he did not comply with an officer's order, and that both the officer and his friend could not remain calm.  Jackson describes a familiar, ordinary confrontation between two human beings, both headstrong, both physically assertive, both feeling disrespected and instinctively suspicious of the other, but only one with the will and the power to initiate and conclude a confrontation with deadly force.  An incompetent liar would have told a story with less nuance.  We could imagine testimony in which Jackson insisted that Michael Brown did nothing wrong, that a police officer assaulted them without warning and for no comprehensible reason.

In other words, if Jackson was trying to lie he would have told a story like Darren Wilson's.  Wilson's testimony has none of Jackson's complexity and ambiguity.  His is a simple morality tale of angels and demons, of an innocent baby in the grip of a furious giant.  Wilson does not describe an angry encounter between human beings, but instead tells of an inexplicable assault by a mysterious force of diabolical fury.

There is a telling difference in how Wilson and Jackson describe the motives of others in their stories.  While Jackson recounts his shock, he does not portray Wilson as extraordinary and unintelligible.  According to Jackson, Wilson spoke in the familiar tones of disrespect and infantilization that a condescending father might use when talking to children.  Jackson observes that Wilson was not "stopping us or telling us anything like we were committing a crime so much as chastising from a father to a son, like you are doing some wrong.  Hey, put that down or don't touch that, it came off like that, that's how he said it."  Commanded to get out of the street, Jackson and Brown ignored the order because Wilson did not accuse them of a crime but merely cursed at them in the way that people do when they talk down to others who are less powerful.  This was nothing out of the ordinary in Ferguson, Missouri.

Wilson's account insists that his request for Jackson and Brown to leave the sidewalk had none of the condescension, anger, or profanity about which Jackson testified.  As he assures us, Wilson was "non-confrontational" when he politely suggested to two men in the street that they consider options other than jaywalking.  His reasonable demeanor, however, was met with unprovoked profanity and rage.  This is all the more remarkable because Wilson did not ask about the stolen cigarillos in Brown's hand.  Agreeing with Jackson's account on this point, Wilson never accused anyone of a crime.  The entire incident was caused by the sudden eruption of  homicidal rage by a man politely asked to get out of the street.  Such behavior is not normal, not human.  It suggests preternatural forces at work. It is not surprising, then, that Wilson spoke of demons when he describes the expression on Brown's face:
The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that's how angry he looked.
The word demon does not appear in Wilson's initial statement to the police.  The demonic was a product of later interpretation by a man facing criminal charges and making his case to a grand jury.  The image of a demon is an apt one, but not because of anything that possessed Brown.  Wilson's demon, as with most demons, expressed his deepest fears.  In Michael Brown's face, Wilson saw the embodiment of all that he found impenetrable, unintelligible, and terrifying in his daily work amidst the black humanity of Ferguson.

Whereas Jackson describes a world in which the familiar exercise of police power escalated to unnecessary but predictable violence, the confrontation in Wilson's account comes from nowhere.  Brown's fantastic, inexplicable rage makes him unintelligible as a human being.  He is a demon and that is enough.  That Wilson's description of his assault by a demon resonated with the grand jury and many Americans says something about what people wish to believe. 

The matter of belief is central in this case.  While much has been said about the clash between Wilson and Brown, an equally remarkable conflict lies between the testimony of Wilson and witnesses like Dorian Jackson.  The members of the grand jury did not just hold that Wilson's belief in demons was plausible, they decided that this cosmic tale could not be tested against other accounts.  Eyewitnesses offering conflicting stories were not discredited in a court of law; they were not even allowed to become evidence.  Many have noted that the grand jury findings mark an extraordinary departure from legal norms, but this is no accident.  The problem with Jackson's account is not its implausibility but its plausibility, its ordinariness, its resonance with what we know about messy encounters between flesh-and-blood human beings.  The belief in demons dismisses such messy complexity in favor of an aesthetically and spiritually satisfying story of noble whiteness triumphing over cosmic evil.

While belief in the demonic is fragile, it does important work.  Explained as the sudden eruption of inexplicable fury, crime becomes aberrant, abnormal, fantastic, and foreign to ordinary social life.  In this belief system, mundane matters of structural inequality are beside the point.  By recourse to the demonic, Americans explain inequality, racism, poverty, and violence as preternatural threats from outside.  These unfortunate exceptions might exist in the United States, but are not parts of the American body politic.  This belief shields Americans from frank assessments of national culpability such as those voiced by Ta-Nehisi Coates:
The death of all of our Michael Browns at the hands of people who are supposed to protect them originates in a force more powerful than any president: American society itself.
To protect "American society itself" from recognizing the demon within, prohibiting testimony like Jackson's requires a suspension of the legal order.  To consider his testimony as evidence would acknowledge his citizenship; it would see him not as a threat to the legal order but as part of it.  White supremacy is imperiled not by black illegality, then, but by black legality.  The most ferocious acts of racial violence in American history have come not through law enforcement but when existential threats to white purity required a suspension of the law.  Demonic threats conjure more than ordinary violence.  They are exorcised in spectacular fashion through the extralegal violence of lynching, through voter suppression, through shooting people in the street.

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