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?