In early August, St. Louis County Police shot eighteen-year-old Tyrone Harris, Jr. amidst an outbreak of violence during protests in memory of Michael Brown. The Washington Post described Harris as a young man with a “troubled past.” That phrase, so often reserved for those deemed to be on the wrong side of the law, obscures long and complex histories of individuals, groups, and nations. It offers a simplistic explanation for arrest, incarceration, or violent death as a logical and direct extension of a person’s unspecified yet determinative past.
Kara Brown, writing at Jezebel, places Tyrone Harris, Jr., within the longer history of black Americans surviving in a nation that has so often designed to destroy them. She encourages black people to continue to live:
So I say this: Burn down the stores. Sag your pants. Blast your music. Protest. Write. Sing. Dance. Ace their tests. Beat them at their own game. Let America know that we are here and we are alive right now and forever.
Brown opens that call to be free with an embrace of lawbreaking, and positions it alongside a range of other political acts that may seem more reasonable. We might, however, understand lawbreaking differently when we acknowledge and account for the fact that black people live and have always lived in a nation of unequal laws, and that our judgment of what it means to break the law often looks quite different with the passage of time.