One year ago, on August 9th 2014 at 12:04 pm in front of the Canfield Green Apartments in Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown in the head and killed him. The day will forever be remembered as a day that changed the course of American history. The murder of Mike Brown spawned a national movement to demand that Black Lives Matter, reawakened the nation to the plague of racism in America, challenged the way the American public views police power, and it will hopefully be successful in building black power in the country.
After a year of studying the grand jury testimony, evidence, and public discourse around this case, and the many murders committed by police officers since then, I find the most important takeaway is simple: it is crucial that white Americans stop wasting time waiting for corporate media and a failed justice system to pick apart a case, only to tell us lies.
On one hand, it’s absurd to deliberate the details of every individual case of police brutality against black people and every case of oppression of black communities. The media, government, or justice system is never going to give you the information you need to understand structural oppression—however, the people affected by it will. There are well-documented problems of racism, white supremacy, and systematic oppression in this country. They are deeply rooted in our media, culture, economic structure, and (in)justice system – including tactics of over-policing and mass incarceration. We need to deal with these problems immediately. While black Americans are in the streets demanding that the government stop abusing and killing them, supposed freedom-loving, white Americans have sat back, debated, and criticized. It’s time to stop.
On the other hand, the reality seems to be that most Americans haven’t been able to get beyond these debates, and for those who are still confused by anti-racism and anti-police brutality messaging, Mike Brown’s case provided a unique opportunity for analysis.
Since most cases of police brutality against black individuals do not gain national attention, there usually isn’t much room for discussion. Also, given that grand jury proceedings are usually kept secret, it’s impossible for the public to challenge the narrative they are provided. Thanks to protesters in Ferguson, Mike Brown’s murder uniquely gained national attention and almost all the grand jury documents from his case were released; so the public, in theory, had what it needed to challenge the mainstream narrative. Of course, it chose not to. Instead, the public largely accepted the mainstream narrative, which was delivered by St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch and continuously parroted by the media and eventually, the Department of Justice until it was simply accepted as truth.
The media driven public narrative was as follows: Mike Brown started a fight with Darren Wilson at his SUV and attacked him with wild punches, scratches, and grabs; during the struggle, Brown tried to grab Wilson’s gun and Wilson was forced to shoot him; Brown ran away, but then turned and charged and Wilson killed him in self-defense. There were witnesses, who challenged Wilson’s story, but they were inconsistent and unreliable, and they lied because they were afraid of thugs in their own community. Conversely, there were witnesses who corroborated Wilson’s story and they were consistent and reliable, and the evidence supported their accounts, as well as Wilson’s. Finally, a fair and transparent judicial process determined these facts.
This narrative is entirely false. The importance of this case is that for anyone who chose to look, it underscored the ability of people in power to control the media and public opinion on police brutality through the use of lies and misinformation. The first anniversary of Mike Brown’s death is an opportunity to look back at what we should have learned from the 4,800-page testimony and many documents that were released after the decision not to indict Darren Wilson.
This is the start of a series of articles that reexamines and challenges the publicly accepted narrative of Mike Brown’s death. Each article will call into question a piece of this narrative—the fight at the SUV, the alleged gun grab, the purported charge, the reliability of witnesses, and the fairness of the grand jury process—by comparing various pieces of eyewitness testimony, expert witness testimony, evidence, and media coverage. The analysis clearly shows that what most people accepted as the truth, was simply not so. It will also show that if you truly care about freedom, equality, and justice, why you should stop debating such cases and opposing people fighting for change, and instead, support people’s struggle for justice.
Finally, those opposed to any criticisms of police will likely try to dismiss this perspective with “bad apple” arguments and by talking about high rates of crime or how police officers keep communities safe. While these arguments may be true in some ways, they are irrelevant, useless distractions to cases like Mike Brown’s. Police officers can perform heroic acts, arrest violent criminals, and have positive interactions with communities, while still assisting an appalling and oppressive system. Also, your experience with the police in white suburban America is drastically different from someone’s experience in poor, urban, black communities—so it is largely irrelevant to the problems discussed here.
Furthermore, people must recognize that police departments are part of a larger system of racial and class oppression—and officers play a big role in enforcing that system of oppression. This model needs to be challenged. So while you may feel that police officers perform necessary tasks to keep communities safe, it is vital to recognize that it is problematic to need such high levels of policing in a so-called free society. Most people are not inherently violent criminals looking for ways to destroy fellow humans, but rather, economic and political interests incentivize a system where people are criminalized. As a result, police departments and prison systems are used to deal with situations that should be addressed through other means, such as education, economic empowerment, community-based development, decriminalization, anti-austerity, and other socially beneficial practices. But this is a much larger discussion. If you’re not well aware of these issues, there are plenty of resources written by black Americans that can help expand your knowledge of these problems.
Ultimately, this series challenges the narrative of a specific case and shows that the public, including those that serve on juries, can be manipulated in order to thwart justice. It will show that the public and grand jury in Mike Brown’s case did not get an accurate picture of witness testimony or evidence because certain questions weren’t asked, witnesses who favored Wilson were not scrutinized, evidence was presented as if it proved things favorable to Wilson even when it did not, and a lack of evidence to confirm Wilson’s story was ignored. However, even if Wilson had not broken the law when he shot Brown in the head and killed him, justice was not served because prosecutors intentionally prevented Wilson from going to trial even though putting him on trial is their job.
Even if Brown had done what Wilson accused him of, this killing could have been avoided on so many levels, and the fact that it wasn’t, is a tragedy.