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Darren Wilson's Testimony and the Historically Racist 'Black Devil' Trope

Whether or not he meant to, the Ferguson cop contributed to a centuries-old tradition of racism in describing Mike Brown's facial expression as "demon."
November 28, 2014, 10:20pm
Photo by Charlie Riedel/AP

Following Mike Brown's death by police bullet in August, the New York Times published an outrage-provoking obituary that described the black 18-year-old as "no angel." The paper's public editor issued an apology, but it wouldn't be the last instance in which Brown's assigned place in the divine order would play a role in the grim narrative surrounding his death. If you thought considerations over Officer Darren Wilson's guilt in shooting dead the teen were paramount, think again.


We learned Monday that Officer Wilson will not go on trial for fatally shooting the unarmed teenager. Judgment, it seems, had been passed — not so much over Wilson's culpability, but over his victim's very soul. The grand jury heard from the officer that when he shot the teen, Brown's face (which the cop described as an "it") looked like a "demon."

What should have been a secular and facts-based process to decide whether a cop was justified in using lethal force against an unarmed teen was peculiarly drenched in hellish hyperbole — not only was Brown "no angel," but a "demon." As Maryam Monalisa Gharavi rightly pointed out for The New Inquiry, considerations of Brown's "demon" face not only appeared to overly determine grand jury judgements about Wilson's actions, but echo a dark history of ascribing not just criminal but demonic intent to black faces.

Gharavi points out that "the transcript of the Grand Jury investigation of Officer Darren Wilson's killing of Michael Brown reads like a flip book jumping between the demonological past and the criminological present." Any assertion that this is not fundamentally a case about race must also contend with the fact that Wilson's own words, regardless of his intents and prejudices, join a historical tradition of white supremacy constructing the figure of the black devil — an assumption of guilt by existence alone.

It must not be taken lightly that a white man, endowed with firepower and authority by the state, used the term "demon" to defend ending the life of an unarmed black teenager. It was a 16th Century English myth that the devil would take the shape of the black Moor — Shakespeare's most villainous creation, Iago, warns the white Venetian senator Brabantio that the "devil will make a grandsire of you" if Othello, the Moor, were permitted to marry and procreate with his white daughter. Racist allusions that should have been confined to Jacobean tragedy persist to this day and found purchase in that Ferguson grand jury meeting room.


Wilson's fantastical descriptions are not the only troubling aspect of the extensive testimony presented to the grand jury. Experts have roundly censured the process that let Wilson walk free. One wonders whether St. Louis county prosecutor Robert McCulloch now regrets his unorthodox decision to make public all of the grand jury testimony records, which are typically kept in a black box of secret judicial procedure.

McCulloch's gesture of transparency has only served to reveal a mistake-riddled process, including the fact Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Kathy Alizadeh handed the jurors a state statute that asserted it was legal for a cop to shoot a fleeing suspect. This Missouri statute, which served as Wilson's defense, was ruled unconstitutional in 1979. The American 19th Century poet John Godfrey Saxe was all too correct when he wrote, "laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made."

It would take a near-religious faith in the US justice system to maintain respect for its authority and correctness after peeking inside the rotten insides of Wilson's grand jury hearing. Missteps, lies, and inconsistencies abound. From the National Bar Association, to San Francisco's Public Defender Jeff Adachi, to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, criticism has poured in since the internal workings of the grand jury were made public. With hope, this injustice will prompt further examination of grand jury proceedings, both state and federal, which are typically kept behind closed doors.

Meanwhile, arguments that justice has been served in the case of Mike Brown's shooting because there has been a legal procedure amount to little more than a defense of the legal system for merely existing, not for being just. Witch trials were once called justice, too. In 2014, the legal system proves itself no less than medieval when an officer of the law can kill a black teen and stake his claim to reasonableness partly by characterizing the boy as a "demon."

The Machiavellian Iago knew well what he was doing in using the black devil trope to condemn Othello, but Wilson had no such cunning. He likely didn't even know that by describing the unarmed Brown's facial expression as demonic, he stood on the shoulders of centuries of wretched racism.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard