It’s been almost two decades since the summer of ’96, when a severe bout of Tommy Hilfiger-philia inspired the teenage me to try some shoplifting at the Hilfiger discount rack at Kaufmann’s Downtown. It began with me noticing a few of the 60-percent-off shirts were without anti-shoplifting sensors.
The first Saturday I paid for one shirt and slipped one without a security sensor into my book bag. It was so easy that I tried it a week later, except that an inefficient sales clerk left the sensor on the shirt that I had paid for, which tripped the alarm at the store exit. I went back in and put the stolen shirt without the sensor on the rack. I was so spooked by the alarm that I never stole again.
My collection of mid-’90s Hilfiger shirts still sit in a box in one of my closets, a throwback relic from my days as a silly, fashion-obsessed teen. When my family gathers in New Castle every summer to eat hot dogs and reminisce, the story of my two-bit crime spree has often been my contribution to the conversation. I hope to even tell it to my kids one day, when they’re old enough to realize the shoplifting story is a cautionary tale, not a humble-brag.
Yet, despite the humor in this example of teenage mischief, it doesn’t escape me that I’m able to tell the story because I got lucky.
If I had regular luck, I could have been stopped by security. If unlucky, I could have gotten stopped by the police. And considering who I was — a young, cocky, 6-foot-tall black male — a roll of the eyes, a nervous grin, an accidental drop of my book bag, or just existing as a young black male could have led to me getting arrested. Or shot and killed.
I can even picture how initial news reports might have read. There’d be a mention that I was shot while stealing. Maybe it would even include I was from East Liberty. Sure, it would have been unfortunate that brave officer had to shoot me, but because I was a kid from the ’hood committing a robbery Downtown, I was a burgeoning menace to society, and it had to be done.
I doubt my 3.2 GPA, National Merit Scholar recognition and status as one of the better basketball players in the city would make the press. Maybe in a week or so, after a local activist or reporter spoke to my parents. But since the public’s perception of me would have already been clouded by the early stories, it wouldn’t have mattered much. I’d be forever known as one of them: one of the dozens of young black males killed in the Pittsburgh area each year who “deserved” their fate.
Fortunately, none of that happened. So I’m sharing this story because I can. And because Michael Brown can’t.
Comparing myself to Michael Brown — the unarmed black teen shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri — may seem like irresponsible, even incendiary hyperbole. After all, I went to college on scholarship (and graduated). I have a career. A white-collar career at that. I got married this summer. I have no criminal record, no children out of wedlock, no history of drug or alcohol abuse.
On paper, I’m one of the “good ones.” Definitely not the type to do whatever Michael Brown did to make the cop kill him.
But that good one designation is insulting, as it uses arbitrary standards to determine one person’s life is more valuable than the next. It’s also a misnomer. Because there is a large segment of America who’d see a Michael Brown, a 16-year-old me and a 35-year-old, and see nothing but potential criminals. There are no “good ones” with them. We are all potential Negro Supercriminals, and if there’s any type of argument involving one of them and one of us — regardless of how innocuous it is — it’s better to kill first and (maybe) ask questions later.
When you think about things this way, that there are people (perhaps some reading this) who believe Michael Brown deserved to die, it makes sense that Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson would hold a news conference in front of a burned-down convenience store, a not-so-subtle reminder of what Negro Supercriminals like Michael Brown are capable of.
Of course he’d mention that Michael Brown was a robbery suspect, even though we’ve since learned the officer who shot him was not aware of that.
Of course he’d wait six days to release the name of the police officer who killed him. Because, the safety of the police is more important than that of Michael Brown and the community of potential Negro Supercriminals he came from.
And, of course, the Super Criminality of Michael Brown is easy to accept once you believe that all Michael Browns — all black men and women — are potential Negro Supercriminals.
Which is what this is all about. Any attempt to make it about anything else is a distraction. The unrest in Ferguson is just a symptom of a centuries-long sickness in America, the latest flare-up of a manageable but seemingly incurable disease; the thought that all Michael Browns are subhuman Supercriminals who need to be stopped.
One thing is true, though. There is nothing we — the potential Negro Supercriminals — can do about that.
We can pull up our pants, pull off our hoodies, put on a smile and put into the idea of America. We can graduate, vote, pay taxes, get married, raise our children and tend our lawns. We can do, have been doing and will continue to do all of those things. But it’s not about us and what we can or need to do differently. Respectability politics have been, and will always be, a fraud. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in a suit.
It’s on them to reach out, to change their minds, to educate themselves, to listen, to be curious, to expand their horizons, to overcome their fears, to join us.
Because being a human being is too time consuming to spend any more time attempting to sway the thoughts of someone convinced you’re not.
Damon Young, a contributing editor to Ebony Magazine (digital), lives in Pittsburgh’s Manchester neighborhood (firstname.lastname@example.org). This piece incorporates some material previously published in Ebony Magazine (digital).