* The Shooting Death of Michael Brown

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Overview


The Michael Brown Case Propels Black Lives Matter to New Heights

Though Black Lives Matter (BLM) was founded in 2013, it was not until the following year that it gained a large measure of public influence. That influence came as a result of the shooting death of Michael Brown. Following is an account of that case:

On August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, a 28-year-old white police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed an 18-year-old black male named Michael Brown in an altercation that made national headlines and set off a massive wave of BLM-led protests and riots in a number of U.S. cities. The angry mobs claimed that Brown had been shot in the back while fleeing from the officer, at which point the teen had stopped and raised his hands in surrender, begging Wilson, to no avail, to refrain from firing any more rounds at him.

The principal source of this narrative was Michael Brown’s 22-year-old friend Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown at the time of the latter’s fatal encounter with Officer Wilson. After Brown’s death, Johnson told reporters that “me and my friend was walking down the street, wasn’t causing any harm to nobody,” at which point a “white cop” allegedly pulled up in his patrol car and “reached his arm out the window and grabbed my friend around his neck [and] was trying to choke my friend.” When Brown then attempted to flee, said Johnson, he was “shot like an animal” by the officer.

On another occasion, Johnson told CBS News that while Brown was running from Darren Wilson, the officer “shot again and once my friend felt that shot, he turned around and put his hands in the air and started to get down, [but] the officer still approached with his weapon drawn and fired several more shots.” Thereafter, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” became a signature slogan of the newly revitalized BLM movement and its adherents.

The mainstream news media, meanwhile, refrained from speculating that Brown himself may have been anything other than an innocent black victim of bad police work. A New York Times editorial, for instance, lamented “the history of racial segregation, economic inequality and overbearing law enforcement” that allegedly had set the stage for “the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black student … who was a few days from heading off to college when he was shot by a police officer.” A Times news article, meanwhile, reported that “the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager” was being described by St. Louis County’s NAACP chapter president as an instance of “yet another teenaged boy [who] has been slaughtered by law enforcement.” The Washington Post ran a story whose title emphasized that the “Black Teen Shot in Missouri Was Unarmed.” And an Associated Press report, which likewise took pains to note that Brown “was unarmed,” stated that the notoriety surrounding the young man’s death was helping to “solidify the Black Lives Matter movement.”

BLM, for its part, bluntly charged that “Mike Brown was murdered by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson,” and that the demonstrators who subsequently protested that injustice were being unfairly “brutalized by law enforcement,… tear gassed, and pepper sprayed night after night.”

Also in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, BLM and its media allies repeatedly reminded Americans that Brown had now become the civil-rights movement’s latest martyr, an individual whose most noteworthy trait was his extraordinarily meek and mild temperament. Black activist Al Sharpton, for one, described Brown—who stood 6-foot-4 and weighed approximately 290 pounds—as a “gentle giant.” Stories by CNN, The Daily Mail, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and many other news outlets did the same. In a similar vein, a writer at Daily Kos portrayed Brown as a “big guy who[m] his family called their ‘Gentle Giant,’” a young man who was “built to be a high school football player—direct from central casting—but … was too timid for the sport” and, “according to friends and family,… had never been in a fight in his life.” Moreover, photos of Brown donning a cap and gown at his recent graduation from St. Louis County’s Normandy High School began to surface widely in the media.

Political figures from across the country likewise embraced the narrative of a trigger-happy, racist white policeman gunning down an innocent black youth. Soon after Brown’s killing, for instance, the Democrat governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, called for a “vigorous prosecution” against Officer Wilson, even before any pertinent facts were known about the case.  And Democrat congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, for her part, described Brown’s death as “a tragedy”; called on the Department of Justice to “examine … whether there were any federal civil rights violations” for which Wilson could be prosecuted; and demanded “a credible and comprehensive investigation … to secure justice for Michael Brown’s family and the community.”

Before long, however, a number of unflattering facts about Michael Brown began to surface. On August 15, 2014, for instance, the Ferguson Police Department released an explicit surveillance video that showed Brown committing a strong-armed robbery of a local convenience store—stealing a box of Swisher Sweets, which are cheap cigars commonly used to smoke marijuana—just minutes before his fatal encounter with Officer Wilson. Brown’s relatives and the attorneys representing his family responded indignantly to the video’s release, calling it a “sideshow” and a “strategic” ploy “aimed at destroying the character” of the late victim and drawing attention away from Officer Wilson’s evil deed. Brown family lawyer Anthony Gray urged the public to “not take the bait.”

On August 17, the Brown family released a statement that said: “There is nothing based on the facts that have been placed before us that can justify the execution style murder of their child by this police officer [Darren Wilson] as he [Michael Brown] held his hands up, which is the universal sign of surrender…. The police strategy of attempting to blame the victim will not divert our attention from … this brutal execution of an unarmed teenager.”

