The Backstory: Carla Murphy

In the wake of the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Carla Murphy talks about who “gets” to be a victim.

On the morning of Friday, August 15, the chief police of Ferguson, Missouri held a long awaited press conference to announce the name of the police officer who, six days before, had shot 18-year-old Mike Brown dead. The killing of the unarmed black teenager had in the last week become one of the biggest news stories in the country, reigniting debate about policing, race and justice.

Ferguson Chief Thomas Jackson, who is white, took the dais and named Officer Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran with no disciplinary record, as the shooter. He followed that with the announcement that the department would release a video purportedly showing Brown stealing cigars and shoving a store clerk. Jackson answered no questions at the conference, but the release of the video seemed timed to send a message — Mike Brown was “no angel.”

Five hours would pass before Chief Jackson clarified that the robbery had no connection to the shooting. Wilson had approached Brown not as a robbery suspect, but for “blocking the street.” Brown’s family was outraged. “The family feels that the timing of that was strategic,” their lawyer said at a press conference that day. “They think it was aimed at denigrating their son.”

Who gets to be a victim? Colorlines reporter Carla Murphy has been asking it for more than three years. Over her career as a journalist, she has proven to be a keen observer of complicated social and criminal justice issues, coming to each with a strong voice and an openness to contradiction.

She began by looking at Victims Compensation Funds, which generally collect their money from those convicted of crimes to distribute to families and victims who have no other resources. In a story published in January, she describes how many victims in California are left behind — because they have prior criminal convictions. Very often, those victims are young black men.

Criminals, Victims and the Black Men Left Behind, an Investigative Fund story published in early August, unfolds behind the desks of non-profit workers and the streets of Chicago, where violence is concentrated in poor and minority neighborhoods. The story asked why young black men, who are more likely than any other group to become victims of violent crime, are locked out of the system set up to help victims recover. Murphy introduces her readers to young men who have been shot several times, and who regularly bear witness to violent crime, but nonetheless have received little help to recover.

Throughout, Murphy weaves several important questions into the narrative. Is the criminal justice system the only system that will catch these men? Who do we believe to be worthy victims, and why?

Murphy spoke with us recently about her story. — Hannah Rappleye and Lisa Riordan Seville

Hannah Rappleye and Lisa Riordan Seville: You spent a long while on this story. What sparked it?

Carla Murphy: Back in 2011 I started covering community responses to stop-and-frisk in NYC and over time, it struck me that many of the people I’d been speaking to had either been victims of violent crime or knew those who were. I began to wonder, where did that pain go? These were residents of some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods already struggling with un- and underemployment, health disparities, high crime, dragnet policing, etc. What is it to be a victim of violent crime in that setting, I wondered; it’s not like the people I met can pick up and move. I started paying attention and one story really convinced me to stay on the path of looking at the criminal justice system from the points of view of crime victims.

In early 2012, I heard the story of a young black woman whose younger cousin had been killed by another young man. She told of being in the courtroom during trial and on her side, there were a dozen family and friends. Across the way, the accused killer’s mom sat alone every day. The young woman wanted to cross the aisle and embrace the mother. But she also felt that to do so would betray and isolate her from her family. She began to cry at the memory because of the guilt of not having crossed that aisle — and also the missed opportunity to reconcile her own loss. Suppose we had a justice system that in addition to traditional punishment, also allowed this young woman to cross the aisle to “her enemy?” These are the questions that kept coming up once I began looking at the criminal justice system from the points of view of low-income victims of color, specifically. And they were ever more poignant because low income residents can’t afford to move after victimization — which means victims and perpetrators and their family and friends live together in the same community. What does that mean? And do our penal and law enforcement policies take that reality into account? Questions. They just kept — and keep on coming.

Rappleye and Seville: As a society we hold the idea that people involved in crime need to be taught a lesson, but you imply not thinking of these men as victims may in fact perpetuate the cycle of violence. Can you talk about that?

Murphy: Ending easy access to guns would probably do the most to decrease high body counts and shooting victims in places like Baltimore, Camden, New Orleans, etc. In the absence of that policy change, however, violence interruption programs like Chicago’s Cure Violence (formerly Ceasefire) show that intervening immediately after victimization has occurred can prevent further violence — either later on by the victim or his/her friends and family members. What remains to be done however, is bringing Cure Violence and similar but severely underfunded approaches to scale. Ending cycles of violence isn’t rocket science — the political will to do so, is.

Rappleye and Seville: Not taking advantage of the window of time after a crime can push young black men “off the grid” and into the criminal justice system. Describe what you mean by “off the grid.”

Murphy: By “off the grid,” I mean that many of the young men who’re victimized (and are sometimes perpetrating crime) are un- or underemployed, lack health insurance, or are not in school. Their lives don’t reflect the institutional touch-points that make up the average American’s day nor the routines that bind us together (job, school, church, doctor, volunteering, eating out, renting, home ownership, holding bank accounts, etc). Whether they’re committing crimes or not, the criminal justice system is the most robust, fully functioning institution in the lives of young black men. When I asked service providers in Chicago where young black male victims of violent crime go to get help, they all pointed to options available after contact with the penal system. They were stumped when asked to provide pre-penal alternatives.

