Op-EdOpinion

COLLINS: Six Years Later — Mike Brown, EAT, and Respectability Politics

On the morning of Aug. 9, what many recognized as the six-year anniversary of Michael Brown Jr.’s police-involved shooting death, 21 Washingtonians who joined a crowd of several hundred at a block party on the corner of 33rd Street and Dubois Place in Southeast had their lives forever changed.

During the mass shooting that took place several hours into the annual EAT (Elevate All the Time) Block Party, 17-year-old Christopher Brown lost his life and 22-year-old off-duty police officer Charlee Brown suffered life-threatening injuries that have since kept her confined to a hospital bed.

As community members mourned Christopher’s death and crowdfunded for Brown’s medical expenses, 20-something social entrepreneur and EAT CEO Malik Jarrett continued to suffer in the cyber court of public opinion where supporters, neighborhood officials, elders and everyone else reduced his years of service to D.C. youth to a well-intended, yet hasty decision, that had an unfortunate ending.

In the hours and days after the smoke cleared, people continued calling for legal action and an end to EAT’s community partnerships, as if Jarrett, whose organization espoused nonviolence for years, sprayed the bullets into that crowd himself.

Yes, several of Jarrett’s Instagram followers, to no avail, advised him against hosting a mass gathering with copious amounts of alcohol. Yes, EAT was alleged to have not had a permit to host a block party on the corner of 33rd Street and Dubois Place. Yes, the disregard for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s COVID-19 mandates, in part, resulted in the loss of a life and severe injury to others.

While it goes without saying that Jarrett will probably face some legal and economic consequences for the events that transpired during EAT’s annual block party, there’s perhaps nothing greater than the local Black community’s uncanny ability to quickly, publicly, and nastily chastise young people in the heat of the moment, rather than extending them the grace needed for them to learn from their mistakes.

In a matter of hours, Jarrett, one of the District’s young promising leaders, has been cast aside, like so many before him, into what the writer of this piece would like to describe as the abyss of respectability politics.

Respectability politics is the paradigm where Black people, particularly those in positions of political and economic power, weaponize white supremacist ideals of Black inferiority and criminality to separate themselves from the pack. For several generations, respectability politics has left marginalized Black people, like those from Jarrett’s Northeast community of Edgewood, voiceless, defenseless, and without the space to express the full spectrum of human emotions.

Black people who comfortably live within the margins of respectability politics often refuse to identify with the so-called undesirable elements of their community, even if doing so would foster racial unity. As a millennial who has paved his own way, Jarrett’s apologies would fall on deaf ears, not because of the severity of the mass shooting, but Black people’s collective yearning to appear pristine in a society hellbent on destroying all of us.

Six years ago, respectability politics threatened to tarnish Michael Brown Jr.’s legacy.

For the socially conservative elements of the Black community, convenience store footage showing a young man bearing Brown’s resemblance stealing a box of cigarillo provided Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson some leverage to approach Brown.

It also fanned the flames of doubt around whether Brown had his hands up in the air moments before Wilson fired six shots into the 18-year-old’s chest.

In the months and years following Brown’s death, Wilson, the only one alive to tell the story, told a grand jury that Brown, a recent high school graduate about to start vocational training, violently charged at him. During his testimony, Wilson used language much like what had been propagated since enslavement to incite fear of Black men and legitimize laws limiting their movement.

Once on the record, such testimony guaranteed that Wilson wouldn’t receive charges. It also paved the way for President Barack Obama’s Justice Department and St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell’s failure to charge Wilson years later.

All the while in Ferguson, Missouri, some of the young people who bucked the Black elite’s unspoken rules of conduct in the form of mass protest in 2014 had since died under questionable circumstances — including a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, suicide by hanging, and being burnt inside of a car.

The decedents’ family members and friends, cognizant of the immense pushback that protesters received, even from President Obama, saw nothing ordinary about these occurrences. As a matter of fact, they described it as a conspiracy to control Black people and maintain the very institutions that do so.

In the District, several people have suffered a fate similar to Brown’s — Marqueese Alston, Terrence Sterling, D’Quan Young and Ralphael Briscoe, just to name a few. In their deaths, they too had to face the court of public opinion, often without the support of a community that has grown increasingly disdainful of young people and concurrently supportive of the police.

Time and time again, perceptions about Black youth and criminality ensured that police officers weren’t held accountable for their failure to think clearly and exercise restraint while on the job. That’s part of the reason why, instead of receiving justice, these Black people lost their agency and humanity.

Though Jarrett still has his life, what he experienced in the last week is more inconspicuous and just as dangerous.

Those who pointed the finger at EAT and Jarrett didn’t question the actions, or lack of action, from Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officials posted up at 33rd Street and DuBois Place on the night of the annual block party. Given the resources at MPD’s disposal, more officers could’ve been dispatched to disperse the large crowd. Surely there’s some level of enforcement required of MPD during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially since Bowser made her July 22 announcement about social distancing and wearing masks.

However, as many District residents would have it, Aug. 9’s mass shooting is entirely on Malik Jarrett and EAT, not the public officials and police officers who, even with their utilization of social media intelligence, have been unable to prevent violent crime and enforce social distancing orders.

Not even the highly esteemed elders who have Jarrett’s ear have been found culpable for failing to curtail his enthusiasm. Instead, all the responsibility lies with Jarrett, a young man who didn’t act alone in building his clothing empire and maintaining the fervor of the annual block party.

With this type of thinking, it’s no wonder that generational schisms continue to exist within D.C.’s Black community, much to the point that the police department can escape blame for issues under their purview — like gun violence, and enforcement of stay-at-home orders —- while Black Washingtonians, young and old, continue to die in their communities from violence and other societal conditions.

With all this being said, I guess it’s safe to ask: When will ALL Black lives, including that of a young entrepreneur who made a mistake, matter to Black people?

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