I’ve held off talking about the Michael Brown shooting on this blog until now because I wanted to wait until more solid information was known, but the hostility toward those who support Brown and those who view this as a needless tragedy is actually growing into vitriol on social media. Unsurprisingly, it is white people who are turning on him and supporting the officer who executed him in the middle of the street.
Along with this sudden swell of support is growing misinformation about what we know and what we don’t know concerning the events of the fatal shooting that took place on August 9th. I’ve been following this story very closely. Here’s what we know.
We know that five witnesses have come forward and shared their stories. We know that they each had distinct and different vantage points and that only two of them knew one another prior to the shooting – this is what is called independent corroboration and its testimony is extremely strong. It means it is less likely the witnesses are making things up. And all of their stories end the same: Michael Brown was murdered in an unjustified use of excessive and lethal force. So what do they have in common? They claim that Officer Wilson confronted Brown and his friend about jaywalking by saying, “Get on the fucking sidewalk.” There was an altercation at the window of the officer’s car (and no one is sure exactly how this started, but witnesses claim Wilson grabbed Brown by the neck), a shot went off, Brown started running. The officer shot again and Brown staggered or jumped like he’d been shot, turned around with his hands up and yelled that he was unarmed. One witness said Brown was yelling, “OK! OK! OK! OK! OK!” At which point Officer Wilson advanced on Brown, firing, and killed him.
However, we also know that the police claim to have over a dozen other eyewitnesses corroborating Officer Wilson’s side of the story, but none of these people have come forward and all we have is the assertion that they exist, so this claim is, as of right now, completely unsubstantiated. What’s Wilson’s side of the story? He says he stopped the boys because they were jaywalking and blocking traffic. According to one of his friends, he said they were belligerent and noncompliant. At that point, according to police, the call for the robbery at the convenience store came in. He tried to get out of the car, but was rushed by Brown and his friend, he was struck in the face, and Brown went for his gun. A shot went off, Brown ran. He ordered Brown to freeze, at which point Brown turned, said, “You ain’t going to kill me,” and charged the officer, at which point he had no choice but to shoot him. According to Wilson’s unidentified friend, the officer believed Brown to be on drugs.
What’s frustrating is the ambiguity in all this. According to Dr. Baden in the press conference, the medical examiner with three decades of experience, having performed 20,000 autopsies in his illustrious career, including those of JFK and MLK, the evidence can be interpreted to account for either version of the story and so settles nothing. It has been widely reported in the media that all the shots were taken from the front of Brown’s body, which is claimed to expose the eyewitness testimony of Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson and several other eyewitnesses who claimed that Brown had been shot with his back turned. However, this is untrue, and it is quite obvious from the press conference that a graze on Brown’s right palm is consistent with having been shot with his back turned, though the evidence is ambiguous. CBS reported this as well:
Forensic pathologist Shawn Parcells, who assisted former New York City chief medical examiner Dr. Michael Baden during the private autopsy, said a bullet grazed Brown’s right arm. He said the wound indicates Brown may have had his back to the shooter, or he could have been facing the shooter with his hands above his head or in a defensive position across his chest or face.
Critical to Officer Wilson’s case is the justification of cause in using lethal force. If Wilson was physically assaulted, this strengthens his case. A day or two ago, right-wing blogger Jim Hoft, a man with no formal training in journalism and one of the most consistent right-wing conspiracy-mongers on the internet, made an unsourced claim that he was told (by an anonymous contact) Officer Wilson suffered an injury called an “orbital blowout to the eyesocket.” The right-wing internet exploded, and it even found its way into actual media outlets as definitive proof of Wilson’s claims that he was horribly beaten and assaulted. Do keep in mind, of course, that Jim Hoft was also responsible for spreading the rumor that Michael Brown was a thug. As evidence of this, Hoft linked to a website called “topconservativenews,” which is actually run by a White Supremacist and KKK-affiliated group, the Council of Conservative Citizens. Michael Brown, of course, had no criminal record at the time of his shooting.
