I beseech you, dear reader, to read Jonathan Capehart’s brave and noble piece in the Washington Post about the shooting of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson. The US Justice Department released two reports this week, one into the shooting, and one with a wider remit looking into policing in Ferguson.
The latter found a disturbing pattern of abuses by the police, courts and municipal government; an institutionalised corruption adversely affecting the city’s African Americans, who make up nearly 70% of Ferguson’s population.
The former, though, completely debunks the widely held belief that officer Wilson is guilty of racist murder. Capehart writes that the reports “have…forced me to confront two uncomfortable truths: Brown never surrendered with his hands up, and Wilson was justified in shooting Brown.”
Initial media reports into Brown’s death more than suggested Wilson had executed him. I remember the phrases “unarmed black man” and “gentle giant” being used over and over. At that stage there was only one side to the story, and soon it became the only side to the story. Almost all of the commentary I read, as well as the vast majority of the opinions I saw on social media, reinforced the idea that Brown’s death was at best gratuitous, and at worst a kind of lynching.
Yet I began to have doubts almost immediately. Other evidence began to emerge, evidence that conflicted with this picture. Witnesses to the shooting told conflicting stories. Why believe one set of these witnesses, I thought, over another? Why, when it comes to it, believe the word of Michael Brown’s companion, and Brown’s family, over the word of officer Wilson? Then there was the robbery. Brown didn’t look like a gentle giant in that video.
Those who had already made up their minds about what happened in Ferguson were too quick to dismiss any conflicting evidence. I began to find their certainty, and the mobbish atmosphere it was creating, disturbing.
I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I have never even held a gun, let alone fired one. I have no idea what it must be like to be in an armed confrontation. I’ve never had to react to a life threatening situation, or make split second decisions that determine who lives and who dies. The closest I’ve come to policing the streets of America is watching The Wire.
I therefore found it absurd to see so many second guess the behaviour of officer Wilson from the same position of ignorance. If it was true that Brown had gone for Wilson’s gun, then he had already proven himself a potentially lethal threat. I wondered on what basis so many pontificators saw fit to rubbish this part of the story, as if they had become ballistics experts overnight.
Witnesses on the grand jury, all of them African American, corroborated key parts of Wilson’s testimony. Brown was charging towards officer Wilson when he was shot. The forensic evidence was entirely consistent with this. The protesters didn’t want to hear it, but facts matter.
The DOJ report confirms the grand jury made the right decision. It found Brown’s DNA on Wilson’s shirt, and his gun, and Wilson’s DNA on Brown’s hands. The gunshot wound in Brown’s hand suggested that he had indeed attempted to take the gun from Wilson.
The idea that Brown was surrendering when Wilson gunned him down came from TV interviews with Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson, who was with him during the robbery of the convenience store. Though Johnson’s story kept changing – at one point he claimed Wilson shot Brown in the back – his version of events was the one widely accepted, in the teeth of all disconfirming evidence.
“Hands up, don’t shoot” became the motto of the movement, but it was, as Capehart writes, “a lie”. That lie has become cemented in the popular imagination, propagated by irresponsible media reporting and seized on by shameless grievance pushers like the demagogue Al Sharpton. It was thoughtlessly accepted by the hashtag social justice warriors who wanted to be Martin Luther King but without any of the effort. To see outsiders descend upon Ferguson, inflame racial tensions in this way, then walk away as buildings were looted and burned and police officers shot, has been one of the more egregious spectacles of our times.
The lie will be difficult to shift because it serves an ideological purpose. Many are heavily invested in the idea that American policemen kill blacks for sport. The agitators of race have a lot to gain from keeping this myth going. The facts of Michael Brown’s life and death stopped mattering the moment he became a symbol, to be wielded like a cudgel. If Brown made a series of catastrophic decisions that tragic day, and Wilson doing no more than his duty, that symbol loses all force.
When our discourse is dominated by ‘racist’ cops and dark mutterings about a white ‘system’ keeping blacks down, there is little room to openly discuss the culture of exaggerated masculinity and casual violence that pervades so many poor African American neighbourhoods. The tragic fact remains that young men like Michael Brown are statistically far more likely to be killed by other young African American males than they are by an encounter with the police.
Black lives do matter, which is why dissonances such as these must be addressed alongside institutional corruption and racial biases in the justice system.