5 Times the Media Has Smeared Black Victims of Police Killings Since Michael Brown

Mike Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson exactly one year ago Sunday. His death not only sparked a nationwide movement against police violence generally known as #BlackLivesMatter, it also provided the script which all of the frequent subsequent police shootings of unarmed black men and women have played out in the media.

From the beginning, the media was quick to contextualize Brown's shooting by finding unflattering personal details about his life including routine run-ins with the law. The most shameless case was the now infamous August 25th profile in the The New York Times  that insisted "Mike Brown was no angel" as if anyone had argued otherwise about him, or another human being on earth. It was a piece that feigned nuance, but was really a part of a weeks-long posthumous trial of the dead teenager. For Brown, and countless black victims like him, they were as much, if not more, on trial than the person who had done the actual killing. They were being tried posthumously and without PR counsel.  

In the wake of a police shooting, the need to rationalize police violence -- typically under the guise of "balance" -- almost always means demonizing the victim through public records requests, government leaks, and selective interviews. When one adopts a "both sides" mentality for police shootings, based on the nature of murder, one person cannot speak for themselves, invariably leaving us with one perspective: that of the police.

Police Departments have millions in PR budgets, while the victim's families are almost always poor and unschooled in press manipulation. The state has records on the victim, and yet the family is barred in most states from even knowing their son or daughter's killer. The deck, to put it mildly, is stacked in favor of the powerful -- rendering appeals to objectivity hollow. Howard Zinn famously said, "you can't be neutral on a moving train." This has never been more obvious that in the dozens of cases of African-Americans killed by police over the past year, almost all of whom found themselves being tried in absentia by a press which prioritizes “objectivity” over fairness and access over justice.

Here are the five worst examples of demonization of black victims of police violence since Mike Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer on August 9th 2014:

1. Eric Garner

Choked on camera in broad daylight for “resisting arrest” with his hands up, Eric Garner's death was one of the few cop killings that was so egregious it resulted in relatively bipartisan outrage - including, strangely enough, from former President George W. Bush. who said the decision not to indict Eric Garner's killer Daniel Pantaleo was "hard to understand."

But it's important to stress the word "relatively" because rightwing trolls wouldn’t have it. Outlets from Breitbart, to Fox News to The New York Post to NewsMax dedicated considerable time to smearing Eric Garner as a “career criminal” who somehow caused his own death by resisting arrest. Vulgar human Bob McManus would pen one of the more offensive mainstream Garner smears, the day after his killer was set free by a Staten Island Grand Jury:

Blame only the man who tragically decided to resist

Eric Garner and Michael Brown had much in common, not the least of which was this: On the last day of their lives, they made bad decisions.

Epically bad decisions.

Each broke the law — petty offenses, to be sure, but sufficient to attract the attention of the police. And then — tragically, stupidly, fatally, inexplicably — each fought the law. The law won, of course, as it almost always does.

There it is. Because Mr. Garner was a "career criminal” who, for once, resisted arrest in the most benign way possible, he deserved to die. No account of whether such extreme force was needed. No account for the banned chokehold, no account for whether or not six white men jumping on top of one black man was, at all, racially charged. No, in authoritarian rightwing land, anything short of complete submission to the police is punishable by death. And, because to them black life is cheap, their deaths become a morality tale for other black people to follow -- obey the police or suffer the same fate. In this sense, black deaths aren't just ignored, they are used as a warning to others. 

2. Sandra Bland

A combination of a likely illegal arrest, harassment, and outright neglect led to Sandra Bland's death last month. Whether or not that was by way of suicide is yet to be determined, but thus far it seems she took her own life. In many ways, as other commenters have noted, it doesn't matter. And in many ways, the media treated it no differently. In the wake of Ms. Bland's death, aside from the aforementioned and entirely predictable authority worship from Fox News, another common smear tactic was trotted out: "marijuana in the system."

It's a popular line and one the media and St. Louis County authorities echoed time and time again in the wake of Mr. Brown's death. That somehow having cannabis in one's system is either relevant or inculpatory. As Managing Director of the Drug Policy Alliance Sharda Sekaran noted in the Huffington Post:

At a news conference discussing the preliminary findings of an autopsy following Bland's alleged suicide at the Waller County Jail in Texas last week, officials placed heavy emphasis on marijuana reported to be found in the young woman's system.

Why this emphasis? What does this have to do with widespread demands for accountability around the circumstances of her death? Are we expected to believe the not so subtle insinuation that marijuana use played a part? How is this still happening? Take a sample of random people in any walk of life in this country at any given moment in time, and you are likely to find marijuana in the system of many of them.

