Ending the Michael Brown lie

Without meaning to, George Floyd has brought us together, both Americans and foreigners. There have been more memorials and protest marches in his name than any other in recent memory.

Say his name: George Floyd! His name is almost as well-known as Coca-Cola.

Michael Brown (left) and Officer Darren Wilson

In this time of sharp division, his death has provided the glue of sadness to join Americans together. Almost without exception, we all know his death was unjustified and more “regular” Americans are protesting it, people who never had protested anything before.

In cities and suburbs, on campuses and workplaces, millions of Americans are taking a knee in symbolic unity with Floyd, the world’s best-known aspiring rapper and ex-con. 

His name is being chanted around the world, remembered along with other people of color who were killed wrongly or under questionable circumstances. But one name and chant does not belong and discredits the others — Michael Brown, of Ferguson, Mo. Hands up! Don’t shoot!

When today’s protestors hold aloft their hands and chant, they are paying homage to a lie.

Lies sometimes turn into truth if repeated often enough. They shouldn’t be. And I present this now because the chanting is reverberating off the walls and Michael Brown is being cloaked in an undeserved martyrdom, diminishing the others.

Since I know some of you will not believe my reporting — or that of any white person on this subject — I turn over the space to Washington Post op-ed columnist Jonathan Capehart, who is liberal — and black, who courageously wrote about “uncomfortable truths.” Why now? Because it is in the news and truth is always timely.

This appeared on March 16, 2015. I have not edited it at all.


The late evening of Aug. 9, 2014, I couldn’t sleep. I was due to substitute-anchor MSNBC’s “UP with Steve Kornacki” and should have been asleep. But after looking at my Twitter feed and reading the rage under #Ferguson, I felt compelled to type a reaction to the killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. Tying the shooting to the inane whine of certain politicians about a “war on whites,”  I decried the next morning the death of yet another unarmed black man at the hands of a white police officer.

In those early hours and early days, there was more unknown than known. But this month, the Justice Department released two must-read investigations connected to the killing of Brown that filled in blanks, corrected the record and brought sunlight to dark places by revealing ugly practices that institutionalized racism and hardship. They have also forced me to deal with two uncomfortable truths: Brown never surrendered with his hands up, and Wilson was justified in shooting Brown.

The report on the Ferguson police department detailed abuse and blatant trampling of the constitutional rights of people, mostly African Americans, in Ferguson. Years of mistreatment by the police, the courts and the municipal government, including evidence that all three balanced their books on the backs of the people of Ferguson, were laid bare in 102 damning pages. The overwhelming data from DOJ provided background and much-needed context for why a small St. Louis suburb most had never heard of exploded the moment Brown was killed. His death gave voice to many who suffered in silence.

The unarmed 18-year-old also became a potent symbol of the lack of trust between African Americans and law enforcement. Not just in Ferguson, but in the rest of the country. Lord knows there have been plenty of recent examples. And the militarized response to protesters by local police put an exclamation point on demonstrators’ concerns. But the other DOJ report, the one on the actual shooting of Michael Brown, shows him to be an inappropriate symbol.

Through exhaustive interviews with witnesses, cross-checking their statements with previous statements to authorities and the media, ballistics, DNA evidence and results from three autopsies, the Justice Department was able to present a credible and troubling picture of what happened on Canfield Drive. More credible than the grand jury decision to not indict Wilson. The transcript of his grand jury testimony read like so much hand-holding by the prosecution.

What DOJ found made me ill. Wilson knew about the theft of the cigarillos from the convenience store and had a description of the suspects. Brown fought with the officer and tried to take his gun. And the popular hands-up storyline, which isn’t corroborated by ballistic and DNA evidence and multiple witness statements, was perpetuated by Witness 101. In fact, just about everything said to the media by Witness 101, whom we all know as Dorian Johnson, the friend with Brown that day, was not supported by the evidence and other witness statements.

Fight in the SUV

Page 6: Wilson and other witnesses stated that Brown then reached into the SUV through the open driver’s window and punched and grabbed Wilson. This is corroborated by bruising on Wilson’s jaw and scratches on his neck, the presence of Brown’s DNA on Wilson’s collar, shirt, and pants, and Wilson’s DNA on Brown’s palm. While there are other individuals who stated that Wilson reached out of the SUV and grabbed Brown by the neck, prosecutors could not credit their accounts because they were inconsistent with physical and forensic evidence, as detailed throughout this report.

