According to the grand jury in Ferguson, MO, 18-year-old Michael Brown lost his life on August 9, 2014 when he charged police Officer Darren Wilson.
Wilson had his gun drawn. When Brown charged the police officer, who was much smaller than he was, the officer feared for himself and fired.
But how did Brown get to that point?
Moments prior to the fatal shots, the grand jury found that Brown had had an altercation with Officer Wilson at* the back of the officer’s car. Brown went for the officer’s weapon. Wilson fired two shots at that point. Forensic evidence — gunpowder residue on Brown’s hand, a wound on Brown’s hand, Brown’s blood on the gun and in the car — says that there was a fight between the teenager and police officer. After the first shots, he fled, then turned back toward Wilson.
But how did things get to that point?
Moments before the altercation in the squad car, Officer Wilson had stopped Brown and a friend, Dorian Johnson, who were walking down the middle of the road and disrupting traffic. Wilson did not know what Brown and Johnson had done just prior to that, or why they were disrupting traffic.
Moments prior to that, Brown and Johnson had robbed a liquor store. They didn’t take cash, though. They stole less than $50 worth of Swisher Sweets cigars. Brown was supposedly heading off to college soon. Why did he risk everything for a petty robbery?
And why did he act like a thug and steal that specific type of cigar?
It turns out that Swisher Sweets cigars have a specific purpose to marijuana smokers. Some pot smokers take Swisher Sweets, which are among the cheapest cigars on the market, hollow them out, and fill them with pot. That disguises the pot as an ordinary cigar. Brown’s social media included strong hints that he used Swisher Sweets cigars in that way.
Stealing Swisher Sweets cigars doesn’t necessarily make Michael Brown a drug user. Social media posts suggesting that he was a drug user don’t make him a drug user. But the amount of THC, the chief active ingredient in marijuana, found in Brown’s autopsy does mean that he was a drug user. Just prior to the robbery of the convenience store, Brown had used so much pot that he could have had hallucinations, according to the autopsy. He may have been hallucinating when Officer Wilson confronted him in the middle of the street. We will never know.
How did Brown get to the point where he was a heavy pot user, at least once, and strong-arm robbed a liquor store to obtain cigars used to conceal drug use? And from whom was he concealing that drug use?
Answering those questions may finally get us to understand what happened to Michael Brown, and why. We need to rewind far past August 9, 2014, back as many as 18 years.
Did Brown’s parents know who his friends were? Did they know about his drug use? Did they know about his social media habit of pretending to be a gang banger? Was he one of those kids born into a “good family” that taught him well, only to reject those values? Was he taught any values at all?
A kid like Michael Brown is not born a drug user, a strong-armed robber, a gangster wannabe who brags about destructive behavior online. He is born into a culture that promotes some values and eschews other values, as are all of us. Nature forms much of our personality, and so does nurture. What values were instilled into Michael Brown from his infancy to the moment he died? What was he taught to love and cherish? What was he taught to avoid? Who was he taught to respect and emulate? Who was he taught to stay away from? What did his culture teach him to hold up high, and to consider as too low to merit his attention? Were the only reverends in his life named Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Jeremiah Wright?
The manner of his death suggests rather strongly that someone either taught him dangerous values and introduced him into a violent lifestyle, resentment instead of achievement, useless pride instead of real respect for self and others, or that those values and that lifestyle crept into his life because he was not taught anything useful or valuable. He is unfortunately far from alone. The fact that he was a victim does not absolve him of being a perpetrator. One can be both.
The fact is, broken families and a culture that produces feral children are at the root of the vast majority of the crime and poverty and violence that plagues our nation. Not racism. Not the militarization or the overreaction of police.
Not any of that. Broken families. A valueless culture. A vacuum of values, into which anything can move and take hold.
That should comfort none of us. If we could blame simple injustice, we could fix it with justice. We can, over time, eradicate racism or at least drive it off into the wilderness. Over the last few decades we have just about accomplished that in America. We can change police policies, if they are the root of the problem. In the face of real injustice, we can fight for justice.
Burning businesses and shooting each other, destroying police cars, looting — that is not fighting for justice. Those are expressions of nihilism, a mindset that respects no one but demands self respect, and values nothing but is greedy for everything.
The nihilism that causes parents to abandon their children to the ravages of thug culture, drug culture, gang culture, celebrity culture, false race-baiting preachers, and all of that, is a problem of the soul. The culture that praises the low and drives the worthy into the mud is our mainstream culture. Being a problem of the soul, it is therefore much more difficult to repair.
*I originally wrote that the altercation happened in the back of Wilson’s car, which was incorrect.