Remember Michael Brown, the 18-year-old whose fatal shooting in Ferguson, Mo., last August triggered two waves of riots, a national protest movement, death threats against the officer who shot Brown, lamentations by college presidents regarding America’s enduring racial injustice, vilification of St. Louis prosecutor Robert McCulloch for not obtaining an indictment against the officer who shot Brown, a campaign to eliminate grand jury proceedings when police officers use deadly force, the assassination of two New York police officers, and a presidential task force to reform policing? The press and public leaders don’t appear to remember Brown, now that a Justice Department report has demolished the narrative that turned him into a martyr to police and prosecutor racism. His shooting is now mentioned in passing only as a prelude to a second Justice report, also released on March 4, that preserves the meme of a racist Ferguson police force, thus providing a substitute rationale for the summer and fall rioting.
Before the Justice Department report on the Brown shooting is consigned to total oblivion, it is worth examining its findings, as well as the strategies used to marginalize them, in some detail. They bear on the ecstatically received second Justice Department report on Ferguson police racism and on the larger discourse about policing and race.
Attorney General Eric Holder was clearly not happy that his own agency had so resoundingly shredded the incendiary story of a pacific Michael Brown gunned down by a trigger-happy cop while trying to surrender. And so he provided the mechanism for sidelining his own department’s report. A few days before its release, he told Politico that he wanted to lower the standard of proof in civil rights cases. The subtext of this announcement: The decision not to pursue civil rights charges against Officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown was forced on DOJ by an overly stringent evidentiary standard; under a more realistic standard, Wilson would have been prosecuted. Voilà! The media had their angle. “The Justice Department announced on Wednesday that its investigation did not support federal civil rights charges against Darren Wilson,” the New York Times acknowledged morosely in an editorial, before immediately turning to the good news: “Still, the department found overwhelming evidence of entrenched racism in Ferguson’s police force [emphasis added].” The Huffington Post said that the Justice Department had decided “not to file federal charges against Wilson for fatally shooting Brown last July.”
“Did not support”? Decided “not to file”? Such understatement massively misrepresents the content of the Brown report. This was not a question of evidence “not supporting” high-threshold civil rights charges; it’s a question of evidence eviscerating virtually every aspect of the pro-Brown, anti-Wilson narrative. Under no imaginable standard of proof could Wilson be found guilty of civil rights violations—or, for that matter, murder. As the report states: “Multiple credible witnesses corroborate virtually every material aspect of Wilson’s account and are consistent with the physical evidence.” Those “material aspects” include Wilson’s testimony that Brown punched and grabbed him while Wilson was in his SUV, that Brown tried to seize his gun, and that Brown charged at Wilson after Wilson had exited his car. Wilson had first seen Brown walking in the middle of Canfield Drive with another young man. Wilson suspected that Brown was the thief who had just robbed a convenience store and roughed up its owner a few minutes before, since he saw the stolen boxes of cigarillos in Brown’s hands. Wilson asked Brown to move to the sidewalk. Brown responded: “F— what you have to say.” Wilson called for backup and then tried to block Brown from proceeding. At that point, Brown reached into Wilson’s car and starting pounding him and grabbing his gun. Wilson fired and Brown ran off. Wilson gave chase on foot. Brown then turned and charged towards Wilson. At no point did Wilson fire at Brown when Brown’s back was turned or when he was on the ground. As for the now-iconic “Hands up, don’t shoot” claim—the DOJ report is withering:
There are no credible witness accounts that state that Brown was clearly attempting to surrender when Wilson shot him. As detailed throughout this report, those witnesses who say so have given accounts that could not be relied upon in a prosecution because they are irreconcilable with the physical evidence, inconsistent with the credible accounts of other eyewitnesses, inconsistent with the witness’s own prior statements, or in some instances, because the witnesses have acknowledged that their initial accounts were untrue.