Struggle over the gun

Page 6: Brown then grabbed the weapon and struggled with Wilson to gain control of it. Wilson fired, striking Brown in the hand. Autopsy results and bullet trajectory, skin from Brown’s palm on the outside of the SUV door as well as Brown’s DNA on the inside of the driver’s door corroborate Wilson’s account that during the struggle, Brown used his right hand to grab and attempt to control Wilson’s gun. According to three autopsies, Brown sustained a close range gunshot wound to the fleshy portion of his right hand at the base of his right thumb. Soot from the muzzle of the gun found embedded in the tissue of this wound coupled with indicia of thermal change from the heat of the muzzle indicate that Brown’s hand was within inches of the muzzle of Wilson’s gun when it was fired. The location of the recovered bullet in the side panel of the driver’s door, just above Wilson’s lap, also corroborates Wilson’s account of the struggle over the gun and when the gun was fired, as do witness accounts that Wilson fired at least one shot from inside the SUV.

Hands up

Page 8: Although there are several individuals who have stated that Brown held his hands up in an unambiguous sign of surrender prior to Wilson shooting him dead, their accounts do not support a prosecution of Wilson. As detailed throughout this report, some of those accounts are inaccurate because they are inconsistent with the physical and forensic evidence; some of those accounts are materially inconsistent with that witness’s own prior statements with no explanation, credible [or] otherwise, as to why those accounts changed over time. Certain other witnesses who originally stated Brown had his hands up in surrender recanted their original accounts, admitting that they did not witness the shooting or parts of it, despite what they initially reported either to federal or local law enforcement or to the media. Prosecutors did not rely on those accounts when making a prosecutive decision.

While credible witnesses gave varying accounts of exactly what Brown was doing with his hands as he moved toward Wilson – i.e., balling them, holding them out, or pulling up his pants up – and varying accounts of how he was moving – i.e., “charging,” moving in “slow motion,” or “running” – they all establish that Brown was moving toward Wilson when Wilson shot him. Although some witnesses state that Brown held his hands up at shoulder level with his palms facing outward for a brief moment, these same witnesses describe Brown then dropping his hands and “charging” at Wilson.

The DOJ report notes on page 44 that Johnson “made multiple statements to the media immediately following the incident that spawned the popular narrative that Wilson shot Brown execution-style as he held up his hands in surrender.” In one of those interviews, Johnson told MSNBC that Brown was shot in the back by Wilson. It was then that Johnson said Brown stopped, turned around with his hands up and said, “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!” And, like that, “hands up, don’t shoot” became the mantra of a movement. But it was wrong, built on a lie.

Yet this does not diminish the importance of the real issues unearthed in Ferguson by Brown’s death. Nor does it discredit what has become the larger “Black Lives Matter.” In fact, the false Ferguson narrative stuck because of concern over a distressing pattern of other police killings of unarmed African American men and boys around the time of Brown’s death. Eric Garner was killed on a Staten Island street on July 17. John Crawford III was killed in a Wal-Mart in Beavercreek, Ohio, on Aug. 5, four days before Brown. Levar Jones survived being shot by a South Carolina state trooper on Sept. 4. Tamir Rice, 12 years old, was killed in a Cleveland park on Nov. 23, the day before the Ferguson grand jury opted not to indict Wilson. Sadly, the list has grown longer.

Now that black lives matter to everyone, it is imperative that we continue marching for and giving voice to those killed in racially charged incidents at the hands of police and others. But we must never allow ourselves to march under the banner of a false narrative on behalf of someone who would otherwise offend our sense of right and wrong. And when we discover that we have, we must acknowledge it, admit our error and keep on marching. That’s what I’ve done here.

13 thoughts on “Ending the Michael Brown lie”

    Another thoughtful blog. Staying on the topic, true, black lives do matter. Anyone with brain cells would agree. I just wouldn’t be too much in a hurry to march after any incident. Figuratively marching is fine. We have seen what happens – time and time again – when emotions take the place of sensibility. Gather in a peaceful demonstration at a church, not on the street. Offer comfort and solace to the grieving. Let the system work.

