Confronting Ferguson

vigil-missouri

Like everyone else, I’ve been sucked into the Internet rabbit hole that is Ferguson, Missouri over the last two weeks, watching with horror as a town just a couple of miles from the house my parents first brought me home to erupted in a series of clashes between protesters and police that would not seem out of place in 1960s Mississippi or even 2004 Iraq.

The inciting incident, the fatal shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old by a police officer, is tragic no matter how you look at it, but the fact that the officer was white, the kid was black, and this happened right after the NYPD strangled a guy on the street for no apparent reason, and while the Trayvon Martin debacle is so fresh in all our minds, charged the whole thing with a racial tension that quickly spiraled out of control, into a full fortnight of rioting and looting and arrests and tear gas.

As with so many hot-button issues these days, some clear battle lines have been drawn here, and everyone seems to be firmly on one side or the other: A racist cop killed an innocent, college-bound 18-year-old kid for no reason, or an upright police officer with a spotless record killed a thug who assaulted the cop and got what he asked for.

Why is everyone so certain it’s not a little bit of both?

At first, like a lot of people, I assumed this was another case of Pigs Gone Wild, especially since the Ferguson PD’s version of events — the kid reached into a police cruiser and tried to take the cop’s gun after being scolded for jaywalking — seemed so wildly implausible.

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Then the Ferguson police dumped Napalm on a gasoline fire with their heavy-handed efforts to quell the demonstrations by Ferguson citizens demanding answers to what exactly happened, the identity of the cop, whether he would be charged, why the kid’s body was left uncovered in the street for hours in the summer sun, and it was easy to take the side of the protesters.


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But then came the video showing the deceased — Michael Brown, “Big Mike” to his friends — allegedly stealing a box of cigars from behind the counter of a convenience store, moments before the shooting. And then came the (first) autopsy result, which shows that Brown was not shot in the back, as several witnesses had stated, and which had been a key flashpoint for the public outcry.

Strangely, both sides of the argument took these bits of evidence as proof positive that their side was vindicated. I don’t know what happened, and I am emphatically not arguing for either side here. This thing is a mess and I don’t think it was anyone’s finest hour. What bothers me is that everyone is so quick to put on their team jersey — Team Brown for Mike Brown and Team Blue for the police — and then look at the issue as either completely black or completely white (racial pun not intended) when it couldn’t be more gray.

When this video was released by the Ferguson PD, Team Brown was outraged, calling it a hamhanded effort to paint Brown as a “thug” and somehow deserving of his fate, which it certainly seemed to be.  Team Brown even argued that, to the contrary, the video shows Brown paying for the merchandise. I’ve watched this thing a dozen times and I don’t see that — whatever he was doing behind the counter is obscured by the bulletproof glass. I don’t see him pulling out any money or taking back any change, and his body language does not suggest a genial encounter. I certainly wouldn’t lean that far over a convenience-store counter, but who knows, maybe he went there every day and they knew him. Without the sound, it’s hard to say for sure what happened.

This argument was soon mooted when Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, admitted that they stole the cigars. Either way, Team Brown insisted that the incident was irrelevant, and here I have to strenuously disagree.

It’s obviously true that Big Mike robbing a convenience store (if he did) would not, in and of itself, justify shooting him. A robbery does not carry the death penalty, last I checked. But the video is still hugely relevant to what happened a few minutes later.

First of all, it shows that, whether or not Big Mike deserved to die, he definitely deserved his nickname — he doesn’t look so much like a kid as an NFL player. It shows him shoving the store clerk, and it shows other customers giving him a wide berth. It shows a guy who is fully aware of how intimidating he is. This is relevant in that it suggests he might have been pretty confident in his ability to get the better of an opponent in a physical confrontation. But that’s not really why it’s relevant.

When the Ferguson PD said that Wilson was not aware of this robbery when he stopped Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, Team Brown said that only underscored the irrelevance of the video. I agree that Wilson’s knowledge of the robbery isn’t relevant, as it obviously does not give him cause or permission to shoot Brown.

But Brown’s knowledge of the robbery would be enormously relevant. His own consciousness of guilt would obviously color his interaction with the police. Nobody would start a fight with a cop just because they got yelled at for walking in the street, but they might if they thought it was the only way to avoid spending Orientation Weekend in orange scrubs.


From here, things get really murky. Johnson (seen in the video putting at least some of the allegedly stolen merchandise back on the counter back at the convenience store) told MSNBC that Wilson shouted at them from his cruiser as he passed, nearly hit them as he backed up to re-engage them, bounced the cruiser’s door off of them, and then grabbed Brown’s neck. Brown and Wilson struggled, a shot went off in the car, Brown and Johnson ran, Wilson shot Brown in the back, and then Brown turned around with his hands up and said “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!” A couple of other witnesses came forward with similar accounts.

This differs from Wilson’s story, which has Brown shoving Wilson back into the car, punching him in the face, and trying to take his gun — causing it to go off — before fleeing, then turning around, taunting Wilson, and then bum-rushing him, prompting the six shots that killed him.

Since the autopsy (actually autopsies) came out and showed that Brown was not shot in the back, Team Blue seized on that as proof that Johnson and the other witnesses were lying. But it is also very possible that Wilson shot *at* Brown while he was running away, he missed, and Brown then turned around. It would be very easy for Johnson (or any other witness) to make this mistake — particularly if, like Johnson, you are also running away.