Now, maybe this is true and someone actually told Hoft this from inside the investigation and he isn’t actively making it up, though it wouldn’t be the first time he’s made something up. But let’s assume its true for the sake of argument. The first thing to keep in mind is that it is unsourced and unconfirmed. We don’t know yet. The second question is whether this claim of being beaten and in danger of his life fits with the video footage we already have. As one eyewitness recording of the immediate aftermath of the shooting shows (and you can watch here), Wilson is calmly pacing around the body, chatting with another officer. There is no blood. He has no bandages applied to his face. He’s not holding an ice pack to the side of his face. Similarly, there was no sign of struggle found on Brown’s body. The preliminary toxicology report indicated, contrary to Wilson’s story, that Brown only had pot in his system at the time of death.
(UPDATE: It’s funny how these things work out. I was sent links today by some folks saying that both ABC and Fox News were reporting independently of Hoft that Wilson suffered an “orbital blowout fracture” and severe injuries from the encounter. But, as CNN is now reporting, these claims are false. Wilson did not suffer an “orbital blowout fracture” at all, and merely had a swollen face.)
Furthermore, orbital blowout fractures can be serious, but often aren’t. A quick search led me to the AAPOS website, the first search result, which describes the common symptoms as “bruising, tenderness and swelling around the eye; redness of the eye; double vision, ordiplopia (seeing two images at the same time); numbness of the cheek, nose or teeth; nose bleeds (epistaxis).” The image that Hoft circulated with his blog post was also tampered with. And while conservatives have seen this as definitive proof that Brown assaulted Wilson, this injury, if true, is consistent with both accounts. Wilson claims Brown slammed his cruiser door on him, which would explain it. Dorian Johnson reported that the officer “then tried to open his car door but the door ricocheted off of Brown’s body and closed again.” Either scenario would explain the injury.
The police then released security footage of Michael Brown allegedly robbing a convenience store just minutes before the shooting. The police originally maintained that the shooting was related to this issue, then said it had nothing to do with it, then changed their story again to say that it didn’t start by dealing with the robbery, but became about the robbery. This element of the story has circulated widely in the media, but unfortunately even this isn’t true. In fact, in the video footage of Brown released by the police he can be seen standing at the counter paying for the cigars he allegedly stole, with currency changing hands. No one from the store reported a theft (because there wasn’t one); instead, a concerned customer called the police themselves.
The present narrative for Officer Wilson’s version of events is that Brown was feeling guilty about having stole the cigars, and when confronted about it, became violent and assaulted the officer, prompting his shooting. Plausible perhaps, but dependent upon Brown’s having stolen the cigars. The provocation, in this narrative, is Brown. But if, as the video and lack of a theft report from the store seem to indicate, Brown did not steal anything, this changes the situation. Now we have Brown walking home and a brief exchange about jaywalking explodes into something worse. Unknown to Brown, the cop thinks he stole something and the situation turns serious without warning, or, to Brown’s mind, cause. A policeman just flipped out over jaywalking. Now, even in this scenario both versions of events are still plausible. Brown thinks the officer is attacking him without cause; he fights back, makes a run for it from the cop who just attacked him, and is shot dead. Or Brown is attacked, breaks free, runs down the road and is shot dead. Both still make sense of the data, yet the circumstances change to one fraught with misunderstanding. The officer believed he had cause to shoot a suspect he thinks just assaulted him and stole something, yet this isn’t the case. No justification in using deadly force.
However the investigation goes, according to criminal law experts, Officer Wilson’s acquittal will depend upon whether he knew Brown was unarmed. Criminal Justice expert Peter Jay told Newsweek,
Assuming the answer [is] he knew he was unarmed, I think that, by itself, would mean no justification for the shooting. … If he was trying to surrender and the police officer knew he was unarmed—or even if he was armed, if he’s trying to surrender—then at least the police should tell him to unarm himself or have him stay there with his hands up and call for backup.
