If there is one uniting feature of the national protests surrounding the shooting death of Ferguson teen Michael Brown, it is the notion that he had his “hands up” just before his killing.
Today, columns of protesters march in major American cities with their hands raised chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot.” The organization Hands Up United, an activist group which advocates for criminal justice reform and the firing and prosecution of a variety of Missouri-based law enforcement figures, was founded on this idea. Several of members of the news media have latched onto it, and some even suggest that it serves to call into question the conduct of Officer Darren Wilson.
Not everyone in the press is, however, as infatuated with this idea. In the wake of the Ferguson grand jury’s determination that no criminal charges could be filed against Wilson, one of the claims that was called into question by the evidence presented was the suggestion that Brown had his hands raised in surrender when he was shot and killed.
“It’s a lie,” exclaimed MSNBC host Joe Scarborough after observing that even some members of the U.S. House of Representatives had adopted this gesture in the halls of Congress in solidarity with the slain teen. “They know it’s a lie. They know the cops didn’t shoot him with his hands in the air. They know it’s a lie, and they’re doing this on the Capitol floor?”
This assertion from Scarborough seems to have frustrated some of his fellows in the press. “To those who say #HandsUpDontShoot perpetuates a lie, 16 witnesses say #MichaelBrown had his hands up at some point,” tweeted CNN anchor Chris Cuomo on Wednesday. “Only 2 say he didn’t.”
The origins of this oversimplification of the evidence presented to the grand jury might have been a popular chart published by PBS’s News Hour (a higher resolution version of which can be found here):
Judging from this chart alone, the majority of witnesses whose testimony was presented to the Grand Jury testified that Brown did have his hands raised at the time of his killing. This, many also suggest, was a gesture of submission – one which went ignored when he was callously gunned down by former Officer Wilson.
There is no sugarcoating it: This is a misreading of the evidence.
“[T]he witness accounts contained in thousands of pages of grand jury documents reviewed by The Associated Press show many variations about whether Brown’s hands were actually raised – and if so, how high,” an AP report on the actual witness testimony read.
Some witnesses said the 18-year-old Brown had his hands held high toward the sky on Aug. 9 as officer Darren Wilson gunned him down. Others thought they saw his hands partially raised, at about shoulder height. To some witnesses, his palms appeared out, as if surrendering. To others, his palms seemed open, as if glancing at his wounded hand or gesturing with an attitude of “what are you going to do about it.” Some said Brown’s hands were not raised at all.
The truth may never be certain. Despite a three-month grand jury investigation and an ongoing federal probe, no one has publicly disclosed any photos or videos capturing exactly what transpired.
To summarize, some of the witnesses who said Brown’s hands were raised were not credible (one claimed that Brown was shot in the back – an assertion not corroborated by the results of several autopsies). Others say his hands were raised only partially, some of which may have been an involuntary reflex prompted by having been shot. Still other witnesses claimed that Brown raised his hands in a gesture of aggression.
This context changes matters rather significantly, and it is nothing short of a lie to suggest that all these witnesses agree that Brown was capitulating at the time of his death (though I do not believe this was Cuomo’s contention).
The Washington Post’s Paul Cassell noted the problems associated with PBS’s chart, some of which that news outlet even conceded.
PBS acknowledged that its chart “doesn’t reveal who was right or wrong about what happened that day, but it is a clear indication that perceptions and memories can vary dramatically.” This concession is required, because a fair assessment (such as the grand jury was tasked with making) involves not simply toting up the number of witnesses on competing sides, but determining the quality of their accounts. The grand jury observed the demeanor of all of the witnesses and, perhaps even more important, had other evidence (including physical evidence) to sort out which witnesses were giving credible testimony.
An incredibly thorough visual representation of the myriad ways in which this PBS chart misleads its readers can be found here. That extensive graphic explains why merely suggesting that the majority of witnesses claim Brown had his hands raised deceives the reader. The six of those 14 witnesses, some of whom were the most credible, only suggest that his hands were half raised.
The most important notion which cannot be explained in charts, and which all journalists have a responsibility to relate to their audiences, is the truism that witness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Those who grasp onto testimony that does not comport with the more sound physical evidence to which the grand jury was privy are clinging a faith-based conviction that Brown was the aggrieved party in this incident.
None of this matters, of course, to those who seek to perpetuate the myth that Brown was surrendering when he was somehow fatally shot in the top of his cranium. The truth is of no matter when emotionality and “larger truths” about social justice are being exposed. But myths only have half-lives while factual evidence has staying power. Eventually, the myth will fade as will the public’s interest in this incident. The members of the press who went out of their way to commit sins of omission in the service of a sexy and inflammatory narrative are only doing damage to their own credibility, not to mention national comity.