Archive for November, 2014

A few thoughts about Ferguson

Posted: November 25, 2014 by watsonthethird in Current Events
Tags: , , ,

Yesterday the Grand Jury determined that Officer Darren Wilson won’t face criminal charges for the shooting of Mike Brown. Given that the facts are not clear-cut, and given that St. Louis County Attorney Robert McCulloch decided to pursue the case through a grand jury, it’s not a surprising decision. It was probably the only decision the grand jury could reach under the circumstances.

That said, the basic narrative that has emerged–at least among those who support Officer Wilson–which includes the vast majority of conservatives–is that Wilson was justified in the use of deadly force because he was under assault. Not only was he frightened for his own life, but he was merely performing as he was trained.

Nevertheless, one point I do want to make is that this narrative–that Officer Wilson was politely interacting with Brown when the latter suddenly turned aggressive and violent–is almost entirely based on the Grand Jury testimony of Officer Wilson. Unfortunately, Mike Brown is dead and, therefore, was unable to provide his version of events. And that’s a problem in these kinds of situations where a police officer kills another human being in a confrontation without direct witnesses. Officer Wilson controlled the narrative because Mike Brown couldn’t offer anything that might rebut Wilson’s telling. As in all cases like this, Wilson had a huge incentive to color the story in ways that benefit himself, knowing that any rebuttal would be weak because they would come from witnesses who were not directly involved. Not only that, Officer Wilson was not cross-examined. Rather, the attorney gently led him through the events for the Grand Jury. That just seems… troubling. (Some examples of what a cross-examination might have delved into here.)

The closest living witness, other than Officer Wilson, is Dorian Johnson, who knew Brown for a few months and was with him when the killing occurred. Ezra Klein wrote an excellent piece in which he juxtaposes the testimony of Officer Brown and that of Dorian Johnson. You should read the entire thing. It’s riveting, but also telling in how their accounts are similar but different in key ways. For example, from Klein’s article:

It’s a Saturday morning, and the streets are empty. A few blocks from home, Brown and Johnson are walking in the middle of the road. This is when Officer Darren Wilson pulls up — and when Johnson and Wilson’s accounts begin to both converge and diverge.

As Wilson tells the story, he was extremely, unfailingly polite — more befuddled than anything else by these two young black men who seem to have forgotten to use the sidewalk. “Hey guys, why don’t you walk on the sidewalk,” he remembers saying. That’s not how Johnson tells it.

“He said ‘Get the F on the sidewalk!'” Johnson tells the grand jury. Either way, on this next point, Johnson and Wilson agree. It’s Johnson who replies and says they’re just a minute from their homes, and they’ll be off the street shortly.

This is the break point in the story. This is the moment when, even though you know how it ends, you’re hoping against hope that things play out differently, because it so clearly could have gone a different way. But here is when Wilson and Johnson begin telling stories that only barely converge.

As Wilson tells it, he then asks, “what’s wrong with the sidewalk?”, and Brown’s response, as reported by Wilson, is “fuck what you have to say.”

As Johnson tells it, Wilson never says “what’s wrong with the sidewalk,” and Brown never says “fuck what you have to say.” Rather, both Johnson and Brown think Wilson is satisfied with Johnson’s answer and is driving off.

“We continued to walk and have our conversation,” Johnson tells the grand jury, “but almost a split second [later], we heard the tires screech, and the officer, he pulled back in the truck very fast at an angle [where] if we didn’t hear his tires screech, the back of his cruiser would have struck one of us.”

The story Johnson tells from this point is straightforward: a cop feels disrespected by two young men, he reasserts his power, and then things spin out of control.

Wilson, having almost hit them with his truck, delivers the classic line of authority: “What did you say?” But Johnson is adamant that Brown hadn’t said anything. Maybe he mouthed something silently. Maybe he stared Wilson down. Maybe he did something else that Johnson couldn’t hear. But Johnson was right next to Brown, and Brown didn’t say anything.

