Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Blog Post Where I Weigh In On The Ferguson Thing

So I have pretty much kept my opinions to myself on this whole Ferguson thing, which (you're probably thinking) is rather unusual for me.  But I finally decided it was time for me to break my silence.

On the one hand, you have supporters of the victim, Michael Brown, portraying the event as the cold-blooded murder of an unarmed black teenager by a racist white cop.  On the other hand, you have supporters of the cop, Darren Wilson, calling it justified self-defense and even disparaging Brown by calling him a thug who got what was coming to him.

My opinion is that both sides are woefully out of touch with reality.  Let's talk about Michael Brown first.

Michael Brown was 18 years old and had recently earned a high school diploma.  A teenager, yes.  But also an adult under the law.  Constantly referring to him as a teenager gives the impression that he was a child, like Trayvon Martin, rather than an actual adult, which is what he was.  I've even seen him specifically referred to as a child by supporters.  One witness consistently called him a "kid" during her interviews.  He was, in fact, a 6'4", 250-pound adult.  Many of the pictures shown of him by supporters depict him several years younger than he was at the time of the shooting.    

Despite a lot of claims by racists and others with a tendency toward extreme views, it is not known if Brown had criminal record prior to this event.  A judge refused to release his juvenile record, but did note that he had no felony complaints against him (she could provide that information because felony juvenile records are not protected by Missouri juvenile privacy laws).  So while we know he was never charged with a felony, we do not know if he had misdemeanor charges against him in his past.

We do, however, know that he had robbed a convenience store just minutes before his death.  This was caught on video and is undisputed.  In it, he is seen "strong-arming" a clerk while stealing a handful of cigars.  Supporters have said this is an irrelevant smear campaign.  It's not.  It gives a vital indication of the kind of person Michael Brown was capable of being in the right circumstances.  It proves he was not always the "gentle giant" he was described by acquaintances as being.  He was, in fact, capable of aggressive and violent behavior, and the fact that he had just engaged in this sort of behavior minutes before the confrontation with Wilson is important.  It shows the frame of mind he was in at the time.

Now let's talk about Darren Wilson.  Wilson was a 5-year veteran of the police force and had never had any complaints against him.  He is also 6'4" but quite a bit thinner than Brown was, at only 210 pounds.  Right before his confrontation with Brown, he got word of the convenience store robbery.  The robbery, however, is not why he confronted Brown.  He stopped Brown for a different reason, but, upon seeing cigars in his hand, realized he was probably the suspect in the robbery.

Here is what we know happened, based on undisputed facts.  Brown and his friend, following the robbery, were walking down the middle of a city street.  Wilson drove by, rolled down his window, and told them to get on the sidewalk.  Claiming they were almost to their destination, they refused.  Wilson then stopped his vehicle and backed up to block their path.  At this point a scuffle ensued between Brown, standing at the SUV window, and Wilson, still sitting inside the car, trying to open the door.  Witnesses differed as to the nature of the scuffle (who started it and what actually went on), but eventually, Wilson drew his gun and fired a shot, which hit Brown in the hand.

After the shot, Brown and his friend (who was apparently just watching) ran in opposite directions, and Wilson started chasing Brown.  What happened next is impossible to know for certain, because the only reports we have are Wilson's and a bunch of conflicting eyewitness accounts.  Wilson says he told Brown to stop and get on the ground numerous times.  Some witnesses corroborated this story.  Wilson then says Brown stopped, turned around, and started running towards him like he was going to attack him.  He had one hand at his waistband, under his shirt, as if going for a gun.  That's when Wilson fired again, hitting Brown several times and killing him.  The trajectory of the final, and killing, shot through the top of the skull indicates Brown was either falling, or ducking his head in a charge, when that last shot was fired.

Some witnesses say Wilson fired before Brown turned around, and those shots are why Brown turned and starting moving toward Wilson.  Some also claimed Brown was hit in the back by these shots, though the autopsy proved that wasn't true.  Some witnesses also claimed that when Brown turned around and started moving toward Wilson, his hands were raised and he was telling Wilson to stop shooting and telling him he wasn't armed.  Wilson disputes this, and some other witnesses also did not see Brown's arms raised in surrender.  One witness corroborated Wilson's account that Brown had his arms down, with his hand under his shirt, though this witness described Brown as being "balled up" rather than going for a gun.  Another witness said Brown's hands were up momentarily, but then he lowered them and began moving forward.  

Most every witness agreed that Brown was not charging Wilson, but walking and stumbling forward as Wilson shot at him.

So what are we to make of all this?  My opinion is that a young man lost his life, and that's a tragedy.  It's also my opinion that Officer Wilson probably overreacted in the heat of the moment and kept shooting when he could have reasonably stopped.  But to suggest that Brown was an innocent victim of a brutal murder by an unconscionable police officer is ludicrous.  Not one single solitary fact of the case suggests such a conclusion.

We know that Brown was capable of aggressive and even violent behavior.  He had just displayed such behavior minutes before the run-in with Wilson.  We also know that he and his friend, after robbing a convenience store, started strolling down the middle of a city street.  Additionally, we know he refused a reasonable police order to get out of the middle of the street.  Finally, regardless of who started it or what exactly transpired during the scuffle, we also know that he got into a physical altercation with a police officer and punched him at least once, as Wilson was diagnosed at a hospital later with a large bruise to his face.

