Coming out of the closet: I was a teenage thug
Up to this point, I’ve held off on writing about Ferguson, Michael Brown, Eric Garner or use of force by police. I’ve done so because, honestly, the whole issue kind of overwhelms me and I haven’t really felt like I had a particularly valuable or informed perspective to contribute. I decided to write today, though, because I keep reading things like Michael Brown was a thug and “got what he deserved” and Eric Garner would be alive today if he hadn’t resisted the cops.
When I hear people express thoughts like this I feel really guilty and also really lucky, because according to these sentiments, I too deserved to be killed by police. I’m not proud of it, but according to these definitions, I was also a teenage thug. I engaged in a lot of the exact same behaviors as Michael Brown—of course, things turned out quite differently for me, for reasons that you can probably guess: I am white, I come from a very privileged background and to a certain extent, I guess, I was just lucky.
To be clear, I was never a hardened criminal, or a gang-member (neither were Michael Brown or Eric Garner), but I certainly committed some crimes: I vandalized property, stole beer from people’s garages and 7-11 (very much like Michael Brown did with cigarillos), shoplifted, stuck punk rock band stickers on cop cars, yelled “F#%K the Police” when cops drove by and generally did my best to be uncooperative with authorities. Again, I’m not proud and in fact I’m pretty embarrassed by most of that stuff. But, I also think it is pretty typical teenager behavior; I did all this stuff with a bunch of friends, all from my “nice” neighborhood and as far as I know we all turned out pretty well. We grew out of our thug years and became lawyers, teachers, construction contractors, business owners and scientists—productive members of society (well, maybe not the lawyers).
I think many of us have similar stories of being irresponsible delinquents at some point in our lives, and the data back me up. According to a recent study, about 70% of Americans have committed a crime that would warrant jail time. But most of us don’t get caught for this stuff and we are able to move on from the stupid moments in our lives. Unfortunately, Michael Brown didn’t get that chance.
I’m not going to dig into the nuances of the encounter between Michael Brown and Officer Hanson or assign blame, because honestly I don’t think any of us know what really happened that day—I’m not even sure Officer Hanson knows; human memory is pretty unreliable. I’m also not trying to excuse the actions of Michael Brown or Eric Garner—they were breaking the law and deserved to be punished for it. However, what they deserved was probably a fine or community service, not death.
I’m also not interested in criticizing or blaming all police for incidents like this, because I happen to know, respect and love several really good police officers. I know cops have an extremely hard job, and most of them are good people who want to help their communities. I also know that there is something deeply wrong in our society that leads us to treat kids like me (white, well spoken, and from “good” communities) as mischievous youth, while declaring that other kids, who don’t share those attributes, are thugs who deserve death for doing pretty much exactly the same thing.