Who Do You Trust?
So, what caused the uproar in Ferguson? It began and continued with police incompetence. The New Yorker writes,
Michael Brown’s body was left in the street for hours after he was shot; as far as one can tell from the disjointed details released by the Ferguson and St. Louis County authorities, Wilson did not immediately call the shooting in or try to resuscitate Brown, and no E.M.T.s rushed him to the hospital.
In fact, it was over ten minutes before anything was reported to dispatch by the officer, at which time he requested aid for crowd control and did not report the shooting. According to the leaked dispatch audio, it took over a half an hour for the gravity of the shooting to be communicated. Michael’s body was then dumped in the back of an SUV, rather than transported to the hospital by ambulance.
It’s understandable that people would be upset by this kind of treatment. Over 100 people gathered at the scene, shouting at police to help him. This, really, was the first protest. But this kind of behavior seems par for the course in Ferguson. Racial profiling in stops, searches, and arrests is through the roof. Black residents are now so used to this that they refer to it as DWB: driving while black. Like in many other cities, Ferguson’s court fees and no-payment fines disproportionately affect low-income and African-American citizens, essentially returning “debtor’s prison” to the city. In one 2009 incident, not only did police arrest the wrong man, they beat him repeatedly, charged him with “Destruction of Property” for bleeding on their uniforms, and miraculously lost the tapes of the incident even though the jail was equipped with video cameras. In 2013 a lieutenant was fired for alleged racial profiling, saying things like “Let’s have a black day,” and “Let’s make the cells more colorful.” Ferguson’s police reports have been rejected by the Missouri Department of Public Safety for “major errors in data.” In fact, the entire department has a shockingly lax policy for “use of force” reporting. Not that any police anywhere do much better. During the protests last week, one cop was captured on video shouting, “Bring it, you fucking animals! I don’t give a shit! Bring it!” Another was filmed yelling to a demonstrator, “I will fucking kill you!” A National Guardsman even told reporters, “You never know what these n*****s will do.” These tensions date back at least a decade.
There are, therefore, good and understandable reasons for the community of Ferguson to look with suspicion at the idea of an internal investigation conducted by the very police who shot and killed Michael Brown. The Blue Code of Silence, the tendency of police to support one another when questions are raised, is a widespread problem. Thus, protestors want the Missouri prosecutor responsible for the Brown shooting case to recuse himself due to deep family ties to the Ferguson police department.
Officer Wilson was glowingly described in the Washington Post by friends as “always nice, respectable and well-mannered, a gentleman. He doesn’t have anything bad to say about anybody, ever. He’s very genuine.” And naturally when this is said about a white police officer, we tend to believe it. But when Michael Brown is remembered as a “gentile giant,” it sparks mockery from standard rightwing news sites. Such is the nature of racial disparity and trust in this country. For white, average Americans like us, it is easy to expect and depend upon the belief that the police are here to help and protect us because we benefit from indirect racial privilege. But for African Americans, it is hard to see the police as anything but an occupying power of oppression and prejudice. So much so, in fact, that Palestinians began tweeting advice to Ferguson protesters on how to deal with occupation. It is easy to see how such frustrations can build when you realize that at least two black men are killed by police every week, as illustrated by the fact that within a week of the Michael Brown shooting another unarmed black man was killed in L.A., and a mentally ill black man shot dead only miles from where Brown himself was killed.
In short, this is a complicated incident with a complicated history behind it, and it is best to be cautious about deciding who was at fault. In particular we should remember that Michael Brown is not around to defend himself. The burden of proof is on Officer Wilson to prove justifiable cause regarding his decision to shoot and kill an unarmed teenager with no record of criminal history on his way home from the store in the mid-morning of August 9th, and the evidence for that case should be held to the very highest of standards.