Q&A: Marc Lamont Hill on Michael Brown, Imperfect Victims and Getting Past Survival Mode

By Akiba Solomon Aug 09, 2016

Two years ago today, Michael Brown was apprehended in his neighborhood for jaywalking and ended up dead from a police officer’s bullets. While the prospect of a Black 18-year-old being gunned down by a White officer is horrifically mundane, the savage disregard Ferguson, Missouri, law enforcement showed for his body changed the trajectory for activism in the United States and beyond. TV host, professor and author Marc Lamont Hill wrote a book about Brown and the political energy he sparked. Here, the "Nobody" author talks remembrance and resistance. 

You included Michael Brown in the dedication of your latest book, “Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond.” What the second anniversary of his death at the hands of officer Darren Wilson, mean to you?

This day, first of all, is about remembering who Michael Brown was as a human being. As significant as Black Lives Matter, the movement for Black lives, Ferguson activism and other local struggles have been, we still need to remember Mike Brown from Canfield Green Apartments. So I use this day to reflect on him, his family, all of the people left behind.

Second, I think about August 9, 2014 in terms of what it meant for our struggle. Every generation has a moment where it says, “We’ve had enough.” Whether it’s Emmett Till’s death, whether it’s Rodney King [being beaten by LAPD], there’s always a moment where galvanizes our political energy. And for me, Mike Brown was that moment. That’s why I say in my book that he died so another generation of freedom fighters could live. His killing has led to what has been the most sustained opposition to state violence that we’ve seen in American history, and so that’s also what August 9 is about. 

In your book you touch on the concept of Michael Brown not being a perfect victim. Can you talk about how you reconcile the young man who stole cigarillos and pushed a store owner with the person victimized by Darren Wilson?

Having seen the tape, talked to witnesses and read all the transcripts, there’s no doubt that Michael Brown made some bad choices that day. Swiping cigarillos from a store and pushing the store owner were not the best choices. But they shouldn’t be choices that led to his death.

And Darren Wilson didn’t stop Michael Brown for stealing cigarillos. It wasn’t until after [Wilson] pulls over and stops [Brown] that he even made the connection. Mike Brown was stopped for walking down the street, for jaywalking, essentially. According to witnesses, [Wilson] told [Brown] to get the eff out of the street. Mike Brown was stopped for a petty offense, and the City of Ferguson literally has an economy that is built on stopping people for petty offenses. That’s literally how the town makes money.

But even if we concede that Mike Brown was stopped for stealing cigarillos, that’s not a capital offense. Whether you accept Darren Wilson’s account fully or witnesses accounts of Mike Brown’s [shooting] fully, he was still dehumanized in this encounter.

Darren Wilson used lethal force when he did not have to. We keep seeing case after case, even last week where White individuals with guns fire their weapons at police and manage to get out of the encounter without being killed or even being shot. But when it comes to Black bodies, somehow our very existence demands lethal force. I don’t need Mike Brown to be the perfect victim to be worth struggling for.

Can you talk more about the systemic issues that Brown’s killing surfaced nationally?

The Brown case is representative of a series of critical problems we have in our system—people being criminalized in a political economy of ticketing and warrants. In the DOJ report, we find that in Ferguson about 16,000 out of 20,000 residents had a warrant.

And this opens the door to violent encounters.

Yes. Cops ratchet up violence rather than trying to tone it down when they engage with Black people, particularly Black males. All of this, for me, is why Mike Brown is not someone we should have to hide under the premise of respectability or bourgeois politics. Mike Brown was a weed-smoking, trash-talking, cigarette-stealing young man who still should be alive. A whole lot of 18-year-olds make bad choices. The White ones tend to live to tell about it. Black ones often do not.

As we were trying to figure out how to address the Brown anniversary, a member of my team suggested that we talk about how much Ferguson has changed in these two years since his death. And I felt really skeptical. Yes, there has been some transfer of power, but I don’t get a sense that Ferguson is that much different. As someone who has been following this closely would you say that Ferguson changed a lot?

Yes and no. You see structural changes in terms of who runs the city. The city manager is Black now. The police chief is Black. The city clerk resigned and about 20 police officers have left, police who were very deservedly scrutinized for the things they did on the job like [sending racist] emails or [having] citizen complaints [against them]. Ferguson also has four new city council members, and we’re seeing people are ticketed and taxed less. That comes with a price: City revenue is down. The problem is the town doesn’t have enough industry.

When I’m in Ferguson physically—and I was there as recently as a month ago—the town feels different because many of the buildings that were burned down have been repaired. They’ve gone to great effort to make Ferguson look like a rebuilt town. You won’t necessarily see traces of riot or rebellion.

