Law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri still haven’t told the public about the facts that preceded the deadly shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. What they have told us is that he was the suspect in a robbery. And now, that he may have had marijuana in his system at the time of his death.
Toxicology reports are a standard element of autopsies. But neither of these facts have been linked to the firing of six deadly bullets by a police officer into his body and head. Still, some right-wing pundits including Rush Limbaugh have already seized on Brown’s possible use of marijuana to villify him. It’s the same sort of portrayal that prompted the viral #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag, in which news outlets chose to disseminate images of Michael Brown that might make him seem more like a thug than a young teen who was starting college in two days. And none of it has anything to do with whether he should have died.
As Sybrina Fulton said after the death of her 17-year-old son Trayvon Martin, “They killed my son, now they’re trying to kill his reputation.”
African Americans are four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites, even though they use marijuana at about the same rate. So it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that they are also more likely to be indicted by the public. Here are just a few of the other young black victims who have suffered character assassination because of alleged use of marijuana and alcohol.
Perhaps no case better epitomizes the phenomenon of character assassination than that of Trayvon Martin. While on the one hand he was an unarmed teen walking home with skittles and an iced tea, killer George Zimmerman’s defense lawyers and many in the media sought over and over to emphasize his encounters with pot. Right-wing bloggers spouted unsupported theories that Martin was a drug dealer. Several Fox News commentators alleged Martin was dressed like a “wannabe gangster.” And during Martin’s trial, defense lawyer Mark O’Mara honed in on traces of marijuana in Martin’s blood. O’Mara argued that Martin’s use of pot and his occasional wearing of gold caps on his teeth boosted evidence that Martin was the aggressor on the night Zimmerman killed Martin. Zimmerman was acquitted.
Unlike many other black victims of the gun, Renisha McBride’s family saw justice earlier this month when a jury found Theodore Wafer guilty for shooting McBride dead as she stood outside his front porch, ostensibly seeking help after a car accident. But in the trial leading up to this ruling, Wafer’s lawyers sought to undercut McBride’s character in the same way defense lawyers had done to Martin, by invoking her use of substances. “I’m not blaming Renisha,” lawyer Cheryl Carpenter told the jury during closing remarks. “But alcohol is what caused all of this.” She proceeded to paint two narratives of that night, contrasting McBride’s evening consuming alcohol with friends to Wafer’s quiet evening at home. As described by the Detroit Free Press’s Live Blog of the trial, the 19-year-old McBride was at a friend’s house at 8 p.m., drinking and smoking marijuana, while Wafer was at home eating a sandwich. When McBride left her home at around 11 p.m., Wafer had been asleep for several hours. “This man told the truth,” Carpenter said, referencing Wafer. Although the jury didn’t buy the defense’s attempt to malign McBride’s character, some media outlets may have. After the ruling, the Associated Press sparked outrage in the civil rights community when it tweeted, “Suburban Detroit homeowner convicted of second-degree murder for killing woman who showed up drunk on porch.”
Sean Bell & Trent Benefield
Sean Bell was shot dead by plainclothes police officers in Queens, New York on the morning before his wedding in 2006. Bell was standing outside a strip club — at his own bachelor party — where cops had been investigating allegations of prostitution. He and two friends were the targets of more than 50 bullets fired at his Nissan, Altima. But when revelations emerged that Bell had been drunk at his bachelor party, headlines blared, “Sean Bell Was Drunk When Shot By Police.” Prosecutors contended that because Bell was behind the wheel his blood alcohol level was relevant. But evidence suggested the officers had also been drinking alcohol and never had their blood alcohol levels tested. All three officers were criminally charged, but acquitted by a judge. Bell’s friend, Trent Benefield, who was also shot but not killed, was grilled about his “marijuana addiction” during the trial.
Former A&M; Florida football player Jonathan Ferrell was killed by the cops after he sought help after a car crash. Sources initially told the media that Ferrell may have been drinking and smoking before the incident, and cited it as the cause of the accident. But toxicology reports later found no drugs in Ferrell’s system and alcohol well below the legal limit. On the second try, a grand jury indicted an officer for involuntary manslaughter only.
Contrast these stories with that of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. As Time’s Maia Szalavitz points out, Tsarnaev’s use of pot was cited in the media to suggest that, rather than being aggressive, paranoid, or otherwise provocative, he was just too blissed out to develop a bomb. USA Today, for example, described Tsarnaev this way: “Friends and classmates of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev can’t grasp how the pot-smoking party boy they knew is the same young man now accused of carrying out a terrorist attack.” While the media portrayals overall of Tsarnaev may not have been kind, they were nonetheless distinct from those suffered by these victims of gun violence.