On March 2, 1955, a black girl boarded a bus in a mid-size city in Alabama. She took a seat toward the front, something she knew went against the laws of the Jim Crow South. She didn’t get up as more white people boarded the bus. When the driver told her to move to the back, she refused. She did the same when two police officers commanded her to move. As police officers forcibly removed her from the bus in handcuffs, she repeatedly exclaimed that she had constitutional rights. Still, she was later convicted of disturbing the peace, violating the state’s segregation law and assault.
Civil rights activists had long wanted to wage a campaign against segregation on public transit, but this girl– Claudette Colvin–wouldn’t serve as the public face. Although she was active in her NAACP’s youth council, the Birmingham native didn’t fit the bill. She was 15, visibly poor, and soon, visibly pregnant, qualities that some civil rights leaders saw as flaws. Nine months later Rosa Parks–a middle class, churchgoing 42-year-old who served as the secretary of her local NAACP and a mentor to Colvin–refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Colvin never became a household name, but Parks’ planned act of civil disobedience made her one of the most recognizable and admired black victims of white racism of the 20th century. “Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class,” Colvin, who is dark-skinned, said 50 years later in an interview with NPR. “She fit that profile.”
In other words Parks was a perfect victim. Her morals were unassailed.
Today, if we are to believe law enforcement and personal responsibility-loving politicians such as President Obama, black victims of white racism must still, as Colvin put it, “fit the profile.” Their victimhood is only supposed to matter if their lives are pristine. That’s why St. Louis County law enforcement keeps trying to chip away at the popular image of Michael Brown as a college-bound gentle giant. Last Friday, while identifying the 18-year-old’s killer as Officer Darren Wilson, local police released surveillance footage from a convenience store that allegedlly shows Brown stealing cigars and assaulting a clerk. (Later that day, Police Chief Thomas Jackson admitted that Wilson didn’t know that Brown was a suspect.) On Monday, unnamed sources from the St. Louis County medical examiner’s office told The Washington Post that Brown had marijuana in his blood at the time of his killing.
These tidbits are an obvious distraction from the most urgent matter: a police officer’s killing of an unarmed young man.
This is why we must be clear about the danger of the perfect victim frame. In cases like the Brown killing, this structure serves to legitimize the sometimes-lethal police brutality of people of color. Think about all of our imperfect victims: Oscar Grant did time in state prison. Trayvon Martin was suspended from school and occasionally smoked weed. Remarley Graham also smoked weed. Jordan Davis played loud hip-hop. Renisha McBride was allegedly intoxicated. Eric Garner was accused of selling unlicensed cigarettes. See how this works?
Recall how, in the painful weeks before George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder, Trayvon Martin’s father reinforced his son’s humanity: ”I think one of things that everybody seems to overlook is the fact that, OK, that was our child,” Tracy Martin told theGrio.com. ”…At the end of the day that was our child, and we knew our child and we loved him. And no matter what you try to say about him, [or] how you try to spin his image, or you try to assassinate his character, we know his character, we know his image, and it’s up to us to not let you smear him.”
Now, let’s join Michael Brown’s family in rejecting the perfect victim frame. Whether he was a squeaky clean, college-bound, “gentle giant” or a teenager who may have done stupid things, his life still matters.
And so does his killing.