ALJASSAR: A portrait of Michael Brown

The media unfairly delves into the backgrounds of victimized, young black men

On August 24, New York Times reporter John Eligon penned a piece in which he sought to explore the last few weeks of the life of Michael Brown, the unarmed black man fatally shot at least six times last month by police officer Darren Wilson. In search of the answers to the question “who was Michael Brown?” Eligon discusses Brown’s character at length and offers his audience the conclusion that Michael Brown “was no angel.”

Throughout the article, Eligon broaches Brown’s encounters with marijuana and alcohol in addition to his “vulgar” rap lyrics. To any reasonable person, such information is irrelevant to the shooting. An unarmed black man was shot dead by a police officer in a town with a troubling record of racial profiling and segregation — Brown’s habits and music preferences are entirely immaterial. But there is no shortage of unreasonable people who will use this information to discredit Brown before his killer is summoned in a court of law to explain himself.

Eligon’s dissection of Brown’s ethos masquerades as an insightful probe into Brown’s history which informs us of the circumstances framing the shooting. But beneath a superficial level, Eligon’s review is nothing more than a dagger driven into Brown’s reputation, an assassination of yet another young black man’s character.

The character assassination of dead black youth is nothing new. Following the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012, the media circulated a litany of information that limned Martin as a thug. Stories of his absences from school, his profane tweets and images of him smoking marijuana littered media outlets at the height of Zimmerman’s prosecution. Though not without veracity, such claims about Martin’s personal history did nothing to illuminate the trial and only propagated nasty narratives about Martin and, more broadly, young black men.

Five years ago, Oakland police officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant while restraining him at a police station. Information that Grant had evaded officers at a traffic stop three years earlier emerged and cast Grant in a negative light. To many, Grant was a thug whose crimes justified Mehserle’s decision to shoot him.

In 1991, Rodney King was battered by a group of Los Angeles police officers while lying on the ground. Following investigation, King’s previous robbery conviction came to light, lending ammunition to those who believed King was a delinquent who deserved to be beaten.

Do black victims of police brutality deserve injustice if they are not angels? Writer and commentator Touré writes: “In a nation where police often approach black communities with a dragnet, stopping and frisking everyone, marking as many black men as possible with a record, it would be hard to find a black man who looks like an angel.”

If local police fatally shot an unarmed, non-black student of this University, would we be hearing about how much he drank, how much weed he smoked and how much he cursed on social media? Absolutely not. Let’s confront the elephant in the room: the only reason Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin are put under a microscope is that they are young black men.

Eligon’s article is not wholly deplorable. His account of Brown’s promising academic turnaround and jovial spirit give human character to a man who has been dehumanized as a thug by much of the public. However, as with Martin, all of Brown’s positive qualities will undoubtedly be buried under claims that he was not an angel. Eligon’s profile of Brown is evidence of this disturbing trend of scrutinizing and assassinating the characters of young black victims of police brutality and institutional injustice.

Nazar Aljassar is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at

related stories