When I was 17, working a summer job at the track in Saratoga Springs, New York, some co-workers and I managed one night to illegally purchase a case of beer. We took it out back of the local high school, into a dark area where we thought we’d be hidden, and started drinking.
A police cruiser, on a routine patrol or perhaps alerted by people living near the school, pulled up into the parking lot by the side of the school and spotted us. We ran, climbing an 8-foot chain-link fence behind the school.
When I got to the top of the fence I heard the police firing shots into the air and commanding us to stop. I didn’t stop — I vaulted the rest of the way over the fence and ran though a succession of backyards until I’d put the school far behind me, eventually making my way to where I was living without further incident.
I was breaking the law in several ways that night — I’d helped buy beer while under age, I was consuming it in a semi-public place while under age, and I was trespassing on city property. If this had all happened in a black section of town, if I had been a young black male, I wonder if the police might have felt empowered to shoot at me instead of into the air as I was failing to abide by a lawful police order.
Michael Brown had apparently broken the law in several ways on the day he was shot in Ferguson, Missouri — swiping some cigars from a convenience store, walking down the middle of a street, perhaps failing to abide by the lawful order of a police officer.
You could say he was acting like a thug on that day, just as you could say I was acting like a thug that night in Saratoga Springs — except that no one would have said it of me. Because I was white, I was just a teenager doing something stupid and irresponsible. It never occurred to me that I might get shot for running away from the police, for acquiring and consuming beer illegally.
It was a youthful indiscretion, which probably amused the police more than it outraged them — a youthful indiscretion that I was proud, at the age of 17, to have gotten away with. I knew it was wrong, but at 17 I didn’t care.
Michael Brown paid for his youthful indiscretion with his life — because he was seen and treated as a thug . . . and it’s hard to doubt that he was seen and treated that way primarily because he was black.