Michael Brown lost his life after pursuing his unrestrained, but not unrequited, love for Swisher Sweets, which he heisted from a Ferguson, Missouri, shopkeeper without even the pretense of subterfuge. I despise his by-any-means-necessary passion for smoking Swishers. But who can gainsay the tobacco martyr’s tastes? Like Ulysses S. Grant, he died for the love of cigars.
Often stale, always sweet, Swishers smoke as the Cadillac of cheap cigars. Before such tobacco promotions became outlawed, I eagerly exchanged multiple proofs of purchase seals for a black T-shirt—worn proudly—with a red Swisher insignia and an uplifting message conveyed in smoky lettering: “Roll out the sweet times.” Say what you will of the decedent’s ethics. Michael Brown knew stogies. He could have stolen Dutch Masters or Phillies. He swiped Swishers. He chose right after choosing wrong.
As far as thieves go, Brown occupies the next-to-lowest rung on the ladder of larceny, right above the cowardly-in-the-crowd looters inspired by him. There is something basely admirable about the safe cracker, the swindler, and the museum burglar. They work hard for your money.
Brown’s brazen theft of the cigar box lazily relied on brawn but not brains. Surely the thieves who use guts, smarts, and strategy to bag their ill-gotten gains look down upon such bully burglars as low-to-no-skilled workers making a bad name worse for modern-day Fagins, Tigg Montagues, and even Montague Tiggs.
But young Mr. Brown, and certainly old Mr. Fagin, acted as mere two-bit criminals, especially in comparison to America’s greatest serial plunderer. Most of the profit from a box of Swisher Sweets doesn’t go to the company that manufactures them or the store owner who sells them. The bulk of profit goes to the government that aggressively taxes them. That’s quite a racket.
President Obama signed the largest tobacco tax increase in history in one of his first acts in office. The feds took about a nickel per cigar when the president took his oath. They now take 52.75 percent of the sale up to $402 per 1,000 cigars. “More lower-income people than higher-income people will quit,” Eric Lindblom of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids paternalistically reasoned to USA Today in 2009. Instead of a tobacco-free kid, Michael Brown became a free-tobacco kid.
Do-gooders hoped to tax tobacco out of existence, at least for denizens of “lower-income” neighborhoods — like Michael Brown. Instead, they incentivized crime. It’s telling that the two instances of alleged police overreach provoking the most national outrage this summer involved neither drugs nor guns but tobacco. In New York City, where state and city taxes total $5.85 per pack of cigarettes, cops manhandled “loosie” salesman Eric Garner to his death last month. In Missouri, where the “gentle giant” Michael Brown’s pattern of violently disobeying authority led more directly to his demise, cheap cigars made expensive by government edict may have acted as a catalyst for the tragedy.
Perhaps Michael Brown would have lifted the cigars had they been priced at anything above free. And perhaps the one-man tax revolt didn’t view himself in the spirit of the Boston Tea Partiers when he snatched the stogies. Surely the legislators passing the astronomical spike in cigar taxes in 2009 saw themselves as liberators rather than oppressors of poor people like Michael Brown. But if the looters inspired by a dead teen can attach lofty political motives to their acts of petty theft and vandalism, then perhaps one can do the same for Michael Brown.
Unfortunately, whether one discusses the politicians imposing draconian tobacco taxes or the ransackers pillaging Ferguson businesses, the conversation demands a granting of noble motives to malefactors. Can’t I play along with Mr. Brown?
Even in Missouri, which enforces the lowest state tobacco taxes in the nation, cigar aficionados can’t escape the tax man. Before Michael Brown rebelled against the police, before he disobeyed the shopkeeper, before he defied the eighth (seventh for Catholics) commandment, he revolted against the tax man. A dead kid, looted stores, a torn community—all for the want of a good five-cent cigar.