Tomorrow is the five year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. No doubt there will be a lot of think pieces out tomorrow but the Associated Press has published it’s piece on the anniversary today. Author Jim Salter says that despite the passage of time, race relations don’t seem to have improved since Brown’s death.
Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a white Missouri police officer stands as a seismic moment in American race relations. The fledgling Black Lives Matter movement found its voice, police departments fell under intense scrutiny, progressive prosecutors were elected and court policies revised.
Yet five years after the black 18-year-old was fatally shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on a steamy August day, racial tension remains palpable and may be even more intense. From the march on Charlottesville to President Donald Trump’s tweets attacking congressional Democrats of color and Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling at NFL games, the country often seems more divided than ever.
I don’t disagree with Salter’s conclusion but he seems a bit surprised by that outcome. I, on the other hand, am not surprised because in my view what happened in Ferguson was the moment a lot of that tension was created thanks to a series of lies about what happened to Michael Brown (and thanks to the media being eager to spread those lies). In fact, you can still see some of the lasting damage to the truth in the AP’s summary of what happened that day:
The cascade of events on Aug. 9, 2014, began with a chance encounter on the street.
Wilson had just left a home after a call about a sick baby when he drove by Brown and a friend, who were walking in the middle of Canfield Drive, a busy two-lane street. Wilson told them to use the sidewalk.
Words were exchanged, then Wilson noticed a pack of cigarillos in Brown’s hand. A radio dispatch had just reported the theft of cigarillos from a market. Wilson confronted Brown, who was unarmed.
Brown had committed a strong-arm robbery, shoving the tiny store owner when he tried to make Brown pay for the cigarillos. Also, Officer Wilson did not know Brown was unarmed at the time.
The situation escalated in a flash. Brown reached into Wilson’s SUV, and a fight began. Wilson’s gun went off.
This is a very simplified and anodyne description of what happened. Brown punched Wilson in the face twice. Also, Wilson’s gun didn’t “go off” he fired it several times after deciding that he was in danger of being knocked unconscious by Brown. The first couple of times he fired the gun didn’t go off because Brown’s hand was on top of the gun interfering with the mechanism. The third time the gun did fire and shattered the glass window inside the door. There’s no doubt this happened. Forensic evidence on Brown’s hand and his blood inside the car and on the gun match Wilson’s account.
Brown ran. Suddenly, the 6-foot-4, 290-pound teenager turned back toward Wilson, who later told investigators that Brown looked “psychotic” and “hostile.”
Some people in the Canfield Green apartment complex initially said Brown had his hands up in surrender, stories that quickly spread on social media.
Brown ran and then turned and charged at Wilson. The autopsy results demonstrate that all of the shots fired at Brown came after he turned, contradicting claims he was shot in the back or while running away.
Brown continued charging even after Wilson told him to stop and after he saw him hit by at least two shots. Wilson began backpedaling as Brown closed the distance. The fatal shot entered the top of Brown’s head indicating he was charging forward with his head down at the time. Wilson says Brown’s momentum was such that he fell onto the street and slid on his face, his feet coming up in the air behind him.
The claim about Brown putting his hands up in surrender was made by his friend Dorian Johnson who was at the scene that day. A federal investigation by the Obama DOJ concluded that never happened. But the media circulated the bogus claim that Brown was shot while surrendering for weeks, fanning the flames of an explosive narrative about a racist white cop who had murdered an unarmed black teen in cold blood. That’s the narrative some people still believe to this day, despite the evidence to the contrary. In fact, it’s telling that the author of this AP piece notes that the story circulated (he blames social media) but never once mentions that “Hands up, don’t shoot” wasn’t true. It just didn’t happen.
The DOJ report makes clear that several eyewitnesses felt pressured not to contradict the bogus narrative that sprang up almost instantly after Brown’s death:
Witness 102 explained that Brown was “wrestling” through the window, but he was unable to see what Wilson was doing. After a few seconds, Witness 102 heard a gunshot. Immediately, Brown took off running in the opposite direction from where Witness 102 was standing. Witness 102 heard something metallic hit the ground. Witness 102 thought that he had just witnessed the murder of a police officer because a few seconds passed before Wilson emerged from the SUV. Wilson then chased Brown with his gun drawn, but not pointed at Brown, until Brown abruptly turned around at a nearby driveway. Witness 102 explained that it made no sense to him why Brown turned around. Brown did not get on the ground or put his hands up in surrender. In fact, Witness 102 told investigators that he knew “for sure that [Brown’s] hands were not above his head.” Rather, Brown made some type of movement similar to pulling his pants up or a shoulder shrug, and then “charged” at Wilson. It was only then that Wilson fired five or six shots at Brown. Brown paused and appeared to flinch, and Wilson stopped firing. However, Brown charged at Wilson again, and again Wilson fired about three or four rounds until Brown finally collapsed on the ground. Witness 102 was in disbelief that Wilson seemingly kept missing because Brown kept advancing forward. Witness 102 described Brown as a “threat,” moving at a “full charge.” Witness 102 stated that Wilson only fired shots when Brown was coming toward Wilson. It appeared to Witness 102 that Wilson’s life was in jeopardy. Witness 102 was unable to hear whether Brown or Wilson said anything…
Witness 102 did not stay on Canfield Drive long after the shooting, but rather started to leave the area after about five minutes because he felt uncomfortable. According to Witness
102, crowds of people had begun to gather, wrongly claiming the police shot Brown for no reason and that he had his hands up in surrender. Two black women approached Witness 102,
mobile phones set to record, asking him to recount what he had witnessed. Witness 102 responded that they would not like what he had to say. The women responded with racial slurs,
calling him names like “white motherfucker.”
Witness 102 called 911 the following day to report what he saw. He then went to the FPD on Monday, August 11, 2014, where he was referred to the SLCPD. Witness 102 explained
that he came forward because he “felt bad about the situation,” and he wanted to “bring closure to [Brown’s] family,” so they would not think that the officer “got away with murdering their son.” He further explained that “most people think that police are bad for ‘em up until the time they’re in need of the police,” and he felt that witnesses would not come forward to tell the truth in this case because of community pressure.
Several other witnesses told police they feared what would happen if word got around that they had contradicted the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative (by telling the truth).
Eventually, the media did get around to correcting the record, as this CNN clip demonstrates, but by that point, the racial poison had been circulating in the nation’s bloodstream for months.
Here’s Officer Wilson’s account of what happened. Again, his account was backed by witnesses (including multiple black witnesses) and forensic evidence from the scene. Unfortunately, a terrible lie about what happened had already circled the globe with the help of the media before the truth got its boots on.