There is no real difference, in terms of intent, between shooting someone in the back and shooting at their back and missing, so Wilson does not look good here no matter how you slice it.

The autopsy also showed that Brown does not have any trace of gunpowder on him, which would seem to undermine the claim that the gun went off because he went for it — if his hand was on or near the gun when it fired, there would be residue on his hands.

The moment that Brown turns around, some of the witnesses say he surrendered and Wilson chased him with his pistol blazing; Wilson says Brown rushed him and forced him to shoot. Here again, the convenience store video seems to take on some relevance. I have a good friend who’s about the same size as Big Mike, 6’4″, 280 lbs. I can tell you that if he was rushing at me with angry intent I would be terrified, whether I had a gun or not, and particularly if we’d already tussled.

But is that what happened? I don’t think I would have believed that until I saw this video:

Here we have someone, presumably from the neighborhood where this whole mess went down, taking video of the aftermath. The person taking the video is narrating what he sees for posterity. But there is also a pair of voices in the background, off camera, one of whom appears to have seen the whole thing, and he backs up part of the police version of what happened (before there WAS a police version of what happened) and part of Johnson’s version: that Wilson chased Brown while shooting at him and missing, until Brown turned around and rushed Wilson, and Wilson kept shooting because Brown “just kept coming.”

This guy didn’t know he was being recorded, and because this was shot immediately after the incident, it seems far less likely that he’s advancing any kind of agenda (either Team Brown or Team Blue), and he seems bewildered by what he’s just seen — his tone is one of “I can’t believe what I just saw.”

The fact that Brown took a bullet through the top of the head is also being read two different ways: Team Brown says it proves that Wilson must have stood over Brown’s kneeling or prone body and fired a killshot, execution-style. Team Blue says it proves that Brown was rushing at Wilson with his head down. It seems crazy to charge someone while looking at the ground, though, so that’s a little hard to swallow.

What I haven’t seen discussed is the fact that Brown was wearing flip-flops, which would make it very difficult to run. Seems very possible to me that Brown first followed his instinct to run away, but quickly realized that his choice of footwear made it a race he was likely to lose, so he doubled back and decided to rely on his size and strength to overpower Wilson, but then tripped (it’s hard to run in flip-flops) as Wilson was shooting, thus taking a bullet to the crown as he fell forward.

I am not saying that IS what happened, but it’s no less plausible than any of the alternatives — almost no part of this story makes any sense. No matter what, Wilson should not have been firing at Brown’s back, and he did, so he should lose his badge at the very least. But it also sounds like he was in genuine fear of his life. If it turns out that Brown really fractured Wilson’s orbital socket when he (if he) punched him through the car window — easily proved, one way or the other, we’ll know soon enough — the grand jury could very well decide that Wilson was facing a mortal threat and clear him of any charges.

But here’s the thing: even if Wilson was the greatest cop in the world and did absolutely nothing wrong — and again, I am emphatically, absolutely NOT saying that — it would do nothing to excuse the appalling (APPALLING) conduct of the Ferguson PD in the aftermath of the incident, starting with leaving Brown’s body in the street, uncovered, for hours in the summer sun. That is fucking sickening. It does not excuse the slow trickle of information that made it so easy for everyone to work backward from their own bias (either Team Blue or Team Brown) and fill in the blanks accordingly. It does not excuse the insanely overzealous, brutal, regressive Ferguson PD response to the (completely reasonable, given all of the above) public demonstrations demanding more information. It does not excuse the tear gas, the military-style occupation, the sniper rifles, the curfew, none of it. Fortunately, we don’t have to argue over whether any of that happened — the whole world was watching.

Regardless of what exactly happened, this incident has flipped over a rock and exposed all kinds of creepy crawlies, and that’s good. It seems that we are re-evaluating the contract between the citizens and the police, and that is good. It appears likely (or likelier) that cops will be outfitted with body and dashboard cameras so we’ll know exactly what happened in incidents like this in the future, and that’s good too. Real good is coming from these demonstrations, from the scrutiny on this police department. We should continue to push for answers and accountability.

If the evidence shows, as it very well may, that Wilson overreacted and needlessly killed a man, then he should be prosecuted for murder and put away. If the evidence shows, as it also may, that he faced a true and potentially grave threat to his person, then he shouldn’t. (He should lose his badge, though, because he shot at a man running away.) After the total clusterfuck that this case has become, I fear for the city of St. Louis and the country at large if that happens.

It’s clear from the past two weeks that whatever happened between Mike Brown and Darren Wilson, the Ferguson Police Department is an insanely racist institution, in need of investigation and reorganization at the very least, and now that the Justice Department and Attorney General and FBI are involved, it looks like that will happen. But Mike Brown doesn’t have to be a saint for us to learn those lessons, and Darren Wilson doesn’t have to be the devil. Ignoring some of the clearest evidence in the case and pretending it’s irrelevant, or not there at all, is intellectually dishonest and calls the rest of the protesters’ arguments into question.

I don’t want to see that happen, because I agree with the protesters on just about everything. American cops, generally speaking, are way, way too quick to use lethal force, particularly when dealing with African-Americans (as we unfortunately saw again a few days back, just a few miles from Ferguson, with the unambiguous murder of an obviously disturbed individual by the police). The facts — the undisputed facts — are on our side. Let’s not give anyone who would try to justify this kind of brutality any ammunition against us by not confronting the details of this incident on their own terms.

 

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