When the Exemplary Victim Survives

Samantha Igo, JHU


“I was diagnosed with a concussion, an ulnar fracture, and had to receive eight staples in my head. I also have a laceration across my right eyebrow, abrasions on my knees and elbows, and a chipped tooth.” These are the injuries Deandre Harris sustained during a beating by several white supremacists in Charlottesville following the “Unite the Right” rally this past August. The video footage of his assault went viral, illustrating the brutal violence that left one counter-protester dead and over 30 injured.

Harris re-entered the news this month following the issuance of a warrant for his arrest by a Charlottesville magistrate for unlawful wounding. The complainant, Harold Ray Crews, claimed Harris instigated his own assault by hitting him with a flashlight when Harris’s friend tried to pull Crews’ Confederate flag away. In the violent attack that follows, several men knocked Harris to the ground and continuously beat him with metal flag poles and wooden planks—even as he attempted to get up and run away.

White supremacists and alt-right supporters have applauded Harris’s arrest as a victory, using it to prove Trump’s claim that there was violence “on both sides,” and that the media conspired to “further the idea that one side was peacefully protesting and the other side, senseless, neo-Nazi, genocidal mass-murderers”—as one Youtuber claimed in a video entitled “Charlottesville victim of racist beating wasn’t victim at all.” Others have supported this claim, even declaring that “Deandre got what he deserved…or some of what he deserved.”

There has been an idea perpetuated in the media time and time again that, if a person of color has a less-than-pristine record, what happens to them is somehow deserved. In the medical humanitarian sphere, this rational is called “the exemplary victim,” or the idea that, in order for a victim to truly deserve the aid given by (mostly Western) organizations, they must have had no part in their own suffering. It stems from a long history steeped in the racist, colonial ambitions of Western countries to build civilizations in places they deemed savage—and it undeniably applies to the way blacks are treated in our own country today.

When Eric Garner was killed on a New York sidewalk after a policeman placed him in a chokehold, the discussion was not focused on why the policeman was using a technique banned twenty years prior, but on Garner’s criminal record and his attempt to resist arrest. Former NYC Police Commissioner, Bernard Kerik, voiced the opinions of many policemen after the acquittal of the officer: “You cannot resist arrest. If Eric Garner did not resist arrest, the outcome of this case would have been very different. He wouldn’t be dead today.” Only for a person of color, it seems, does illegally selling cigarettes and resisting arrest warrant the death penalty.

A year after Garner’s death in Baltimore, Freddie Gray died following a rough ride in a police van, during which he sustained severe injuries to his spinal cord. Shortly after his death, Fox Nation published an article entitled, “Freddie Gray Arrest Record, Criminal History, & Rap Sheet.” The article dedicated only one line to the injuries caused by his time in police custody, and then jumped immediately into a list of his “at least 18 arrests.” Many articles also clung to the fact that, because he initially ran from police, he must have been guilty, and therefore brought upon himself his injuries, and subsequent death.

The desperate desire by white communities, and the media, to explain away the assault and murder of blacks by blaming the victims is also apparent when James Harris Jackson took a bus from Baltimore to New York City with the explicit intent of killing black men and killed 66-year-old Timothy Caughman on the sidewalk with an 18-inch sword. The Daily News published an article relaying the horrific incident, and still, in a standalone paragraph at the end, described Caughman’s fifteen-year-old criminal record. Not only is it insensitive to belittle a victim in this way when it bore no relevance, but it also distracts from the focus that this was a crime driven by no other motive than hate.

Black people are not deserving of empathy or equity or justice because they are looking for trouble, they are thugs and criminals, they are not obedient to (white) authority. This is what white people tell themselves to ease the guilt of being complicit in a system that methodically kills and imprisons blacks, or to stoke the racist hate that facilitates this repulsively unequal system. This means that not only are black people barred from exercising the protections promised in the Constitution, they are also likely to be punished more harshly than white people for the same crimes.

Even for Deandre Harris, his felony charge of unlawful wounding for swinging a flashlight is only one step down from the charges of malicious wounding pressed against two of his attackers. Harris’s lawyer noted the peculiarity of the soft charges filed against the attackers not only because the prosecution usually tries for more extreme charges in hopes of getting the most severe one to stick, but also because hate crimes were not included. Furthermore, photo evidence surfaced proving that Crews sustained his head injury from a completely different encounter, thereby exonerating Harris of the offense—but the charges, unsurprisingly, have not been dropped.

Deandre Harris’s story will no doubt remain out of the news cycle until December, when both his and his attackers’ hearings are scheduled. It is difficult to predict whether the outcome of Harris’ attackers’ trials will finally challenge the immunity that usually accompanies racist violence in America. Instead, it may be yet another ruling that marks black men in America as aggressors and white men as their victims, regardless of how hard a white man swings his Confederate flag pole at a black man’s head.


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