This situation raises many concerns, not least the institutionalized bias that young black male victims of violent crime are always engaged in criminal activity. But I’ll focus here on one question and an observation: One, given the rate of violent victimization among young black men, is the penal system the only, most appropriate or cost-effective policy response if society’s aim is to also lower violence? And two, the care burden for all of these wounded, “off the grid” men is being outsourced to low-income black and Latina mothers, sisters, aunts and girlfriends. These caretakers are generally invisible to policy-makers, criminal justice and health policy reformers and reporters. Why?

Rappleye and Seville: How did the young men you spoke to talk about or perceive of their future prospects? What options did they think were out there for them?

Murphy: They hope. They want one thing that most everyone else takes for granted: safety — from both other young black men and police. After that, they want the things that most everyone else wants, too: a good job, the ability to stand on their own two feet, maybe marriage or companionship, children. Whether they believe they can achieve these markers of “normal life” is another question.

Rappleye and Seville: Law enforcement serves largely as the arbiter of who is considered a worthy victim. You imply that’s problematic. How so?

Murphy: The level of distrust that exists between police and many black communities is a social fact. Given well documented and repeated examples of racial profiling, police brutality, acquittals of persons killing unarmed blacks, etc, it’s reasonable to question whether law enforcement should also be judge and jury at the point of victimization, the most vulnerable in a person’s life. Is this just? What social good does the deeply asymmetrical power relationship between a police officer and a black victim serve? Any policy that further increases law enforcement’s coercive or surveillance power over the lives of black people w/out proportionate increases in transparency and accountability deserves to be revisited. In policy and practice, victim policies generally exclude perhaps the most victimized subpopulation in the United States. A fair question to ask then is, well, why do these policies exist? And, for whom?

Who is a worthy victim and why? Who gets to decide and why? These are tough questions. It’s not clear to me that there’s been robust public discussion and decision-making around them.

Rappleye and Seville: Talk about the role that gangs, or designating people as “gang affiliated,” plays in this picture.

Murphy: There are young men who’re gang members. And there are young men who are “gang affiliated,” perhaps a purposely broad category that captures and criminalizes family members, friends, neighbors or any other young man living in a community known for gang violence. “Gang affiliation,” as determined by law enforcement and despite its overly broad meaning, automatically disqualifies young black men from victim compensation. It institutionalizes the belief that young black men, by and large, are not “worthy” victims.

Rappleye and Seville: There has been some attention paid — little, but some — to the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder in neighborhoods like the ones you reported in, amongst black men, women and children. Was this something that came up as you reported this story?

Murphy: Yes and no. From victims, such an intimate disclosure isn’t what I expected them to articulate in the short time we spent together. It’s one thing to speak about getting shot, it’s another to divulge or make sense of how it upends your thinking, your routine, your most intimate relations. Also, I didn’t expect the people I spoke with to possess the language to recognize their symptoms as symptoms. Both those expectations were right on. From victim advocates and other service providers, of course PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] or similar diagnoses came up. I think criminal justice reporting fails tremendously here in exploring crime from a health perspective, in looking at the impact of violence on individuals, families and communities. Criminal justice reporting focuses exclusively on the individual, usually the perpetrator, and in doing so misses crucial questions about victims, their families and communities. How do they cope? And more important, how do they rebuild? After all, shootings and gun deaths are akin to repeatedly tearing apart the fabric of a community. How do neighborhoods rebuild broken bonds so that they can better function?

I was surprised to learn from one service provider, that for homicide survivor families, she preferred hospice bereavement counselors over traditional and dominant “talk therapy.” The population needing counseling after a shooting or fatal shooting had different needs, she said.

Rappleye and Seville: You’ve been reporting on the shooting Michael Brown and the subsequent outrage in Ferguson, Missouri. How has your reporting about the largely uncovered story of black men as victims shaped your thinking as the Brown shooting has gained national attention?

Murphy: Particularly after this reporting, I expected that the perception or reality of Michael Brown as a criminal — and a strong desire for him to be a perfect/innocent victim — would be the decisive factor in how the incident would be reported, debated, investigated and ultimately prosecuted. The belief that young black men are criminals and therefore deserving of what they get is powerful, and powerfully institutionalized. Beginning with Trayvon Martin, however, civil society is better organizing itself to push back against this criminalization/perfect victim frame. It reminds me of an earlier phase of the feminist movement that fought hard through the 1980s to dispel the myth with police and in courtrooms, that if a woman wore a short skirt, “she deserved it” — or if a woman was married, “she deserved it.” I think my generation forgets that there was a time when domestic violence shelters didn’t exist, when rape counselors weren’t available in hospital emergency rooms. But then, along came VOCA [Victims of Crime Act of 1984], which may be the primary funder of victim services for DV [domestic violence] and sexual assault survivors. Perhaps in a decade there could be violence interruptors in every hospital emergency room, too.

This interview originally appeared at Beacon Reader and is posted here with permission.

About the reporter

Carla Murphy

Carla Murphy

Carla Murphy writes about inequality: what it looks like, how it continues and how it is being solved.