Next, some conservative news outlets reported that Brown had been an aspiring rapper who wrote a number of songs replete with exceedingly vulgar and violent lyrics. A few examples:

  • My favorite part is when that body hits the ground.
    I soak ’em up like I’m ringing out a sponge
    Talking down make me shoot off your whole tongue
  • Every time I call you bitch. There b cum.
    And when she cum I b cumin all over her tongue
    I beat that pussy up and then be on the run (Come on bitch!)
    I roll flat blunts that look just like my thumb
  • My niggas from the area we don’t play…
    Masturbating off my voice on my laptop.
    Mother fuckers would have never far I made it in the rap game…
  • Lights out. Lights out. I knock your ass out.
    Lights out. Lights out… It’s lights out bitch.
    I do the hit and I’m gonnna make it hurt….
    And count my money while my bitch suck me like a Slurpee.

On August 20, a local grand jury consisting of three blacks and nine whites—roughly approximating the racial composition of Ferguson as a whole—began hearing evidence in an effort to determine whether Officer Wilson should be criminally indicted for the killing of Michael Brown. One of the witnesses who testified before that grand jury was Wilson himself, who told the jurors that:

  • When he initially encountered Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson walking in the middle of the street and instructed them to move to a sidewalk, Brown responded by shouting an expletive.
  • When he noticed that Brown was carrying a handful of cigars, Wilson suddenly realized that the teen was likely the perpetrator of the local convenience-store robbery that had just been announced over the police radio.
  • When Wilson tried to open the door of his patrol car in order to question Brown, the teen slammed it back shut and punched the officer in the face through the open window.
  • Fearing that he might get knocked unconscious and thereby become vulnerable to serious injury or death, Wilson drew his gun and told Brown: “Get back or I’m going to shoot you.”
  • Reaching through the window of Wilson’s car door, Brown told the officer, “You are too much of a pussy to shoot me.” He then grabbed Wilson’s gun with his right hand, twisted it, and pressed it firmly into the policeman’s hip.
  • Wilson managed to fire two shots from inside his car, wounding Brown in the hand and causing him to briefly run away.
  • As Wilson gave chase and ordered Brown to stop, the young man suddenly turned around and charged head-first at the officer, who backpedaled while firing his gun in self-defense at the oncoming Brown. At one point, Brown used his right hand to reach under his shirt in the waistband of his trousers, causing Officer Wilson to fear that Brown may have had a weapon there.

But BLM members were uninterested in waiting for this or any other evidence that the grand jury might uncover. They continued to charge that white racism and police brutality were to blame for what had happened to Brown. Toward that end, during Labor Day weekend of 2014, BLM leaders Darnell Moore and Patrisse Cullors co-organized a “Black Life Matters Ride” where more than 600 people from across the U.S. convened in “the occupied territory” of Ferguson “to support our brothers and sisters.” “We understood Ferguson was not an aberration,” said BLM, “but in fact, a clear point of reference for what was happening to Black communities everywhere.” Following the Labor Day event, organizers from 18 different cities returned to their homes and developed local BLM chapters in those places.

Throughout the fall of 2014, supporters of Michael Brown and his family continued to indicate that no amount of exculpatory evidence would be sufficient to convince them that Officer Wilson should not be held criminally liable for the young man’s death. On October 28, for instance, as the grand jury entered the final phase of its investigation, Brown family lawyer Benjamin Crump—who also had served as the attorney for the family of the late Trayvon Martin—made it clear that neither the family members nor their backers would be persuaded by any autopsy report or eyewitness statements that supported Wilson’s position. “The family has not believed anything the police or this medical examiner has said,” Crump declared.

A similar spirit shaped the attitudes of other police-haters and Michael Brown supporters:

  • The Rev. Tommie Pierson, pastor of Greater St. Mark Family Church in St. Louis, said that if the grand jury failed to indict Officer Wilson, the local community “will feel like it’s open season on young black men” and “you will see an outburst of protest.”
  • Revolutionary Communist Party supporter Lou Downey said, “If Darren Wilson walks, America must be brought to a halt. That means no business as usual. It means blocking streets and walking out of schools. It means we refuse to accept this.”
  • Eric Guster, a blogger for The Root, wrote: “I have a feeling that prosecutors are getting ready to drop the hammer on us. They want us to be ready for what every tear-gassed, unlawfully arrested, shot at, beaten, harassed, billy-clubbed protester doesn’t want to hear: Wilson probably won’t be charged in the killing of Michael Brown.”
  • Democrat congressman John Lewischaracterized Ferguson as a “turning point” for the modern civil rights movement, and predicted that the nation would see massive protests if the grand jury did not indict Wilson.
  • The Washington Post reported that “unidentified ‘protest leaders’ have said that once the grand jury announcement is made, they will send a blast text message to a list of 16,000 subscribers—mobilizing them into action across the country” if no indictment was issued.