When you make a series of choices like that, you are taking a very big risk of getting shot.  Any reasonable person would know and understand that.  Finally, we know that after Wilson fired the shot from the police SUV, Brown turned and ran off.  Again, any reasonable person understands that after you have just physically scuffled with a police officer, and that officer has fired a gun at you, it's probably a good idea to go ahead and get on the ground and stop resisting arrest.  Running is a really bad idea.  So is refusing to get on the ground when the officer tells you to do so.

What it boils down to is that every single choice Michael Brown made that day was the wrong choice.  His series of bad choices led directly to his death.  It is a tragic situation and Brown certainly did not deserve to die because of his actions that day.  But sometimes bad things happen to you when you make bad choices.  If Wilson had been a better cop, if he'd had more control of himself and of his emotions, Brown might still be alive.  The witness accounts do not corroborate Wilson's story that Brown charged at him.  Wilson's adrenaline was up and he was in a state of panic and clearly misinterpreted Brown's actions.  But then again, if Brown had done what a reasonable person would have done - lay on the ground and submit - I'm certain Wilson wouldn't have kept shooting.  There is no reason to suppose Wilson just decided he was going to murder an unarmed black guy that day.

And that's another thing that is worth noting...virtually every media report on this situation consistently refers to Brown as an "unarmed black teenager."  I've already noted why consistently calling him a teenager makes him sound younger than he was.  It's also totally irrelevant that he was unarmed.  A suspect doesn't have to be armed in order to be justifiably shot by a police officer.  If Wilson's story is true, and Brown was the aggressor who started the physical confrontation with the cop, punched him, and went for his gun, then he was totally within his legal right to shoot Brown.  Brown being unarmed doesn't mean anything.  Consider a burglar who breaks into a house and gets shot.  After the fact, would it matter if the burglar was unarmed at the time?

Supporters of Brown have painted Wilson like the aggressor, saying his story is a lie and that he's the one who grabbed Brown and pulled him toward the car and started the fight, then gunned him down as he ran off.  The facts of the case simply don't support this story (consider, for instance, the contusion to Wilson's cheek from a thrown punch, the wound to Brown's hand by the first shot, indicating his hand was on the gun when the shot was fired, no wounds to Brown's back, and front-side wounds consistent with a person who was moving forward at the time of the shots, etc.)

What's more likely, that a cop with no history of complaints against him suddenly one afternoon decided to assault a black person who pissed him off, then ultimately gunned him down in cold blood, or that the perpetrator of a strong-arm robbery who refused a police order to get out of the middle of the street actually started the physical confrontation that ultimately led to his death?

Even if that's not what happened...even if Wilson DID start the altercation...Brown doesn't get the benefit of the doubt because of the series of bad choices he made that afternoon.  This is why you don't rob convenience stores, refuse police orders, punch cops, and then run away.  It makes you look bad and it makes people assume you were the aggressor.

This is one of the reasons why I have said, since the start of this whole thing in August, that Brown is not a good figure for the black community, or the liberal community, to be rallying around.  Trayvon Martin was a true innocent victim of murder by an emotionally unstable racist.  Brown almost certainly wasn't, and even if he was, his series of bad choices certainly contributed to his own death.

I do believe that police officers are too quick to assume violence and weapons when it's a black guy versus a white guy.  I do believe that racial issues are still a problem in America's police departments.  These are issues we need to keep addressing, and if Brown's death can help us address those better, then his death doesn't have to be in vain.  But to portray his death as the brutal murder of an innocent black kid is unreasonable and unfair and only serves to polarize the country even further.  

I think the grand jury made the right choice.  There is no reason to distrust Wilson's account, and the eyewitness accounts were conflicting on many points.  Furthermore, several of the eyewitness accounts have changed several times in the retelling, hurting their credibility.  Even if Wilson did act rashly, there was simply not enough evidence to suggest probable cause for charging him.  If they had charged him, millions would have been spent in the prosecution, and there is virtually no chance he would have been convicted.

To finish up, here's my reconstruction, based on the evidence, of what I think happened.

Brown and his friend robbed the store.  They then began walking down the middle of the street, heading somewhere to smoke their cigars they had just stolen.  A cop told them to get out of the middle of the street.  Being brash, urban young men, they decided the cop's instruction wasn't fair, and refused.  The cop got mad, maybe more mad than he should have, slammed on his brakes, and backed up quickly across their path.

This pissed them off because they felt like it was unnecessarily aggressive.  Brown now found himself at the door of the SUV, and his blood was boiling because he could have been hit by the moving vehicle.  In anger, he lashed out at the cop, pushing the door closed as the cop tried to get out of the car.  A scuffle through the window then ensued, with Brown, in a fit of anger, throwing punches.  Maybe he went for the gun, maybe he didn't, but Wilson THOUGHT he was going for the gun, so he drew and fired, hitting Brown in the hand.

Brown then ran off in a panic, but another shot or two that buzzed by him caused him to turn around and raise his hands.  His hand, however, was throbbing from where it had just been hit by the shot from the car, so he dropped his hands down to his waist to hug it close to himself.  Rather than get on the ground, as Wilson was telling him to do, he started moving forward.  Maybe by that time he didn't even really realize what he was doing; he was just acting on instinct.  Wilson, because he was panicking and making false assumptions about a big black guy who had just assaulted him, mistook Brown's movement forward with arms down as more aggression, and fired again, thinking Brown was going for a gun at his waistband.  As Brown stumbled from the shots hitting his arm, his head went down and the final shot went through his skull, killing him.