"Do I think of him as a person? Not really," said former police officer Darren Wilson of Mike Brown, the black teen he shot dead in Ferguson one year ago. "It doesn't matter at this point," Wilson told The New Yorker in his first extensive interview, which essentially reaffirms narratives about a racist and reactionary cop.
I have much sympathy for the criticisms leveled at The New Yorker following the article's publication. As the anniversary of Brown's killing approaches this week, after this year's deadliest month for police killing civilians, we should question any journalistic act that gives so much space to a killer cop.
I don't care that Wilson has a baby or a wife, or that he must now live a quiet life. And I'm not surprised that he displays the sort of racist attitudes (including denialism of race as an issue) that means he talks of white people as "like minded" and not so subtly decries "a different culture" than his "right" one. I'm not interested in his troubled upbringing. These are areas covered in the profile that do problematic work in humanizing, even critically, the killer cop. It's not some blunt anti-police sentiment that informs a disinterest in Wilson's personal story, but a desire to treat the police appropriately. Namely, as a force.
Cops are accorded unique authority as a uniformed group, and uniformly enjoy the protection and power that badge provides. To focus on the history or character of any individual cop risks missing this important point. When, earlier this year, a major national police union asked Congress to expand federal hate crimes statutes to include police as a protected minority, the embattled logic failed to see that unlike other groups targeted for discrimination, cops can take their uniforms off and put down their guns.
I see no problem in treating a uniformed authority uniformly — if that uniform comes to represent racist violence, then no bearer of the badge is exempt for critique as such. This means black cops can be vectors for structural racism, too. The old dictum, "All Cops Are Bastards," ACAB, is not an empirical judgment on the character of each or every officer, but a decrial of cop-dom and its societal function.
We risk defanging the struggle against a violent institution by individuating its members. After all, police forces themselves have long relied on "bad apple" narratives, when the whole orchard is rotten. But writer Jake Halpern artfully avoids such a trap. While the interview grants Wilson something he denies Brown, namely consideration as "a person," it is powerful by virtue of its focus on Wilson as an avatar for an institution. The result is a portrait of how police racism works and extends beyond any individual officer.
The New Yorker (for the most part) treads the correct side of the political line in its use of Wilson as a profile protagonist. Halpern quotes Ta-Nehisi Coates on the relative unimportance of what intentions or misunderstandings prompt an individual cop to end a black life. "There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country,” Coates wrote. Halpern's piece subtly plays out this point. The interview tells of a cop who chooses a poor black area as his first beat because an area with more recorded crime would "propel his career."
The profile is a corrective to any understanding of brutal police racism that believes it is propelled by individual officers setting out with the explicit intention of beating and killing black people. It is a thing far more insidious: a genuine belief that they are doing their jobs right, and a culture that reinforces the refusal to acknowledge its own racism.
Consider this small but crucial detail in the profile. A Ferguson councilman, until the U.S. Department of Justice issued its critical report on the police department, had not even noticed — looked to notice — that the majority black suburb was policed by a vast majority of white cops at the time of Brown’s killing. "I didn’t know, on August 9th, that we only had four African-American police officers on a force of 53,” the local politician said. "I could have done a better job," he added in an understatement as profound as his original oversight.
This is the story Halpern tells, that dark histories are not built on individual ill intentions. Only a tiny proportion of racists think themselves racist — racist systems enable this sort of denialism. It's exactly such a framework that meant Wilson could be said to have acted within the remit of his job when shooting Brown, at the same time his department could be condemned as unconstitutional in its racist practices by the DoJ. Wilson was doing his job, and his job was racist.
The New Yorker interview is no apologia. And while I hate to give Wilson the time of day "as a person," I support efforts, like Halpern's, that primarily frame him as a cop. Appropriately, the title for the profile is "The Cop." The story of The Cop, as a node in a racist network, is one worth telling many times over. This time it was through the uniformed man who killed Mike Brown.