The New Yorker profiled former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for its August 10 issue, the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Wilson. The biggest takeaway from the piece seems to be that Wilson had the opportunity to be a dumb kid but didn’t give others like Brown the same chance. And he still doesn’t think race had anything to do with it.
Over a number of months, writer Jake Halperin spoke with Wilson and his wife Barb, who are raising a new baby girl as well as Barb’s two sons from a previous relationship with an abusive man. Halperin tries to understand why Wilson killed Brown from the former police officer’s perspective, while using that very voice as an illustration of the larger problems in policing communities like Ferguson, or the nearby town where Wilson initially trained.
Most starkly, Wilson still refuses to see his shooting of Brown, and the coded language he used during his Grand Jury testimony, as race-based.
He continued, “Everyone is so quick to jump on race. It’s not a race issue.” There were two opposing views about policing, he said: “There are people who feel that police have too much power, and they don’t like it. There are people who feel police don’t have enough power, and they don’t like it.”
Halperin asked Wilson about an older black man who called into the Ferguson police station to report gunfire in his neighborhood, but was also frustrated with the local police’s practice of over-ticketing poor blacks in the area as “a cash cow.” The man—Scottie Randolph, 67—was also concerned with the community’s high unemployment rate, which left fewer financial opportunities for young people, who sometimes turned to drug dealing. Wilson’s response:
I asked him if he agreed with Randolph that the neighborhood’s main problem was the absence of jobs. “There’s a lack of jobs everywhere,” he replied, brusquely. “But there’s also lack of initiative to get a job. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” He acknowledged that the jobs available in Ferguson often paid poorly, but added, “That’s how I started. You’ve got to start somewhere.”
Elsewhere, Wilson ironically talks of “good values need to be learned at home”—but his own mother, Tonya Dean, was a possibly bipolar serial thief, who stole so much that a young Wilson warned new friends not to allow his mother in their homes for fear that she’d grift their identities and start credit cards in their names. He had two bank accounts, a dummy and a real, to stay two steps ahead of his mother after she pilfered money they’d raised for his Boy Scout troop. She eventually left his father John, a school teacher, for a man named Tyler Harris, and brought Wilson and his sister Kara. Things were rocky; she kept stealing, putting her new man in debt and then one day, Wilson’s mother died suddenly. Harris thinks she committed suicide by drinking antifreeze. As a teen and young adult, Wilson fell in with the wrong crowd. Eventually, he applied to be a cop because he thought it was, writes Halperin, a “recession-proof career.”
I recount all this because it’s clear from Halperin’s reporting that Wilson didn’t have the best upbringing, and the values he learned at home—steal or hide everything so you’re not robbed— were not “good” either. Yet, somehow Wilson feels that Brown’s alleged theft of cigarillos from a corner store (as cited in the Justice Department’s report) made Brown a “bad guy”—as he explained to one of his stepsons the night after he murdered Brown, after Ferguson went up in flames and Wilson had to explain his connection to the madness the child saw on television.
Wilson’s perspective on blacks could probably be culled from this quote:
He spoke of a black single mother, in Ferguson, who was physically disabled and blind. She had several teen-age children, who “ran wild,” shooting guns, dealing drugs, and breaking into cars.
Several times, Wilson recalled, he responded to calls about gunfire in the woman’s neighborhood and saw “people running either from or to that house.” Wilson would give chase. “It’s midnight, and you’re running through back yards.” If he caught the kids, he checked them for weapons, then questioned them. He recounted a typical exchange: “ ‘Why you running?’ ‘Because I’m afraid of getting caught.’ ‘Well, what are you afraid of getting caught for?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Well, there’s a reason you ran, and there’s a reason you don’t want to get caught. What’s going on?’ ” Wilson said that he rarely got answers—and that any contraband had already been thrown away. Once, he arrested some of the woman’s kids, for damaging property, but usually he let them go. In his telling, there was no reaching the blind woman’s kids: “They ran all over the mom. They didn’t respect her, so why would they respect me?” He added, “They’re so wrapped up in a different culture than—what I’m trying to say is, the right culture, the better one to pick from.”
