In a searing post reevaluating the circumstances of Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Mo., and the movement that grew out of it, my colleague Jonathan Capehart wrote that the Justice Department's report on the case "forced me to deal with two uncomfortable truths: Brown never surrendered with his hands up, and Wilson was justified in shooting Brown."
And while Capehart argues that this one case doesn't invalidate the case against police brutality, he insists that "we must never allow ourselves to march under the banner of a false narrative on behalf of someone who would otherwise offend our sense of right and wrong."
The problem is, social movements do this all the time. Both the civil rights movement and the fight for gay equality have been supported by stories that were edited, challenged later or outright fabricated. And while these stories risk being exposed as less than entirely true, they pose another challenge for movements for equality. When we rely on stories about spontaneous, apolitical activists or saintly victims, we buy into larger and deeply conservative arguments about which lives have value and what kind of people deserve the protection of the law.
Take one of the most mild examples of this sort of fiction. Rosa Parks has entered the historical record as a fundamentally apolitical person who spontaneously refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus because she was exhausted, both by her day's work and by the grinding force of racism. This is totally untrue, of course. Parks was an activist — in fact, she was the secretary of her local NAACP chapter and had attended leadership training. Her NAACP colleagues had been on active lookout for someone to challenge segregation in public transportation, previously rejecting Claudette Colvin, a teenager who became pregnant after her arrest for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, as an unreliable figurehead for a campaign.
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Putting forward the idea of Parks as an accidental activist is a small fiction rather than a complete fabrication; it doesn't, as the narrative that developed around Brown's death did, implicate anyone in murder.
But it does have the more subtle effect of suggesting that the spontaneous protest of a political novice is purer than that of an activist. However inadvertently, the story subtly discredits activists, the very people who work hardest to bring about change, implying that they are somehow self-interested or do not represent their constituents in good faith.
More recently, the accepted narrative around Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard's 1998 murder, an event that helped galvanize support for gay rights and became part of the impetus for federal hate crimes legislation, has come under question.
In 2013, the journalist Stephen Jimenez published a truly awful report, The Book of Matt, about the circumstances around Shepard's death, suggesting that Shepard was murdered because of his involvement in the state's meth trade.
The book undermines itself at every turn, and to my reading, didn't prove Jimenez's explosive thesis. But The Book of Matt did call attention to the fact — clear at trial — that Shepard's killers weren't just cruising around looking for a gay man to murder, but instead intended to rob him and then mounted a "gay panic" defense.
Shepard's supposed saintliness has been an animating force in his transformation from mortal man to martyr. It's an impression that was only enhanced at his funeral, when his cousin called him "an angel with new wings," and then later by the use of angel's wings to block homophobic protesters from sight at the trial of his killers. But there's a difference between arguing that Shepard was not to blame for his death — which of course he was not — and implying, however unintentionally, that Shepard's death was a particular tragedy because he was good, not because he was human. A gay panic defense, which suggests that fear of gay men is a justification for murder, doesn't suddenly become less disgusting because the killers had financial motives.
Unlike these other stories, the narrative that evolved around Michael Brown's death had a real cost for Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed him. But all of these stories of perfect, respectable victims take their own quiet tolls, too, in raising the qualifications that people must meet if they are to fight for justice — or have other people fight for them.