Something that I've had the opportunity to reflect on since Michael Brown was shot and killed is the time that I had an "encounter" with the police when I was eighteen and getting ready to head off to college. It seems relevant in light of John Eligon's revelation in the New York Times that Brown "was no angel":
Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.
When I was Brown's age I also dabbled in drugs and alcohol. Even used Swisher Sweets to roll blunts from time to time. For that matter, I also did some shoplifting. Got caught one time by a security guard at the K-Mart on Astor Place who confiscated the stuff I'd stolen and yelled at me a bunch. So I suppose that, when an undercover officer came upon me and two friends smoking cigarettes and drinking beer on a park bench that night, he could have shot us dead and then the Times could have reported that we were no angels. We weren't.
But he didn't shoot us. He wrote us citations for drinking alcohol in a New York City park. Some days later we showed up at some kind of express court full of people charged with things like street urination, running down the up escalator at Penn Station, and selling pretzels without a proper street vending license. When our turn came, we huddled for about five minutes with a DA and what I guess was a public defender who told us that we could plea to the lesser charge of having an open container on the sidewalk and pay a small fine. We agreed, paid the fine, and went on with our lives. After college, one friend joined the Marines and the other joined a PhD program. Today they're both in financial services. But fifteen years ago we were no angels.
We were teenagers. But since the officer who apprehended us managed to handle the situation without killing us, the NYPD and the New York Times never felt the need to air our dirty laundry in public. And, indeed, though I know plenty of white kids from fancy prep schools who did illegal stuff in high school — who even got caught doing it by the police — I don't think I've ever heard a story where someone like me was killed and then proclaimed to the world to have been no angel. Angels, it turns out, are pretty rare. But if you look the right way, you don't need to be one to survive into adulthood.