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From Michael Brown to the Central Park Five, race changes how victims are portrayed

BY Sarah McHaney  August 14, 2014 at 4:30 PM EDT
Lesley McSpadden, the mother of slain teenager Michael Brown, showed a painting of her and her son through her car window as she leaves a press conference. Brown's death has provoked a Twitter campaign questioning how young black victims are portrayed in the media. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Lesley McSpadden, the mother of slain teenager Michael Brown, showed a painting of her and her son through her car window. Brown’s death has provoked a Twitter campaign questioning how young black victims are portrayed in the media. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The photos of military vehicles dispatched in the streets could have come from a war zone, but it’s Ferguson, Missouri. Community members are in a tense stand-off with law enforcement days after an unarmed African-American 18-year-old named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer. While the unfolding events continue to disturb observers around the country, the emerging narrative is familiar.

“We have a kind of script that we often use when dealing with the deaths of young black and brown people at the hand of police,” said Craig Steven Wilder, head of the History Department at MIT, in a conversation with the PBS NewsHour. “When you have young, low-income people dying, we look for the victim to assume the guilt, assuming they were responsible for forcing the police to take aggressive action.”

Wilder appeared on the NewsHour in June to discuss the $40 million settlement made by the city of New York to a group of men known as the Central Park Five, who were wrongly convicted of a brutal rape in Central Park in 1989 and misrepresented in the media as a pack of predatory hoodlums. He explained how the pressure to solve the case put police and prosecutors on a track to resist the facts.

On Thursday we talked to Wilder by phone for his take on how citizens in Ferguson are responding in the streets and on social media, as well as how the events are being portrayed in the media.

 
NEWSHOUR: From your perspective as a scholar who specializes in urban history, how significant is what is going on in Ferguson, Missouri, right now?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: I think there are some key issues happening here that people need to think about. We need to think about the social implication of the militarization of local police forces. It’s so compelling and shocking, these can pass as images from Baghdad three or four years ago. This hyper militarization is the consequences of the past decade-and-a-half war on terror and that increasing exploitation on an international and national level.

The criminalization of low-income, non-white people is another issue here and it is what has created, essentially, an excuse for turning our local police into military units. All of this is unfolding right in front of our eyes in Ferguson.

NEWSHOUR: What do you make of these Twitter hashtags (like #IfTheyGunnedMeDown) associated with the events?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: I think it’s important to hear what they are saying on Twitter – a large part of the population has a legitimate fear of the police forces that are supposed to keep them safe. The ease with which we accept, as a nation, the killing of unarmed black and brown men, it should be frightening to us all. What’s happening is a cry from the street and a protest from the street. It is asking us to take a harsh look at the values of our laws in the context of people of color.

NEWSHOUR: We’ve talked before about media portrayal surrounding the Central Park Five and how that has a lasting impact on how they are remembered. Obviously this is a very different case, but what do you see as being the same?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: We have a kind of script that we often use when dealing with the deaths of young black and brown people at the hand of police. When you have young, low-income people dying, we look for the victim to assume the guilt, assuming they were responsible for forcing the police to take aggressive action. You can compare that to how we treat white young men accused of mass murder campaigns in the U.S. We almost immediately turn to a script that is one of sympathy for these young men and the assumptions that they are suffering from a pathological disorder.

There is a racialized script that we used and that we turn to with these cases. Immediately after you see the media go out of its way to wait for toxicology reports and things which is a sort of not so coded language to say let’s actually find evidence of guilt that excuses the aggressive action taken by the police. That’s not the way we treat white people when they’re arrested by the police and when they’re the victims of excessive police action.

NEWSHOUR: St. Louis is not dissimilar from other American cities divided by race and income. With the right trigger, could we see this happen anywhere?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: I think this is a time to reflect on the crisis of inequality and the fact that so much of that manifests in urban areas. The triggers are more easily found and created in urban areas, but I think what this is a time to reflect on is the nature of inequality. The growth of income inequality, the severity of unemployment in low-income communities, we have as a nation for the past 30 years, criminalized the non-white poor, we have incarcerated the unemployed and I think we are seeing all of that come to the surface in Ferguson.