|Photo by Ted Soqui|
I swear it’s getting to be like the Rashomon replay from hell. Thirteen-year-old Devin Brown was shot and killed by the LAPD two weeks ago, swelling an already bloated history of questionable use-of-force incidents involving black people that, save for a detail here and there, feel almost interchangeable. The basic story goes roughly like this: Police pursue/check into suspect who resists apprehension; when police close in, suspect allegedly threatens them with bodily harm; in alleged self-defense, police shoot/use billy club or another weapon to subdue or kill; lots of conversations about reform follow, but ultimately police defend their actions, however unfortunate, as the cost of being in the law-enforcement business. In the meantime, public wrath in community where incident happened or tends to happen inflames like a recurrent virus, while communities elsewhere with little to no police-brutality problems look on with a kind of interested detachment if at all. The story doesn’t so much end as it falls to a level below Big Media’s radar, where it percolates steadily until the next major eruption.
But, this being mayoral election season, the story has an added twist this time out: What do the candidates have to say about Devin Brown? Plenty, you’d think. This is their big chance to prove to an undecided electorate they can indeed be leaders for all of Los Angeles, as they uniformly claim, and the Brown shooting provides a golden opportunity to show leadership in South-Central, a part of town where it’s sorely needed. Probably to no one’s surprise, the candidates haven’t exactly seized the opportunity — it’s too politically and strategically risky at this point. Mayor Hahn, to whatever credit we can give him, came out swiftly and strongly against the shooting, and ex–Police Chief Bernard Parks has been heading that way all week, though it hardly seems coincidental that these guys are the only ones concerned with scoring the black vote or wresting part of it out of the grip of the other (it must be noted that when Parks appeared at a community rally near the site of the shooting last Wednesday, he was denounced by some people in the audience who recalled his distinctly unsympathetic positions on these kinds of shootings during his time as police chief). In other quarters, the public-safety platform seems to dictate silence or studied neutrality on anything that might involve criticism of cops.
Richard Alarcón, the self-appointed architect of middle-class dreams, calls the Devin Brown shooting a tragedy, but cautions against judging things too early. Same with “Big Valley” Bob Hertzberg, who says he’s reluctant to take a position for the sake of political gain, though he evidently has no problem advocating for a school-district breakup that appears to be, at least in part, for political gain.
Antonio Villaraigosa is perhaps the biggest disappointment. Here’s a candidate who is personally and legislatively sensitive to the miseries of inner cities, who has been actively courting black support and who even had a rally last weekend in his South L.A. office on Crenshaw to announce his latest endorsement from a rapper named MC wil b. But Villaraigosa had precious little to offer on Devin Brown. Said his spokesman: “This is a tragedy, and [Councilman Villaraigosa] hopes that the reform proposals by Chief Bratton will move forward. Obviously there’s a process that has to happen to rebuild community trust, which is long-term and connected to other things like hiring more police.”
I don’t disagree strenuously with any of these comments, but I would like to point out a glaring omission in all of them: Devin Brown himself. Everybody was so immediately caught up in procedural details and in the ongoing, iconic black folk/police story, the human one is already being left behind. Which is more distressing than usual, because the most grievous difference between Devin Brown and a host of other victims is the fact he was only 13. He was barely a teenager, a contemporary of Harry Potter, only halfway through eighth grade. He’d lost his father a year ago, which troubled him deeply, as it would have troubled anyone. He was in a gifted magnet but drifting, academically and socially, and some people were trying to bring him back onto a course of some kind.
But because Devin was a black kid — young black man just isn’t true — and living near Western and 54th Street, he was viewed first not as a victim but as a potential criminal. The questions raised in the wake of the shooting spoke to that: What was he doing out at 4 in the morning in a car not obviously his? Where was his mother? What kind of grades did he have? The first thing people wanted to know before they allotted any sympathy to Devin was what kind of black boy he was: good, bad or — worst of all — a gangbanger. For us to care, he had to be proven innocent because, like most black males in his neighborhood, he was presumed guilty, if not now then guilty of some wrongdoing in the future. About the only time a black person is considered entirely innocent is when he or she has the bad luck to be a bystander at a shooting, though even then the questions and suspicions can persist, in lower tones — Why was he standing there? Did he know the bad ones? We like to think such reasoning is logical and empirical, the way to really get to the bottom of a mystery and all that. It is none of that; it is racial. We are making value judgments and political calculations about people who tend to cross paths with police, and in everyone’s experience those people tend to be black.
The mayoral candidates are skittish because they know their public-safety promises rest on a time-honored but rarely articulated assumption that cops protect law-abiding, middle-class, mostly white citizens from colored, lawless ones who hardly know what being a citizen means. Pundits are again describing the relationship between LAPD and black communities as us and them, but they’ve got the factions wrong — it’s all of us against a black them, and always has been. By the way, the “us” includes members of a tenuous black middle class, who live not terribly far from their poorer brethren and who therefore feel most vested in the police reinforcing that wall between haves and have-nots, between decent and derelict. To put things crudely, either you believe the police are out of control, or you believe the Negroes are; make as many reasoned statements as you want, the choice in these enlightened times is still that stark. No public figure likes to take one position over the other, of course, but let’s face it, you’re going to score lots more points — votes — for vaguely supporting police than for vaguely supporting the rights of potential criminals.
So who’s standing up for Devin, telling his story? Let’s see: family, friends, South L.A. neighborhood council types, activists, fellow middle-school students, a couple of smallish churches in the vicinity of the shooting, and Nation of Islam regional director Tony Muhummad. People with pretty much the same image problem and lack of political clout as the victim himself. People with nothing to lose but yet another battle with the system that, as one pastor bitterly put it, “doesn’t give a damn about a black life.” Muhammad believes the best way to honor Devin’s brief life is to organize and make sure that some people downtown pay with their jobs. Torre Brannon Reese, a youth-intervention counselor at Audubon Middle School, wishes fervently that it didn’t have to come to that. Reese didn’t know Devin well, just out of the corner of his eye, though he wanted to. “He was quiet, he smiled a lot,” says Reese, who also heads a mentoring program on campus called See a Man, Be a Man. “He wasn’t aggressive, or violent, just mischievous. But he wasn’t an honors student, at least not lately. He was going the wrong way. He was on my list.”
At least he was on somebody’s.