What do you think is the same?

When you talk to people, when you go back to Canfield, you still feel, a sense of civic despair. The civic despair isn’t just for Mike Brown. I think the lack of jobs, the poor school district and the under-resourced institutions continue to make people feel that way.

And the racial tension [in] Ferguson and the broader St. Louis area is also still there.  People don’t feel safe. Police have more restraint, but people don’t feel less criminalized or have a healthy relationship with them. People still ain’t calling the cops.

Let’s talk about resistance. Just last week we had the case of Korryn Gaines. In an albeit vastly different circumstance, we had Eric Garner telling police to stop harassing him. We have Sandra Bland and [Earledreka White], the sister in Houston who called the police on the police and still went to jail for two days. Does resistance belong anywhere in this conversation?

There are two levels. If you’re talking about resistance at point of arrest, most people to some extent resist arrest. Very few people get stopped and automatically turn around and put their hands up. Most of them ask, “What am I being arrested for? Do you really gotta do this? Why is this happening?” They say, “It wasn’t me.”

This is just a fact of policing. But again, with Black people it gets heightened. For example, Sandra Bland didn’t ask a question that was uncommon. She asked the question citizens ask when they get pulled over. But these police officers didn’t like her tone; they wanted complete deference. So there’s resistance at that level that gets criminalized and often has a lethal outcome. This is why we have all of these sort of rituals around “The Talk” and how to engage police, and how you don’t have the luxury of doing what White kids do.

What’s the second level?

There’s the question of resistance to the violence itself, whether you run, fight back or do other things. And I think that we have to have space for resistance in our political vocabulary around police. We’re so concerned with survival and safety, we have to tell our children, “Don’t [resist], we’ll file [a complaint] when you get home. Keep your hands on 10:00 and 2:00 and tell the officer where you’re reaching.” These are things we have to do to survive. But sometimes when people make a different choice, a choice that is natural for humans to make, we look at them as having made a bad choice. For example, we may disagree with running from the police, but when you have the sense that they may kill you, it’s not an unwise choice.

And yet Walter Scott runs for whatever reason and gets shot in the back. Eric Garner gets killed standing up. Freddie Gray gets dragged into a van. This range gives the impression that whether you stay [still] or not, you’re in a very precarious position. So if you’re going to be in a state of precariousness anyway, you might as well run. 

I have a really long question.


So in the video Korryn Gaines took of her March 2016 traffic stop, she tells police that she doesn’t participate in their laws and she repeatedly asks them for delegation of authority orders. She has a cardboard sign in the place of a license plate that says she’s a free traveler, and she tells police that she in the middle of suing “them” and that they had “stolen” her tags.

If you look that stuff up online, it comes up as rhetoric from the sovereignty movement, which is generally a nativist and White supremacist set of beliefs.

But there’s something particular about Gaines trying to find agency in an alternate system, even given her possible mental problems. What do you think of alternative systems in the context of Mike Brown and other police violence cases?

I think at some point one of the things that we have to ask as we engage in a real resistance movement against state violence, we need to have a real theory of this.

I think oftentimes we respond to policing, but without a deeper analysis of the state and what role it serves as an economic and cultural system. We will never arrive at a nuanced and ultimately new answer until we engage a variety of traditions, a variety of theories, a variety of political movements—some of which won’t be indigenous to Black folks.

Now, some of them are not helpful to us. Some of them are not based in fact or in our current political formation. But we have to explore them.

Some people do that in an academic context. Others like Korryn Gaines or some of the undesirable folks that we don’t want to engage like White nationalists, are not speaking from academic literature—they may be going on the Internet and finding these movements.

I think people just want to imagine themselves outside of the context of oppression. Sometimes this is not a matter of politics or principle, but it’s on an emotional or level. We should still take them seriously.

Is there anything else we should cover here?

Well, one of the things that I find fascinating is how quick we were to accept the mainstream narrative of Korryn Gaines’ killing, where didn’t accept it in the death of Mike Brown. Even when the DOJ has a pretty persuasive argument that Mike Brown did not have his hands up when he was killed, we continue to ride for him, as we should.

But the moment Korryn Gaines is killed, it’s like, “Well she shouldn’t have had a gun. She shouldn’t have done this, she shouldn’t have done that.”

The typical, good-faith assumption that what the police say is true has been diminished by so many of the cases we’ve observed. But when it comes to Black women, we take the question of behavior in a very different way. To take it back to Mike Brown, he clearly made bad choices [before encountering Wilson]. But we still understand that his life is worth fighting for that state practices were questioned. But we demand women comport themselves perfectly for us to ride for them, and that’s dangerous.