    1. Tony, are you saying there should be no marching demonstrations, whether they be for or against something, at all? Or do you mean certain demonstrations should not be allowed? What about demonstrations for or against President Trump, or our government in its entirety? Please qualify what you said. I, for one, would genuinely like to know. Thank you.

      1. H,
        Let the heat of the moment subside before you march. “Calmer heads will prevail”.

        1. Tony, I cannot agree with you. In many demonstrations, whether it be from the left or right, there will be agitators who want to cause trouble because they have their own agenda. That agenda usually has nothing to do with what the protest is really about. These agitators will try to cause trouble no matter where or when. These people, again from the right or left, should not be allowed to stifle the peoples right to demonstrate.

          1. That is correct, H. So why would you want to go out and march immediately after any incident ? Whether it be Atlanta or Minneapolis or wherever the latest wrong is committed, emotions are high, facts are almost non-existent and most certainly, no one wants – or will – listen to the other side.
            then there’s that little thing called the constitution. you have the right to protest ( permit ) but not the right to demonstrate. you most certainly have the right to block highways, loot, burn, vandalize, assault………………………..
            cooler heads never prevail in heated demonstrations.

          2. Tony, I think you may have misunderstood me or I did not explain it well. The agitators will wait, no matter how long for the peaceful protests to start so they can make trouble. With that in mind what would you gain in waiting?

  2. Edmund Burke said, “I love agitation when there is a cause for it.” Our Constitution guarantees us the right to peaceably assemble, and we often do. What I DON”T like is wanton destruction dressed up a ‘protesting.’ What was that woman (a white skinned blond) ‘protesting’ as she was videotaped torching five police cars? I clearly remember the uprisings in Hungary, when Soviet tanks rolled into the capital and brutally put down the incipient revolt against communist rule. America is not like that; we let the thugs and miscreants burn and loot and spend their energy on hating for the sake of hating. The thought of American soldiers firing at their fellow citizens — even those who hate the very people who try to keep the peace, is repugnant to me. But the law must be served and those who can be identified when the flames have been quenched and tempers soothed must be made to pay the price. If not, the next uprising may make the recent one seem like a walk in the park on a spring day.

  3. We quickly judged as the video spread. Look what it led to. In today’s world some will believe what they want no matter the truth…..always driven by a willing MSM narrative. Two examples: The Trump Collusion, etc., lie!
    The second:
    Jonathan Capehart said what the DOJ found, ‘….made him ill.” What did he want to believe? Why would the truth from the exhaustive investigation, make him ill? Did he assume the lie based on recent police shootings against blacks? I don’t believe he actually explains.
    And what about Officer Darren Wilson. And his family. The lie continues.

      1. I think what made him ill was shock that it was a lie. Like I said he doesn’t elaborate.
        I wonder how many cities have both black Mayors and PC’s. And has it helped with racism. What’s systemic is greedy politicians.

  4. This is truly an excellent piece Stu. Thanks for sharing. I agree (now) that Michael Brown’s death was not an example of Police brutality. I wish more people like Johnathan Capeheart came forward at that time. I would like to hear your thoughts about the resurgence of the “Free Mumia” movement. There are many innocent people in jail, but I don’t think Mumia is among them and He should not be the face of a movement whose rallying cry is Justice for Blacks.

  5. of greater importance !
    Flag Day : June 14, 1777. It’s official. The 2nd Continental Congress chose the Flag and the date.
    U.S.Army : June 14, 1775. It’s official. We have an Army .

  6. My response is the same as it was at the time of Ferguson that a society will not succeed if there is a rush to judgement based on perception, false narratives, rumors and maybe worst of all the phone video. We have totally lost the rule of law that innocent until proven guilty must be protected at all costs. If not then we are facing a guilty until proven crowd mentality. In the black community there is a cloak of denial in confronting the tragic number of black on black killings where just in Philadelphia four hundred so far. Police have shot ten almost all as a result of a armed confrontation. My comments earlier were directed at the writings of Professor Shelby Steele who also just made an independent film on the shooting of Michael Brown but he forms a different opinion of the outrage. Whether it is White supremacy, White guilt or systemic racism at this time the answers will be reached on a basis of separate conclusions and sadly we have no leadership to bridge the gap.

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