The reason for the emphasis is clear: in an effort to justify police killings under the guise of "balance" the media rushes to find anything -- no matter how common or innocuous -- to criminalize the victim. And, since roughly 1 in 9 Americans smokes cannabis regularly, an easy go-to is the "weed in the system" line.

3. Sam Dubose

Even after Hamilton County's right-wing prosecutor delivered what has to be one of the most clear condemnations of a killer cop ever, Fox News couldn't help itself, trying to muddy the waters soon after by, once again, blaming the victim.

As Media Matters noted at the time, Eric Bolling of Fox News's The Five would repeat the ol' "Don't resist arrest line" because, as we all know, the punishment for resisting arrest is summary execution:

But everyone is rushing this, prosecutor just said the cop is guilty of murder. He's already indicted him. And I'm not defending this at all. But people have to realize you can't resist arrest. This guy is taking off. I don't think that cop was fearing for his life. So I think he'll probably be found guilty or something, but stop resisting.

Another Fox News contributor and former NYPD detective,  Bo Dietl wouldn't miss a beat, telling Sean Hannity later than night, "Listen to me. I said it doesn't outweigh the shooting. But should he have just driven away from the cop? Eric, is that right for him to just drive away from the cop? That's not right either."

Body camera footage from the incident seems to contradict the claim that Dubose fled from the officer. The footage seems to suggest that, in contrast to what the officer claimed, Dubose's car propeled forward after he was shot.

The impulse for the media, especially the right-wing media, to blame black victims for their own deaths is so strong, that even in the face of official Republican condemnation the bottom feeders at Fox News will still apologize for the police's actions. Even when video is released that shows, beyond any reasonable doubt, a white police officer wrongfully killed a black man, the impulse to blame the victim cannot be contained. It's not just bias, it's a pathology.

4. Charly "Africa" Keunang

One of the lesser known police killings is also one of the more egregious examples of the media taking it upon themselves to smear a black victim. A video showing an unarmed homeless man being shot in broad daylight quickly went viral on March 1st, resulting in the LAPD going on the defensive. Per usual, the entirely unrelated criminal record of Keunang, who friends called "Africa," would be leaked to the press and shamelessly repeated even thougt they had no bearing on the case whatsoever.

One reporter, in particular, Kate Mather of the Los Angels Times would feel the need to time and time again bring up a bank robbery Mr. Africa had committed over fifteen years ago. As I wrote at the time for FAIR:

This arrangement would become even sleazier yesterday when city authorities–and thus the LA Times–went into full on character assassination mode, with back-to-back smear pieces about Africa’s totally irrelevant criminal past. This screencap of the LA Times‘ Kate Mather’s bio page sums it up nicely:

Her jolly face contrasted with the scary, entirely non sequitur mugshot of Africa raises the question: Why? What does whether he robbed a bank 15 years ago have to do with anything? How is it relevant? How can it do anything but serve to posthumously try and convict him on unrelated charges of being poor and mentally ill?

This case illustrates an important point as well: the smearing of black victims isn't just a staple of the rightwing media, it's a very routine practice in local and corporate media who are in desperate need of information and always willing to uncritically repeat whatever the local police departments hand them inexchange for it. Which brings us to the last and most well-known smear:

5. Freddie Gray

The death of Freddie Gray was ruled a homicide and the officers involved were eventually arrested and charged with a number of crimes, including murder and manslaughter. But not after a week of smear pieces coming from anonymous police sources that attempted to blame Mr. Gray for his own death. Indeed, much of what the Baltimore Police said during the week of unrest in late April turned out to be bogus, including a "gang conspiracy" to take out cops that was uncritically repeated by the media but later revealed to be false by the FBI.

In addition to telling lies to discredit protestors, the Baltimore Police Department was content telling lies that also discredited the source of their outrage: Freddie Gray. Two days before prosecutors would indict the cops who were responsible for Gray's death, the Washinton Post would run a rather bizarre -- and ultimately discredited -- piece based on anonymous BPD leaks detailing how Freddie Gray was trying to injure himself the day of his arrest:

A prisoner sharing a police transport van with Freddie Gray told investigators that he could hear Gray “banging against the walls” of the vehicle and believed that he “was intentionally trying to injure himself,” according to a police document obtained by The Washington Post.

Eventually, follow up corrections to the piece as well as the DA's indictment would go a long way to discrediting the idea that Gray was supposedly responsible for his own death but in many ways the damage was done.

Like smears against protestors that almost always turn out to be bogus, smears again police victims are more about managing public outrage than they are about truth. They're about playing to racist tropes and criminalizing victims so the power establishment -- largely white and wealthy -- will side with the killer, not the killed. They're about justifying state violence either because of ideology or credulity. They're, above all, about erasing black suffering from the national conversation and turning victims into criminals and criminal cops into heroes.

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