Michael Brown’s family reacted with anger and tears to the first televised interview with Darren Wilson, in which the officer said he “would not have done anything differently” about the sequence of events that led to the shooting death of Brown.
“He didn’t do what he had to do, he did what he wanted to do,” Brown’s mother Lesley McSpadden told CBS Morning News. “I don’t think he wanted to kill my son, but he wanted to kill someone.”
For the black community of Ferguson, the killing of Michael Brown was the last straw in a long train of abuses that they have suffered daily at the hands of the local police. News accounts have strongly suggested, for example, that the police in St. Louis County’s many municipalities systematically target poor and minority citizens for street and traffic stops — partly to generate fines — which has the effect of both bankrupting and criminalizing whole communities…
In this context, the police are justifiably seen as an alien, occupying force that is synonymous with state-sponsored abuse.
The case resonated across the country — in New York City, Chicago and Oakland — because the killing of young black men by police is a common feature of African-American life and a source of dread for black parents from coast to coast. This point was underscored last month in a grim report by ProPublica, showing that young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk — 21 times greater — of being shot dead by police than young white men. These statistics reflect the fact that many police officers see black men as expendable figures on the urban landscape, not quite human beings.
We get a flavor of this in Officer Wilson’s grand jury testimony, when he describes Michael Brown, as he was being shot, as a soulless behemoth who was “almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.”
But physical evidence, like eyewitness testimony, is imperfect and often ambiguous. McCulloch knows this; that’s why he hedged in saying Brown’s wounds were “consistent with a close-range gunshot” and “consistent with his body being bent forward.” McCulloch acknowledged that you could “take out a witness here, a witness there, and come to a different conclusion.” And that’s exactly why we have public trials: to litigate conflicting accounts in a setting where the burden of proof is much higher than the probable-cause standard of the grand jury.
Instead, McCulloch short-circuited the process — reinforcing a sense among African Americans, and many others, that the justice system is rigged. He almost certainly could have secured an indictment on a lesser charge simply by requesting it, yet he acted as if he were a spectator, saying that jurors decided not to return a “true bill” on each possible charge — as if this were a typical outcome.
As has been repeated often in recent weeks, a grand jury will indict a proverbial ham sandwich if a prosecutor asks it to. Alternatively, McCulloch could have brought charges through a judicial hearing; he chose not to do that, either…
How about letting the justice system run its course?
As you go through the evidence that was presented to the grand jury, two things are clear: There is plenty of room for reasonable doubt as to whether Wilson broke the law when he shot and killed Brown, and there is considerable evidence that he did—surely enough to supply probable cause, the standard for charging someone with a crime. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch managed to obscure the latter point by staging what amounted to a trial behind closed doors—a trial without a judge or an adversarial process. Assuming the jurors were acting in good faith (and there is no reason to think they weren’t), the only explanation for their decision is that they lost sight of the task at hand and considered the evidence as if they were being asked to convict Wilson rather than approve charges that would have led to a real trial…
McCulloch clearly thought an elaborate grand jury process, coupled with public release of all the evidence presented to the jurors, would help keep the peace and mollify critics who feared that Wilson would get away with murder. But a real trial, even one ending in acquittal, would have been much more effective at achieving those goals. A public airing of the evidence, with ample opportunity for advocates on both sides to present and probe it, is what Brown’s family has been demanding all along. McCulloch took extraordinary steps to deny them that trial, thereby reinforcing the impression that the legal system is rigged against young black men and in favor of the white cops who shoot them.
Many witnesses said they first began to pay attention while the two were wrestling at the S.U.V. window, though they usually said they could not see enough to know what was going on. But even when the confrontation broke out into the open — when Officer Wilson chased the teenager, ordered him to halt and then fired two volleys of five shots — the accounts diverged…
“I could say for sure he never put his hands up,” said a man who was working in the area and did not live there, and whose testimony strongly bolstered Officer Wilson’s case. “He ran to the officer full charge.”
Others spoke just as confidently that events unfolded in a completely different way.
“Yes, I personally saw him on his knees with his hands in the air,” one witness said in a recorded interview with federal officials that was played for the grand jury before he testified. The prosecutor questioning that witness did not hide her skepticism, highlighting the contradictions in his various accounts…
Many witnesses expressed uncertainty about the moment when Mr. Brown stopped and turned and what led Officer Wilson to start shooting. “That is something I wrestle with to this day,” said a witness whose account lined up particularly with Officer Wilson’s, though even it diverged on a couple of crucial points, like whether the officer shouted commands for Mr. Brown to stop fleeing.
No video recordings of the Aug. 9 confrontation between Wilson and Brown exist, and eyewitness accounts of the incident were often in conflict. Some said Brown had his hands up when he was shot. Others said Brown was charging toward Wilson when he officer fired. To many, a camera on Wilson’s uniform would have ended the uncertainty and potentially avoided the subsequent tumult that engulfed the St. Louis suburb.