But if he didn’t speak earlier, Brown starts now. Wilson had almost hit him with a truck. Brown is pissed. And so is Wilson. Brown says something and then Wilson hits him with the door of his cruiser. “He thrust his door open real hard,” says Johnson. “We was so close to the door that it hit mostly Big Mike, but it hit me on my left side and closed back on him, like real fast. Just the same speed, boom, boom, that fast.”

Compare this moment to Wilson’s rendering:

I go to open my door, say, “Hey, come here.” He said, “What the fuck you gonna do?” And he shut my door on me. The door was only open maybe a foot. I didn’t have a chance to get my leg out. I shut the door and he came up and appro ached the door. I opened the door again, trying to push him back, tell him to get back. Um, he said something. I’m not sure exactly what it was and then started swinging and punching at me from outside the vehicle.

At this point, Johnson and Wilson’s accounts become mirror images of each other. Wilson says Brown slammed the door into him and then reached into the car and began throwing punches. Johnson says Wilson slammed the door into Brown and then “his arm came out the window, and that’s the first initial contact that they had. The officer grabbed, he grabbed ahold of Big Mike’s shirt around the neck area.”

The narratives continue to split. Wilson describes a scuffle deep inside the car, with Brown as the aggressor trying to beat the hell out of Wilson who is trapped in his cruiser. Johnson described a tug-of-war, where Brown has “one hand on top of the cruiser and the other hand more right up under the window, the side mirror. He’s trying to pull off the officer’s grip.” Wilson is trying to pull Brown in, Brown is trying to escape.

As Klein concludes, “Wilson’s account presents Brown as completely irrational and borderline suicidal, Johnson’s account is more recognizable. It isn’t a blameless, kindly beat cop who gets set upon by a rampaging Michael Brown. And nor is it a blameless, kindly Michael Brown who gets set upon by a cold-blooded murderer with a badge. It’s a cop who feels provoked by these two young black men who won’t get out of the street, and who tries to teach them a lesson, to put them in their place. His actions escalate the situation, and then the adrenaline floods, and then there’s a struggle, and the situation escalates, and escalates, and escalates, and then Darren Wilson shoots Michael Brown and Michael Brown dies.”

Now, we’ll never really know exactly what happened, but we do have historical reasons to doubt that Wilson’s account is entirely correct and without bias. In fact, as Klein points out, the overall tone of Dorian Johnson’s account seems more believable. (More on that here.)

And certainly the Black community of St. Louis and other parts of the country have experienced exactly this kind of “provoked cop” (and unprovoked, for that matter) behavior and have good and valid reasons to question if the same happened here. For better or worse, the St. Louis metro police departments have had a hand in creating doubt about their behavior because of their past behavior. To simply dismiss this case as Officer Brown properly reacting to an assault by a crazed, hulking man is a bit hard to accept.

But we need to move on. The violent, destructive protests are worthy of condemnation. As Rep. John Lewis wrote last night, “I know this hard. I know this is difficult. Do not succumb to the temptations of violence. There is a more powerful way. Only love can overcome hate. Only nonviolence can overcome violence. It’s good to disturb the order of things, to show signs of discontent, but it must be peaceful, orderly, and disciplined.”

In the future, I would hope that the police departments of the St. Louis metro area (and other departments) immediately install cameras in their cars and cameras on their persons. Even with cameras, there will still be plenty of dispute when events like this occur, but they can certainly help to clarify or shed light on what has happened. Furthermore, let’s demand that the police officers stop preventing ordinary citizens from recording them in public. And for God’s sakes, wear your name badges. It all makes one wonder, what do they have to hide?

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In 1934, Dizzy Dean was the best pitcher in the National League, winning 30 games and leading the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series against the Detroit Tigers. In the fourth game of the Series, Dean stood on first base as a pinch runner. The batter hit a grounder to Tigers second baseman Billy Rogell, who tagged second and threw to first to turn a double play. Instead, the ball hit Dean square in the head as he dashed toward second base. He was carried off the field and sent to a nearby hospital to be examined for a concussion. The next day, the Detroit newspaper headlines read, “Dean’s Head Examined: X-Rays Reveal Nothing.”

