Illegible Bodies in Ferguson, Missouri

Voices Across Borders

The Blog of the Race and Resistance Research Network at TORCH

Posted by: Joshua Aiken

Date: 17 November 2014

Illegible Bodies in Ferguson, Missouri

The “story” is straightforward enough.  On August 9th of this year, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  Following his death, citizens from Ferguson — a community just 12 miles north of my alma mater—took to the streets to express their outrage and anguish.  As one woman I spoke to in Ferguson protests explained, her turquoise earrings swinging forcefully with each word, “We’re grieving.  This is how we have to grieve.”

In America, communities of color have systematically been told that inequality and inequities are their fault.  William Ryan in 1971 coined the term “blaming the victim” while describing the 1965 Moynihan Report—a U.S. Department of Labor study that argued ghetto culture was to blame for impoverished Black communities.  In blaming the individuals suffering violence—those experiencing physical, legal, and cultural injury—the state and dominant culture absolve themselves of any sense of responsibility.

Such is the case in Ferguson, Missouri.  For the past seventy-plus days Ferguson has been categorized as a site of unrest; the discourse leaves unacknowledged a broader history of trauma, violence, and injury enacted upon communities of color in the United States.  Media sound bites and even leaked evidence from the grand jury serve to erase the black body that lay in the Missouri heat for over four hours this past summer.  I won’t spend time here documenting the oppressive nature of legal policies that have existed and continue to plague Ferguson (i.e. discriminatory arrest warrants, discriminatory housing policies, etc.)  What I will emphasize is that Ferguson and Michael Brown are not anomalies. 

When Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, extensive media and political effort went into justifying his death. Vonderrit Myers, John Crawford, and Michael Brown this summer have all been portrayed as “aggressive thugs” for a range of reasons.  While the mainstream media considers this just reporting the evidence and providing varied perspectives, their coverage has a different effect.  Rebecca Wanzo introduces the idea of “illegible victims” in her book The Suffering Will Not Be Televised (2009).  She explains: “I use the world ‘illegible’ instead of ‘invisible’ because although the victims initially received very little media coverage and national attention, the treatment of the victims in the media was soon marked by the excessive number of negative narratives [surrounding] black people.”  What is most important to emphasize is that these are not just narratives about the victims; these are reductive narratives that attempt to characterize Black people as a whole.  Michael Brown as a victim, as a young unarmed man who is now dead, gets lost in the narratives of looters, criminals, and other iterations of “aggressive” communities of color.  Insidious narratives such as these, play a destructive role in determining which lives do and do not matter in contemporary American life.

Josh Aiken is completing his MSt in History and working on a project that compares nonviolent direct action tactics during the civil rights struggles in the United States and Northern Ireland.


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