The lesson wasn’t lost on other police departments. In the weeks after Brown’s death, numerous law enforcement agencies around the U.S. began experimenting with body cameras. Anaheim, Calif., Denver, Miami Beach, Washington, D.C. and even Ferguson have all begun outfitting officers with cameras or announced plans to start. The movement Brown’s family called for the night Wilson was cleared has actually been growing since the day their son was killed.
“Police realize that they’re under greater levels of public scrutiny,” says Art Lurigio, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago. “And the Michael Brown case is elevating this urgency. It’s bringing this discussion of cameras to a more fevered pitch.”
This is a terrible tragedy. It isn’t a metaphor for police brutality or race repression or anything else, and never was. Aided and abetted by a compliant national media, the Ferguson protestors spun a dishonest or misinformed version of what happened—Michael Brown murdered in cold blood while trying to give up—into a chant (“hands up, don’t shoot”) and then a mini-movement.
When the facts didn’t back their narrative, they dismissed the facts and retreated into paranoid suspicion of the legal system. It apparently required more intellectual effort than almost any liberal could muster even to say, “You know, I believe policing in America is deeply unjust, but in this case the evidence is murky and not enough to indict, let alone convict anyone of a crime.”…
It’s a further travesty, according to the Left, that Officer Wilson was allowed to testify to the grand jury. Never mind that it is standard operating procedure. As former prosecutor Andrew McCarthy points out, guilty parties usually don’t testify because they have to do it without their lawyer present and anything they say can be used against them…
Liberal commentators come back again and again to the fact that Michael Brown was unarmed and that, in the struggle between the two, Officer Wilson only sustained bruises to his face, or what Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo calls an “irritated cheek.” The subtext is that if only Wilson had allowed Brown to beat him up and perhaps take his gun, things wouldn’t have had to escalate.
Obama’s first priority was to dwell on racial injustice against “communities of color,” and his first instinct was to warn police officers to restrain themselves.
Only after expending 756 words on the need to “understand” the “problem” that “communities of color” have with police did Obama address the thugs of color “throwing bottles” and “smashing car windows” and “using this as an excuse to vandalize property” in the name of social justice…
Obama used his bully pulpit this week to bemoan the “real issues” of discrimination by some police officers. But he said nothing about the murderous strain of racial animus against America’s men and women in blue.
It’s part of a longstanding cultural war against cops that has permeated academia, Hollywood, media and “progressive” halls of power for decades — from the “pig”-hating Weather Underground to mainstream rappers to MSNBC’s Al Sharpton to high-ranking convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal’s advocates such as former Obama administration green jobs czar Van Jones.
Wilson apparently didn’t single Brown out because of his black body, but because that black body had just nabbed goods from a store and also assaulted its owner. It is also clear that Brown defied an officer’s reasonable request, and then battled with him. We may never know whether Brown reached into the car or whether Wilson grabbed Brown by the neck. But we do know that Wilson fired the lethal final shots upon Brown coming back toward him. Firing these shots was indeed impulsive; and one wishes someone who could fire in such a moment never had been trusted with a gun. But Wilson did not, as some have claimed, shoot Brown in the back as he ran away…
The Ferguson episode, in this company, stands out. It requires, as a rallying point, a degree of elision, adjustment. It will require turning away from Brown’s criminal act just before the incident, and his conduct toward a police officer a few moments later, based on the tricky proposition that these things must have no bearing whatsoever upon how we evaluate the succeeding sequence of events. The now iconic gesture, the hands up in “Don’t shoot” surrender, will become sacrosanct regardless of the evidence as to whether Brown actually held his hands up in that way. Icon, sacrosanct — there is an aspect of the ritual here.
But ritual dazzles more than it convinces. Beyond the converted, the less committed observer will see the facts piling up and conclude that one can be fully aware of racism’s persistence and yet still feel that the part racism played in Brown’s death is too abstract to qualify as a Selma-style — or even Trayvon-style — teaching moment. We need here Selma, Sanford — we want to make all of America put down their beers and feel this turning point. Again, of course Brown didn’t deserve to die — at all. But we have an urgent and challenging task here. And if so — and, God, it’s very much so — aren’t other deaths that have grieved us more useful in teaching a vast nation of people, with various levels of understanding and concern, that we have a serious problem here?
We are here today because from almost the moment this incident occurred it was made into a symbol of some large, painful, problems that we face as a society. This happened before anyone, including you, knew if what actually happened that day was symbolic of these problems or not. With so much invested in the symbolism this incident now carries, it is very hard to see it in any other way. When a symbol becomes so closely intertwined with a problem – as if the truth or validity of one rises or sinks with the other – it become crucial to prove the symbol, whether the weight of proof is there or not. Get out of that mindset.
Everything does not have to be an injustice for it to be true that injustices exist.
“I know my son far too well. He would never do anything like that. He would never provoke anyone to do anything to him and he would never do anything to anybody.”
McSpadden said her son does not have a history of violence.
“One image does not paint a person’s entire life,” she said.