Mike Brown and The Ghost of the Dred Scott Decision

As I was recently flipping through channels, I, by chance, came across a NFL game and tuned in. The featured game was the New England Patriots versus the Philadelphia Eagles. By the time I began to watch, all of the starters were on the bench and the reserved players who were fighting for positions on the team were playing. In one of the offensive possessions by New England, they called a misdirection play. It wasn’t a big play that gained significant yardage, nor would it make the ESPN top ten highlights; however, the concept of misdirection piqued my interest. In football, a misdirection play is designed as a form of deception in which the attention of an audience is focused on one thing in order to distract its attention from another. In other words, one is so seduced by the misdirection play that they are pursuing a phantom, a created reality, to avert attention from who really has the ball.

When considering the public execution of unarmed 17-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson, the narrative of this atrocity is often lost while misdirection plays are deployed. The truth is going one way while the misdirection is going another. The simple, brutal, but often negated truth of the matter is that Michael Brown was murdered with his hands up in the surrender position. Eyewitness accounts speak to this truth, but the devious genius of the misdirection is that the spin, the slant, and default benefit of the doubt is automatically given to the white officer instead of the dead, young, Black man.

This case parallels other cases where white people have murdered black people and misdirection plays are intended to criminalize the victim.  In a real sense, the victim is put on trial in the court of popular mainstream public opinion and in the court of law, if the case reaches that space. The victim is then tried and prosecuted in their murders posthumously.  Here are just some of the misdirection plays that have sought to dehumanize the very existence of Michael Brown, making him the cause of his own demise and making the officer completely justified in his actions: race, size, dress, language, and behavior (the politics of responsibility at work) are catapulted to the forefront of the situation.

Michael Brown allegedly robbed a convenience store of cigars; the autopsy report mentioned he had traces of marijuana in his system; the video of the alleged strong arm robbery was released even though no one from the store called the police. Inject the mythos that black and  black crime is the only issue facing this and all black communities (the term white on white apparently does not exist.) with eyewitness accounts that are framed as not being trust worthy and Michael Brown is blamed for his own death. We are drawn to go one way but the truth goes another way. The reality is that Michael Brown was unarmed, he was shot multiple times, his lifeless body was left in the street for hours, and the officer did not have any idea that Brown was a suspect in the alleged strong arm robbery. He did not file a report, nor was he suspended, arrested, indicted or charged for any crime but is on paid leave.

In spite of the misdirection mechanism in Ferguson, Missouri, protests have been going on near the grave of Dred Scott, the ghost of the Dred Scott decision.

Dred Scott was an African-American slave who was taken by his slave owners to free states and territories, where he eventually attempted to sue for his freedom. Scott took his case to the highest court of the land, The Supreme Court. In 1857, a little less than a decade before the Civil War, Dred Scott v. Sandford, was a landmark decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court explicitly said that African-Americans – whether slave or free – could not be American citizens and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court. In a 7–2 decision written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the Court denied Scott’s request. Consequently, white Americans had no reason to respect the rights of black Americans because black Americans were not citizens. Out of this decision, life for black people became meaningless under the law, and every black person became a suspect and subjected to be enslaved, profiled, lynched and murdered from that time even into this present moment. Making the connection between Michael Brown’s death and the Dred Scott decision, noted historian Blair Kelly in her brilliant article “Like Dred Scott, Michael Brown was Denied His Right to Live and to Let Live as an American contends, “In Dred Scott’s America—in the same part of Missouri where Brown was killed—black Americans were denied rights and their future. That’s not far off from what happened to Brown.” The ghost of the Dred Scott decision.

In this Michael Brown tragedy, his parents, family, and the entire black community cannot take solace in the belief and hope that justice will be served. That is a luxury that we have never had in this country in totality. Terms like law and order, innocent until proven guilty, and due process translate completely differently to the black community. It’s virtually impossible to place any kind of trust, faith, and hope in a legal system that has consistently, openly, and historically failed us. We understand completely that at any given moment, the spirit of the Dred Scott decision can be deployed against us – even at death. A sad commentary on America is that more times than not when a black person has a crime committed against them by a white person, justice escapes us. The instances are too numerous to count. From cases of civilians and especially against law enforcement, the odds are stacked against us. When we are young, we, as black people, are taught that our rights mean nothing and the legal system that is controlled by white people doesn’t have to respect our rights. Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown because had no rights that he had to respect.

Day to day, psychologically, we live out the Dred Scott decision, and the spirit of Dred Scott hovers over his descendants.


Rev. Rashad D.Grove is the Senior Pastor of The First Baptist Church of Wayne in Wayne, PA, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He's a graduate of Genvea College and is currently a graduate student at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Empire State College studying African-American studies. You can visit the church at www.fbcwayne.org and you can follow him @thegroveness.

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