What People Say Happened in Ferguson

The town of Ferguson is near St. Louis, Missouri. It has a population of 21,000, so it’s big enough to have a small police force. Everyone agrees that Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, around noon on August 9th. The results of the official autopsy haven’t been released yet, but it’s been reported that it will substantially agree with a second autopsy done at the family’s request: Wilson shot Brown approximately six times.

I spent some time recently trying to find out how many witnesses to the incident there were and what they had to say. It wasn’t easy, but two sites had some details. One was Wikipedia and the other was The Root. The latter is a magazine devoted to African-American news and commentary founded by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Donald Graham, Chairman and CEO of what used to be the Washington Post.

Here’s a summary based on these two sources and a statement made by the St. Louis County police chief on August 17th:

Officer Wilson ordered Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson to walk on the sidewalk, not the street. Wilson and Brown got into a physical altercation while Wilson was still in his police car. A shot was fired in the car, which may or may not have struck Brown. Wilson’s face was apparently bruised during the struggle. Brown then ran away. Wilson got out of his car, chased Brown and fired again. Apparently, none of these other shots hit Brown until Brown turned around and faced Wilson. At that point, Wilson continued to fire, killing Brown. Overall, Brown was shot four times in his right arm and twice in his head. Brown’s body ended up about 35 feet from Wilson’s car.

Whether or not Brown raised his hands to surrender after he turned around, or fell toward Wilson, or decided to move toward Wilson, is now a matter of dispute. However, the four people who claim to have seen the shooting and who have been identified so far (Dorian Johnson, Piaget Crenshaw, Tiffany Mitchell and James McKnight) all indicate that Brown wasn’t threatening Officer Wilson at that point. They suggest, in fact, that Wilson executed Brown. On the other hand, Officer Wilson, who still hasn’t been directly quoted, is said to have felt threatened. The wounds Brown suffered are consistent with Brown having surrendered and fallen toward the ground, although they don’t rule out Brown having moved toward Wilson with his head down.

If this were the only evidence presented and I was on the jury, I’d have to conclude that Officer Wilson was guilty of second-degree murder. It wouldn’t be first-degree murder, since there’s no evidence of premeditation. Firing his weapon at Brown as Brown was running away indicates Wilson’s willingness to use deadly force. The consistency of the four statements from people who apparently didn’t know each other (except for the two women, one of whom supervises the other at work) implies that Brown had stopped running and was giving up. Is there reason to doubt that this is what happened? Of course, it’s possible that Brown meant to stop Officer Wilson from firing at him by moving toward Wilson. But so far there is no good reason (which is the definition of “reasonable doubt”) to think that Wilson was in danger when he killed Brown.

At some point, it would be helpful to hear a police officer admit that the deadly force he (it always seems to be “he”) applied to some black man or some crazy person wasn’t necessary. He’d explain that he was angry and excited and fearful and his emotions took over. He’d remind us that police officers hate it when their authority is challenged. He’d also remind us that he’s only human and that having the power of life and death over one’s fellow citizens will sometimes inevitably lead to misuse of that power. He’d further admit that, when it comes right down to it, he’s like too many Americans in feeling that some people’s lives just aren’t as valuable as others, especially black people’s. 


The New York Times ran an article two days ago concerning “conflicting accounts” of what happened in Ferguson. To her credit, Margaret Sullivan, the Times‘ Public Editor (which is similar to an ombudsman), points out here that:

The story goes on to quote, by name, two eyewitnesses who say that Mr. Brown had his hands up as he was fired on. As for those who posit that Mr. Brown was advancing on the officer who was afraid the teenager was going to attack him, the primary source on this seems to be what Officer Wilson told his colleagues on the police force. The Times follows this with an unattributed statement: “Some witnesses have backed up that account.” But we never learn any more than that…[The Times story] sets up an apparently equal dichotomy between named eyewitnesses on one hand and ghosts on the other. 

4 thoughts on “What People Say Happened in Ferguson

  1. Thanks for posting on this. I suspect we (the public) don’t have the full details that the grand jury will have, and we may not learn those details for months or years to come. But one thing seems abundantly clear, this community was a powder keg. The shooting might have been the immediate cause of the rioting and unrest, but only the immediate cause. The emotions unleashed have obviously been building up for a while. Most of the people there seem to regard the police more as an occupying army than as a force for their protection.

    • I suppose we never know the full details in any of these cases, and witnesses are often unreliable, but there are also cases in which it’s relatively clear what happened. Then there are the cases in which video evidence contradicts the official description of events. For example, video of the fatal shooting of another black man in St. Louis on Tuesday indicates that the police may have again overstated the threat. The video needs to be enhanced, but as of now it doesn’t confirm the officers’ story that the suspect was holding a knife over his head and was within 2 or 3 feet when they fired a total of 12 shots at him.

      I read something by some commentator yesterday who tried to explain why the police are viewed with suspicion in many black communities. Most of us have relatively benign, predictable encounters with the police (being stopped for a traffic ticket, for example). In other places, the police have a higher profile and their interactions with the community aren’t as predictable. Ferguson seems to be one of those places.

  2. If you’re on twitter, follow @chrislhayes. A tweet from a week ago: “I interviewed the key witness in the Michael Brown case. The police haven’t. Think about that.”
    What has struck me about the ensuing police crackdown is how similar it was to the police crackdown on the Gezi Park protests, (in which I participated.) While in Turkey skin color wasn’t a factor, the message seems the same: we consider you (In TR- religiously and economically diverse political dissidents, in F, a largely African American, largely righteously p.o.’ed population) somewhat less than human. Also a factor, a police force that is equipped with military grade weapons but no military training. (See all those cops in the photos brandishing their weapons? I come from an extraordinarily military family. You DO NOT raise your weapon until you’re ready to fire.)

    • Thanks for your comment and the suggestion. There’s a lot of that “you’re less than human — or not as human as us” going around, isn’t there? I read some expert saying that police are trained to shoot to kill whenever they fire their weapons, since it’s hard to merely wound your target. That makes sense. But it means police should use (or point) their lethal weapons less frequently, or use less lethal weapons more often. Even a revolver, like police used to carry, is less lethal than one of these automatic or semi-automatic weapons that make it much easier to kill. Those two cops who killed the guy in St. Louis could have exited their vehicle with less firepower and still been safe.

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