It was difficult last November to ignore the language that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson used to describe Michael Brown. "The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon," he told a St. Louis grand jury in testimony released last November. Wilson also claimed that he felt "like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan," and that, even after having been shot already, "[Brown] was almost bulking up to run through shots."
The grand jury never really questions Wilson’s dehumanizing descriptions of Brown, an unarmed teen of similar height and size. As a result, there’s little indication that the grand jury even considered that Brown felt fear and pain during his escalating confrontation with Wilson, that his feelings mattered or, more to the point, that he may have been the victim. They are not alone.
"The narrative that young men of color’s pain is insignificant–both that it’s somehow smaller than the pain that other people experience and that it’s somehow less important–is as old as our country," Vera Institute of Justice researcher Danielle Sered told an overflow crowd last week at the Ford Foundation in New York City. The implication and meaning of that narrative was the subject of an extraordinary talk, "Young Men of Color and the Other Side of Harm." (Watch video above).
Panelists included (l to r): Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY); forensic psychiatrist Dr. Richard Dudley who specializes in treating black male victims; Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson; Howard University theologian and director of Healing Communities prison ministry, Rev. Dr. Harold Trulear; and Danielle Sered, director of Common Justice, a restorative justice program that provides victim services to young black men.
Below, slightly edited highlights from the hour-long panel, which convener Sered hopes will launch a new national conversation that centers the effects of harm and trauma in the lives of young black men.
Common Justice’s Danielle Sered, on how treatment and care for victims is racialized…
"As a white woman I know the profound impact it can have on a person for a society to take her pain seriously. When I survived sexual assault in my late teens there were many, many programs available to support me. I didn’t actually go to any of those programs. And at the same time their very existence affected me profoundly. They communicated something. They told me that I matter, that what happened to me was wrong, that I was deserving of care, that what happened to me ran contrary to the values of my society in a way that was so important, that society would invest resources in making sure that I came through it OK. And that message from our society, especially when it is reinforced in countless ways by our media and our social institutions, offers a profound and essential support to healing. … But as a nation, we have failed to make a comparable effort to provide young men of color who survive violence with the services and supports that they need and deserve–even though those young men are among the people most likely to survive harm in our country."
Rev. Dr. Harold Trulear on challenging "thug" imagery and language…
"One of the reasons young black men don’t get the attention white women get as victims is that they’re not part of the human narrative. We don’t see them as human beings. We see them as criminals. We see them as thugs. We see them as animals. We have all kinds of names that we call them rather than recognize their humanity. That contributes to black-on-black violence because if the narrative is that young black men aren’t human, young black men internalize that and devalue each other’s lives. We need a real fresh way of thinking about humanity of all people involved in the penal system whether they’re victims or perpetrators. And we start with language. We’re not about fixing people coming home from prison; we’re about changing the narrative around the whole community. So, for example, we don’t use the term "ex-offender." We use the term "returning citizen." It’s not perfect. But if you continue to define someone by their past then you’re not giving them a chance for their future. Language is really important."
Dr. Richard Dudley on the myth of black male immunity to pain…
"There’s an underlying narrative that young men of color are somehow immune to violence. There’s a notion that violence doesn’t affect them in any particular sort of way, hence there’s no need for a program or any sort of intervention. I’m reminded of testifying in court a couple of decades ago, about a young man who had been assaulted. During the course of this assault, [another young man, his friend] was killed. He developed really bad PTSD and so his parents brought him to see me. Every time the incident came up he would disassociate, he would relive it, he would run screaming out of the house thinking it was all happening again. So I’m testifying about this in court and in the middle of it, the judge actually stopped me and said, ‘Dr. Dudley, are you trying to tell me that a kid from Bedford-Stuyvesant can be traumatized?’ [Audience audibly shuffles.] Fast forward decades now, and whether I’m consulting with police or visiting mental health programs in prison, that same notion–that these young men are somehow immune to violence–interferes with even beginning the exploration process of what to do."
D.A. Kenneth Thompson on reforms to the criminal justice system…
"When I ran [for office] I said I would deal with the marijuana arrests and wrongful convictions and we have started to do that. Twelve exonerations in a little over a year, 100 murder cases left to look at–which is extraordinary. And our decision to go beyond murder cases to look at non-homicide cases is important. … The criminal justice system is not infallible. There have been a few of these men who’ve died before we can get them out.
There was one young boy named Willie Stuckey. He was only 16-years-old when he confessed [to murder]. We looked at that case and concluded that his video-taped confession was false. So I moved quickly to correct that but Willie Stuckey had already died. He died at the age of 31 of a massive heart attack while maintaining his innocence in prison. But that didn’t stop me from moving to vacate his conviction. And so we tracked down his mother who had moved away.
I called and introduced myself to her and told her that we were going to have this court appearance because Willie should’ve never gone to prison in the first place. And all you could hear is her crying on the other end of the phone, uncontrollably. So I asked her if she would come to court and stand in Willie’s place. Because although we couldn’t save his life we could at least give him back his good name. And she came to court and stood there on behalf of her son.
Now, that won’t bring him back. But maybe that’ll help her with the healing process and show folks how we’re taking a different approach in Brooklyn, treating people who’re wrongfully convicted, whether living or dead, with the dignity they deserve."
Congressman Hakeem Jeffries on actually seeing black men as victims of violent crime…
"Even at a time where you have the police-community relationship at the forefront and a [bipartisan] political opportunity to deal with mass incarceration and the failed War on Drugs, this victimization issue has still largely escaped notice. It’s been largely ignored. And given that Congress has an opportunity now to make progress on fixing the broken criminal justice system, there’s a real moment to inject the victimization of young men of color into [that conversation]."
I’m continuing to report on victimization and trauma in low-income communities for Colorlines in partnership with The Investigative Fund and I’d like to hear your stories. Please email cmurphy(at)raceforward(dot)org.