September 2014

Saints and sinners

By David Long

None of us are angels, regardless of our good works and words, and most of us would readily concede this.

But gently pointing this out in a profile of Michael Brown, the black teenager shot to death by a small-town Missouri cop last month, got New York Times reporter John Eligon severely castigated by so-called civilrights leaders, along with the newspaper’s editors for printing what was a well-written and sympathetic article published the day of his funeral.

In the story’s lead, his father recalled that Michael had, not long before his death, phoned home excitedly to tell him he’d seen the form of an angel in some storm clouds, and how this had led his son to begin exploring his spiritual side.

A little further down in the story came the transition that caused the Times’ chicken-hearted editors to pull the story from its web site.

“Michael Brown . . . was no angel,” Eligon wrote before cataloguing the young man’s past indiscretions, which included a security video of him “tussling” with a conveniencestore clerk, pushing him into a display case and taking a box of cigars shortly before his fatal encounter. Eligon also mentioned that the hefty 6-foot teen sometimes used his size to intimidate peers, and made brief references to his occasional use of alcohol and other substances, and his penning misogynistic rap lyrics.

No angel, no devil. Just a pretty typical teenager at the brink of adulthood, a person brand new to the responsibilities and freedoms that come with it. A kid who is going to make some mistakes along with his accomplishments, just like yours or mine.

But such discredited opportunists as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were quick to spring on the words “no angel” as even more proof the establishment media are eager to portray African Americans, particularly young males, as probable hoodlums nowhere near as deserving to live as the rest of us.

They and the mob of angry twitterers who reacted with horror at this latest affront to black sensibilities were themselves only too eager to take this one phrase totally out of context to imply Eligon was dissing his bro (Eligon is black as well, you see), apparently as part of the pervasive, callous disregard they believe the majority holds for minorities.

From reading a few of the tweets, it is obvious those riled up by the story wanted an unflawed, cosmetically enhanced portrait of Brown done in the style of Medieval painters who adorned their subjects with a halo and other trappings of sainthood to please the family from whom it was commissioned, never mind what they actually looked like.

But none of the angry critics pointed out any factual errors in the story, nor offered a scintilla of evidence that its intent had been mean-spirited. It was, in fact, the truth told in an artful and compelling style that made them mad.

But it was also telling the truth about the young man that made his profile so bittersweet and tragic.

Ironically, many of the tweeters tried to make the same point that Eligon had much more eloquently and thoughtfully, since he wasn’t confined to doing it in a couple dozen words. The gist of most tweets was that even if Brown wasn’t an angel, he didn’t deserve to be shot down in the street. (Maybe if they had read more than the first few paragraphs of the story. . . )

Neither was Brown a martyr, as some of his champions are now painting him. He didn’t die fighting for a cause or to make a statement about this country’s lack of justice for all, even though his death underlines this sad state of affairs.

He was just a teenager trying to make his way in a world of confusion.

And that is the point – not that he was perfection personified and that is why he shouldn’t have been gunned down. Not that he was the best kid to ever come out of Ferguson. Or that he had great promise as a medical researcher, or planned to devote his life to the poor. He was what he was, and Eligon did a great job describing this, and not one for which he should have been censured.

But business is business. Margaret Sullivan, an editor of the Times, gave Eligon a half-hearted defense while stressing that that “no angel” was a “regrettable mistake” and that the timing and placement of the story were questionable as well.

Eligon himself said his choice of words was unfortunate, and that he wished he’d said Brown was “not perfect,” instead.

Yeah, it’s not a perfect world. And it’s not full of angels, regardless of color. (And I don’t know how to tweet.)

But when people become so outraged over the trivial, it trivializes the issues for which outrage is genuinely merited, such as unequal justice, racism, and the gunningdown of an unarmed teenager – any teenager — by a police officer.

David Long writes from Cortez, Colo.