I was reminded of that story yesterday with the news that the House Of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released its final report on the 2012 attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, after a two-year investigation.

Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the investigation of the politically charged incident determined that there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue, and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.

In other words, move along, nothing to see here. All the Republican blathering about a vast conspiracy and coverup? Er, um, never mind.

Of course, our dear conservative friends still don’t even know that the Republican-led Intelligence Committee finally admitted there was no such thing. This is because the report merited all of about 15 seconds on Fox News. In other words, if conservatives blinked, they missed the results.

How much do you want to bet that the next book by Matt Margolis and Mark Noonan contains more than one chapter lambasting President Obama over his handling of Benghazi (and nary a word about the actual findings)?

By the way, the Cardinals won the ’34 World Series in seven games. Dizzy and his brother, Paul, won all four games for the “Gas House Gang,” the only time that’s ever been done.

Ezra Klein tells it like it is tonight.

[O]ne way or another, Republicans need to decide what to do with the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the country now. They need to take away Obama’s single strongest argument — that this is a crisis, and that congressional Republicans don’t have an answer and won’t let anyone else come up with one.

Republicans aren’t just the opposition party anymore. They are, arguably, the governing party — they will soon control the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, most state legislatures, and more governorships. And the governing party needs to solve — or at least propose solutions — to the nation’s problems. And that means the Republican policy on immigration needs to be something more than opposing Obama’s immigration policies. It needs to be something more than vague noises about border security.

This isn’t a problem made up by Obama. It’s math. There are 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the country right now. Congress allocates enough money to deport roughly 400,000 of them annually. Our policy towards the 10.6 million unauthorized immigrants we’re not deporting is that we don’t have a policy. Democrats support a path to citizenship. Republicans don’t support anything.

“Republicans don’t support anything.”

Actually, that’s not quite right. Since 2008, Republicans have supported one thing: Stopping President Obama–and by extension, the rest of the country–from solving problems. Because in their eyes, he’s an illegitimate president. To compromise or work with him in any manner would be to confer to him some legitimacy, even if only a tiny bit. And that is one thing Republicans have not been willing to do.

That, really, is Obama’s advantage right now. Even if you think he’s going too far, he at least wants to solve the problem. Republicans don’t seem to want to do anything except stop Obama from solving the problem. That’s not a winning position. More to the point, it’s not a responsible one.

It’s worth reading Klein’s entire post. It’s short.

From the Weekly Standard:

House speaker John Boehner told President Obama at a White House meeting last Friday to give the House “one more chance” to pass a bill on immigration. Boehner referenced this conversation at the House Republican conference meeting Thursday morning, according to sources in the room.

Geez, he sounds like a child. Or maybe a bully who, when finally confronted, begs everyone to be cool because he didn’t mean to hurt anyone. Speaker Boehner’s been sitting on a bill for year that he refuses to put up for a vote, because he knows that it would pass if he did.

One House member in Thursday’s GOP conference meeting says Boehner said his message to the president was: “Just give us one more chance to pass an immigration bill.” Another member says those weren’t the House speaker’s exact words but confirmed Boehner mentioned requesting the president hold off on taking executive action.

Give them one more chance? Seriously, why would anyone believe them?

Now Republicans are talking about government shutdowns and impeachment. That’ll go over well. Republicans act like they’re powerless to do anything else–like actually taking up legislation, the thing they were voted into office to do. But nah, that’s antithetical to their true intentions, which is to reject anything President Obama might agree with because, you know, it would give him some legitimacy. And if there’s one thing Republicans have worked tireless at for six years, it’s to deny President Obama legitimacy.

On the other hand, you might almost think President Obama was baiting them into stupid behavior, but nah, conservatives know he’s just not very smart; certainly not smart enough to do that.

in the meantime, the thought of John Boehner begging (probably crying, too) does make me chuckle.

Mr. President, I promise I'll do better if you just give me one more chance. This time I mean it.

Mr. President, I promise I’ll do better if you just give me one more chance. This time I mean it.

This guy’s cut from the same cloth as those he would deride for having “Bush derangement syndrome.” Stay classy, Matt.