This sounded like racial code language. I pressed him: what did he mean by “a different culture”? Wilson struggled to respond. He said that he meant “pre-gang culture, where you are just running in the streets—not worried about working in the morning, just worried about your immediate gratification.” He added, “It is the same younger culture that is everywhere in the inner cities.”
“Inner cities” sounds like “welfare mothers” and other types of coded language that politicians and conservative talking heads throw around like it’s a joke. It’s this line of thinking—that there’s a “good” culture and a “bad” culture—that makes Wilson still assume a different police department should hire him despite his history.
Wilson says that, after the grand jury cleared him, he wanted to rejoin Ferguson’s police force. But he was told that his presence would put other officers at risk. “They put that on me,” Wilson said. He worked for two weeks at a boot store, stocking inventory, but quit when reporters started calling the store. “No matter what I do, they try to get a story off of it,” he told me.
“They put that on me,” he says. Yes, Darren Wilson shot Mike Brown. Who else are they supposed to put those bullets on?
I asked him if he had reflected on what kind of person Brown was. The first time I asked, it was early May, and Brown’s parents had just filed their civil lawsuit against him. “You do realize that his parents are suing me?” he said. “So I have to think about him.” He went on, “Do I think about who he was as a person? Not really, because it doesn’t matter at this point. Do I think he had the best upbringing? No. Not at all.” His tone was striking, given Wilson’s own turbulent childhood.
I asked him if he thought Brown was truly a “bad guy,” or just a kid who had got himself into a bad situation. “I only knew him for those forty-five seconds in which he was trying to kill me, so I don’t know,” Wilson said.
This is a man a whole community was forced to trust with their lives.
Meanwhile, Wilson’s wife Barb still hopes that Brown’s step grandmother doesn’t think she’s a racist, because they worked at a grocery store together for years (though they stopped talking once Barb became a cop).
Help me, Jesus.
Barb’s husband killed that woman’s grandchild, got off, and now she and her husband used the funds from his supporters who think killing black unarmed teens is routine business to move into a new home in a new city. But she wants to be friends with his family?
Barb assumes that much of the world assumes that she is a racist, but clings to the idea that Edwards knows better: “I know that she knows, in her heart, that I am not like that.”
What, then, is Barb like?
The nerve of white people who stand on the corpses of black people and act like they had no hand in the slaying is maddening; but, as we are seeing the names of the slain increase by what seems like the day, this is America. Closing one’s eyes to reality is not going to change anything. Look at this quote:
“I am really simple in the way that I look at life,” Wilson said. “What happened to my great-grandfather is not happening to me. I can’t base my actions off what happened to him.” Wilson said that police officers didn’t have the luxury of dwelling on the past. “We can’t fix in thirty minutes what happened thirty years ago,” he said. “We have to fix what’s happening now. That’s my job as a police officer. I’m not going to delve into people’s life-long history and figure out why they’re feeling a certain way, in a certain moment.” He added, “I’m not a psychologist.”
This response of pretending that America’s current social, economic and racial predicament just happened and it’s a “luxury” for black people to think about the ways our ancestors were beaten, sold and killed for white profit makes me want to rip my own head off and throw it at someone.
It’s not a luxury to write about dead black people at the hands of police and randoms like George Zimmerman. It’s not a luxury to have to explain how my humanity is violently brushed aside, or watch others do the same while Bill O’Reilly jokes at the expense of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s not a luxury to realize the new-to-me phenomenon of blacks like Sandra Bland coming up dead in jail cells, and it’s certainly not a luxury to have to hear my 90-year-old Texan grandfather say at his recent birthday party, “They’re killing our women,” between bites of chocolate cake. None of this is a luxury. But it’s what we must do as black people in America with a voice. Wouldn’t it be nice if racist privileged white men like Wilson did the work of recognizing their place in the ruined ferris wheel of race in America too, instead of acting like its victims?
Contact the author at Hillary@jezebel.com.
Image via Getty.