Through their association with BLM, Michael Brown’s family members gained a stature and a level of public influence far exceeding anything they had ever previously known. On November 12 in Geneva, Switzerland, Brown’s parents—Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr.—spoke before the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT). “We need the world to know what’s going on in Ferguson and we need justice,” said McSpadden. “We need answers and we need action. And we have to bring it to the U.N. so they can expose it to the rest of the world, what’s going on in small town Ferguson.”

The parents also joined the Organization for Black Struggle, Hands Up United, and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment in submitting to UNCAT a document that: (a) characterized Michael Brown’s killing and the force used by police officers in their effort to quell the subsequent riots, as “violations of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment”; (b) requested that UNCAT recommend the immediate arrest of Officer Wilson and the cessation of “racial profiling and racially-biased police harassment across the jurisdictions surrounding Ferguson”; and (c) stated that the U.S. Attorney General and Department of Justice “must conduct a nationwide investigation of systematic police brutality and harassment in black and brown communities, and youth in particular.”

On November 24, 2014, the grand jury probe into the Michael Brown case drew to a close. After having met on 25 separate days over a three-month period, and having heard more than 70 hours of sworn testimony from approximately 60 people including eyewitnesses as well as medical and firearms experts, the jurors elected not to indict Officer Wilson. Their decision was based on a series of key findings such as these:

  • Among the eyewitnesses were more than half a dozen African Americans who provided testimony that largely supported Wilson’s account of the events.
  • The physical evidence—including blood spatter analysis, shell casing locations, and ballistics tests—likewise supported Wilson’s testimony.
  • Michael Brown’s DNA was found on Officer Wilson’s gun, on the left thigh of Wilson’s pants, and on the inside driver’s door handle of Wilson’s police SUV.
  • Traces of Brown’s skin were found on the exterior of Wilson’s vehicle.
  • Analysis of three separate autopsy reports indicated that Brown did not have his hands raised when he was fatally shot, and that he was not shot in the back.
  • Toxicology test results showed that Brown, at the time of his death, had tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana, in his system at levels possibly high enough to trigger hallucinations.

Moments after the prosecuting attorney, Bob McCulloch, had publicly announced the grand jury’s decision, crowds of protesters stormed through a police barricade, pelted law-enforcement officers with objects like rocks and batteries, and poured into the streets of Ferguson where they smashed windows, vandalized cars, set buildings and police vehicles ablaze, and fired gunshots into the air. Many thousands of people rallied in other U.S. cities as well, waving placards and shouting chants of “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” Such protests would continue for weeks thereafter.

In March 2015, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that, after an extensive investigation of physical, ballistic, forensic, medical, autopsy, and eyewitness evidence, it had decided not to prosecute Officer Wilson for any civil rights violations. That announcement was accompanied by the DOJ’s release of an 86-page report summarizing its findings. Key excerpts from the report included the following:

  • “The evidence, when viewed as a whole, does not support the conclusion that Wilson’s uses of deadly force were ‘objectively unreasonable’ under the Supreme Court’s definition.”
  • “There was no evidence to corroborate that Wilson choked, strangled, or tightly grasped Brown on or around his neck, as described by [Dorian Johnson].”
  • “The evidence establishes that the shots fired by Wilson while he was seated in his SUV were in self-defense and thus were not objectively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”
  • “Brown’s DNA was found at four significant locations: on Wilson’s gun; on the roadway further away from where he died; on the SUV driver’s door and inside the driver’s cabin area of the SUV; and on Wilson’s clothes.”
  • “The evidence does not support concluding that Wilson shot Brown while Brown’s back was toward Wilson.”
  • “Witness accounts suggesting that Brown was standing still with his hands raised in an unambiguous signal of surrender when Wilson shot Brown are inconsistent with the physical evidence, are otherwise not credible because of internal inconsistencies, or are not credible because of inconsistencies with other credible evidence.”
  • “There are no witnesses who could testify credibly that Wilson shot Brown while Brown was clearly attempting to surrender.”
  • “Not only do eyewitnesses and physical evidence corroborate Wilson’s account, but there is no credible evidence to disprove Wilson’s perception that Brown posed a threat to Wilson as Brown advanced toward him. Accordingly, seeking his indictment is not permitted by Department of Justice policy or the governing law.”

None of this highly compelling evidence, however, made even the slightest impact on BLM’s narrative regarding the Michael Brown case. Indeed, BLM owes much of its subsequent fame and influence directly to the massive publicity it gained as a result of the Brown shooting. As USA Today noted in August 2016: “Since police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown … in Ferguson, Mo., the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ have morphed from a public outcry into a national movement.”


Additional Resources

What Killed Michael Brown?
By The Daily Signal
October 30, 2020

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