The sad story of death and race in Ferguson, Missouri took another twist this week when autopsy reports revealed that the 18 year old Michael Brown, shot by police in August, may actually have been trying to take a policeman’s gun. Protests erupted in the town at the time – followed by a huge police crackdown – after the unarmed Brown was shot with his hands in the air according to witnesses. However, a second autopsy has now contradicted that version of events. So what do we now know about what happened? Why was the police reaction so important? And does the ‘truth’ really matter?
What we know for sure is that Michael Brown was walking down the middle of the street when a policeman (Darren Wilson) in a patrol car told him to get out of the road. There was a short scuffle at the window of the car, and after this things get murky. Numerous eyewitnesses said that Brown ran away about 6 meters, then turned back and raised his hands in the air only to be shot again and killed by Wilson. For his part, Wilson had said that Brown had tried to take his weapon during the scuffle in the car, and that he had shot in self-defence. He said that Brown then ran away, then turned and charged straight at Wilson, at which point he opened fire again. This second leaked report now seems to back up Wilson’s allegation that Brown tried to take his weapon, with Brown’s blood being found in the car and some of his wounds being consistent with a struggle. However, it is still unclear what Brown was doing when he was shot – charging back as Wilson said, or raising his hands in the air as eyewitnesses allege.
The problem that this report fails to solve is that trust in the Ferguson Police is extremely low. Ever since the shooting, they have failed in every way to act in a responsible and transparent manner. Even the Department of Justice is tired of their behaviour. The incident report they released was almost empty. They refused to name the policeman involved for weeks. When they finally did release the name, they also released a video journalist/comedian John Oliver described as “the DVD extra nobody wanted” – a tape showing Brown apparently robbing a store minutes before he was shot. As Oliver points out, that has absolutely nothing to do with whether Darren Wilson was correct in shooting Brown. And now they have leaked a report which appears to back up Wilson’s story, just as a grand jury is gathering to consider the case. Everything they have done feels like them trying to protect themselves instead of the people of their town.
The other reason trust in the police is low is of course the huge response to protests against the killing, completely with tear gas, armoured vehicles and automatic weapons. Policemen in camouflage pointed their weapons at unarmed protesters, tear gas was fired directly at reporters, and police with sniper rifles aimed at crowds from turrets on armoured trucks. The images shocked America and the world with the level of police militarisation and overkill. Looking at the pictures it’s hard to imagine who thought that would ever be necessary, and who thought that it would work. A sniper rifle doesn’t exactly scream “protect and serve”, and the curfew they imposed on the city didn’t help either. All in all, the response to the shooting showed unbelievable lack of tact and thought.
But what if Michael Brown did try to take Darren Wilson’s gun? What if he did charge at him? Does it matter? For his family and Darren Wilson, yes of course. However for the country as a whole, not so much. Just like the Rodney King beating in LA in the 90s, this is the straw that broke the camel’s back. 40 years after the Civil Rights Movement, African-Americans are still subject to suspicion and harassment by the police. Ferguson is only 67% African-American, but 86% of people stopped and 92% of people searched were black. Despite the fact that a higher percentage of whites stopped actually had something illegal on them, more African-Americans were eventually arrested than whites. It’s statistics like that which demonstrate that this is much bigger than one man. No matter how this particular case ends, America’s race problem is still very much present.