The Conversation

The Ferguson story changes dramatically

Writing at length about the latest developments in the Ferguson saga, I thought the praise given to Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson was generally well-deserved.  The town wasn't quite as peaceful last night as the Shangri-La portrayed in Big Media reports - there were several instances of violence, including rocks thrown at cops, that simply were not reported, because they were unhelpful to The Narrative - but it was much improved.  Johnson, who grew up in Ferguson, hit the streets personally, and people responded well to him.  That's leadership, and it counts.

Having said that, his statement this morning sounded very foolish to me.  He was criticizing the local police department for releasing some details of the deadly encounter between police officer Darren Wilson (finally identified after keeping his identity secret for six days, a decision that has drawn criticism, but seems not unreasonable given the threats to his safety during the heat of the riots.) and the slain 18-year-old Michael Brown.  

Most notably, a huge piece of the puzzle fell into place when it was revealed that Brown was not confronted by Wilson for no reason at all - he had allegedly just robbed a liquor store of about $40 in cigars, and he did it through brute force.  I say "allegedly" but the police released surveillance video of the act, and there is very little doubt Brown is the person in those pictures.  His friend Dorian Johnson, who has previously stated he and Brown were confronted by Wilson completely at random, was allegedly involved in the robbery. 

"I think [the robbery and the shooting] are two separate issues," Captain Johnson said today, as reported by Mediaite.  "People in our country commit crimes every day. I don’t want to mix the two, I’m not going to say that one justifies the other, and I think if we’re going to give answers, we need to not give hints. We need to say it."

Again, with all due respect, this is sheer nonsense.  Of course it's hugely relevant that Brown was the suspect in a robbery, and was seen to use physical violence to pull it off.  The story that sparked riots in Ferguson was that gentle, sweet, innocent, wouldn't-hurt-a-fly Brown was just walking down the street when the cop pulled up and gunned him down for no reason at all.  Brown had his hands up, and was trying to be nice, but the cop blew him away, shot him in the back, emptied God knows how many bullets into him.  We were told over and over that Brown was a great kid, and it was utterly inexplicable that a police officer would confront him at random - well, explicable only by vile racism, that is.  

As for whether the police should be "giving hints"... good Lord, Captain Johnson, the police have been tackled and pummeled by the combined force of the entire U.S. media establishment and excoriated for not saying anything about the case.  They were taking heat for their silence less than 24 hours after the shooting.  The police department is currently being made to look like bumbling fools, stormtrooper wannabees who had to be sent to the showers while the state Highway Patrol takes over.  A billion editorial pixels have been spilled on roasting the police merely for being slow to release the name of the officer involved, even though the threat to his safety was palpable.

So they finally put the cop's name out there, and decide it would be a good idea to provide some hard-and-fast details of how the encounter took place... and now they're going to take heat for not keeping their lips zipped?  Talk about "damned if you do, damned if you don't!"

Within an hour of these revelations being disclosed, the merchants of chaos were shrieking that kill-crazy racists think the details about Brown and the strongarm robbery justify his merciless execution.  That's a way of intimidating people out of talking sense and seeing the truth right in front of their eyes.  Of course no rational person says "the kid stole some cigars and roughed up a store clerk, so it's cool that Judge Dredd greased him on the street."  But it's equally irrational to say that the context of the encounter is wholly irrelevant, or that we need to know everything about the cop but nothing about Brown.

The police also maintain that Wilson was significantly injured during a scuffle with Brown, who allegedly shoved him back into his police cruiser and tried to get his gun.  Wilson's injuries will be a matter of forensic record, so it would be utterly ridiculous for them to lie about it.  That means we've got a cop confronting a physically imposing suspect who has been caught on camera shaking down a store clerk and stealing cigars, and the suspect assaulted the cop.  That's a far cry from what people were saying to each other when violence broke out in Ferguson.

The next detail to be firmed up - and it will be firmed up - was how many shots were fired by Wilson, and where they were fired from.  I have counseled against speculation in this case, because that's what caused all the unpleasantness, but forgive me for indulging in one: what if it's demonstrated that the bullet which killed Brown was fired during the fight with Wilson?  That's not outside the realm of possibility.  And what if he was shot fleeing the scene - with or without his hands up - after assaulting a cop?  What happens to the "narrative" that caused the Ferguson riots then?  Is a police officer supposed to let a violent suspect run away after he's been assaulted?

No, the cop isn't "off the hook," and nobody in the law-enforcement hierarchy is claiming otherwise.  Whatever problems the local residents might have with the Ferguson police remain.  Criticism of the paramilitary law enforcement deployed on Wednesday remains.  But as of Friday morning, the storyline that sparked the riots lies in tatters.  That matters.

Update: As if this wasn't convoluted enough for everyone yet, the Ferguson police chief popped out on Friday afternoon to explain that Wilson didn't specifically challenge Brown over the robbery - the encounter is now said to have begun because Brown was walking in the street and blocking traffic.  Still unclear, as far as I can tell from the latest reports, is whether Wilson knew the robbery had occurred at all.

This tidbit of information was put forth at the same time the police expressed more certainty than ever that Brown was indeed the person who pulled off the strong-arm robbery; supposedly there was physical evidence on his body to prove it, which I gingerly assume would mean the stolen merchandise.  

I gather, then, that the police wanted to release the information on Brown and the robbery to establish a basic point of character - he was capable of violence - rather than to imply Wilson knew he was confronting a robbery suspect.  They never actually said that, but should have known people would naturally draw the inference. 

Unless one thinks the police accounts of Wilson's injuries are utter fabrications, the point remains that a great deal of evidence points to Brown committing a violent offense, and then assaulting the police officer who pulled over and told him to stop walking in the middle of the street.  If Wilson didn't know Brown was a robbery suspect, he would have been less on guard for a violent response.  This is all, again, very different from the "cop shot a black teenager for no reason" story that sparked the Ferguson unrest.


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