The Michael Brown Shooting And The Militarization Of American Police
On Saturday, an 18 year old African-American man named Michael Brown, who was just days away from starting college, was shot to death by police on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, a predominantly African-American suburb of St. Louis. As often the case in these situations, the story about what actually happened has been conflicted and there has been little in the way of a public discussion of the facts of the events of August 9th. The police have released one statement about what happened, apparently based on what the officer involved in shooting said in which they claim that Brown, who everyone agrees was unarmed, got into an altercation with the officer, that Brown reached for his gun, and that’s when the shooting started. A friend who was with Brown at the time claims that the altercation started when the officer told the two of them to stop walking in the street, and then quickly escalated into a physical altercation during which the officer pulled his gun, and fired. Then, in what may be the most explosive part of the incident if it turns out to be accurate, Brown’s friend says this is what happened:
Brown and Johnson took off running together. There were three cars lined up along the side of the street. Johnson says he ducked behind the first car, whose two passengers were screaming. Crouching down a bit, he watched Brown run past.
“Keep running, bro!,” he said Brown yelled. Then Brown yelled it a second time. Those would be the last words Johnson’s friend, “Big Mike,” would ever say to him.
Brown made it past the third car. Then, “blam!” the officer took his second shot, striking Brown in the back. At that point, Johnson says Brown stopped, turned with his hands up and said “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!”
By that point, Johnson says the officer and Brown were face-to-face. The officer then fired several more shots. Johnson described watching Brown go from standing with his hands up to crumbling to the ground and curling into a fetal position.
“After seeing my friend get gunned down, my body just ran,” he said. He ran to his apartment nearby. Out of breath, shocked and afraid, Johnson says he went into the bathroom and vomited. Then he checked to make sure that he hadn’t also been shot.
Johnson and his attorney appeared on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes on Monday:
To date, Dorin Johnson has apparently not been questioned by investigators.
While the crisis in Iraq, the events in Ukraine, and the death of Robin Williams have dominated the news over the past several days, Ferguson has been in turmoil. There have been protests every day since Brown was killed and, perhaps inevitably, these protests have resulted in looting and damage to local businesses. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has responded to the events in Missouri by announcing that the FBI would be investigating the event, and local officials have essentially handed the matter over to the country for investigation at this point, although they are refusing to release the name of the officer involved in the shooting, citing safety concerns. They have also taken steps such as getting the FAA to declare a no-fly zone over the riot area, restrict journalists access to the area of town where the shooting occurred, and engaged in the kind of militarization that has become all too familiar in American law enforcement. At this point, it seems clear that the local law enforcement agency has lost the trust of the public and has little credibility in this matter. So, if the truth is ever going to come out about what happened on the afternoon of August it is going to have to come from other agencies.
As we sit here today we don’t know the truth about what happened on Saturday, but it does strike me that the police departments version of events doesn’t seem to add up. Other reports indicate that Brown was shot multiple times, and that he was shot while fleeing as Johnson’s account states, and that simply doesn’t add up if this really was a scuffle where Brown tried to reach for the officer’s gun as department claims. Indeed, if the account that Johnson gave is correct, then it would seem as though charges against this officer would be not only appropriate but absolutely necessary. Shooting an unarmed suspect who was trying to flee is generally not considered an acceptable use of force by a police officer, and that seems to be exactly what happened if Johnson’s version of events is accurate. Well beyond Brown’s shooting, though, this incident seems to have ignited something in the African-American community in Ferguson that has been brewing for a long time. Given the fact that 67% of the town is African-American, while 94% of the police force is white and African-Americans account for the vast majority of arrests, this is perhaps not surprising. This goes far beyond what happened to Michael Brown, and it’s not going to be solved merely by determining what happened in that case.
On a final note, this case and the public and police response to it has provided yet another example of the problems that have been created by the militarization of American police forces. The photograph above, for example, was taken during one of the daytime protests in Ferguson as an African-American man encountered police decked out in full riot gear. If I didn’t know the context, though, I could just as easily have assumed that it depicted something happening in Iraq, or Gaza, or Ukraine. Instead, it is yet another example of something that has become far too common in the United States. When the police come to view the public not as people the serve but as potential adversaries, then its inevitable that things like the Michael Brown shooting will happen. Add in the undeniable role that race plays in incidents like this, and you’ve got all the makings for the kind of conflagration that Ferguson has been dealing with for the past several days. In the end, fixing this will require a lot of work, but it can start with an independent investigation of the shooting and, if appropriate, prosecution of the officer involved. Justice would demand nothing less.