Why Ferguson is Important

A young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, by the name of Michael Brown, got into a scuffle with a police officer and was shot and killed by that officer. On the surface, this sounds like a purely local story. After all, average folks don’t get into scuffles with police officers. Those that do, are asking for trouble, right?

But focusing on the scuffle misses a key issue. That issue is what happened after the scuffle. At least two eye witnesses to the killing say that after the scuffle, Brown was at least 20 feet away from the officer and posed no threat to that officer. It was at that moment that the police officer shot Brown at least four times, with at least one shot to the forehead as Brown faced the ground. In other words, Brown was executed. And if Brown was executed by a police officer, we have a system breakdown. Like a plane crash. Something that needs to be dissected and understood so that it does not happen again.

And this is why the story affects folks beyond Ferguson itself. As we read about what happened, we have to make a choice. Either this is a case the requires a local investigation of whether an individual police officer acted reasonably (weighing how much danger the officer perceived he was in when he acted) or this is a case requiring a more broad investigation whether police officers are acting without reasonable constraint at all and may to do so again at will.

From this perspective, national news reporting about the incident has been critical. First, the reporting has brought attention to the extent of the community anger. Seeing it over several weeks, one has to wonder, “why are these people so angry?” it was at least in part due to the excessive use of force to stop protests. But we find out that it is more than that. There is a history here that we do not know. Second, the reporting brings out eye witness stories about what happened. And at least some of these stories are consistent about how Brown died. He was shot multiple times AFTER the scuffle with the police officer was over.

And now we have a wrinkle to the story that needs to be fleshed out. We also have media stories that suggest the eye witness stories are inconsistent. Remember – at least two identified eye witnesses say Brown did nothing to provoke the multiple shots that killed him. They are consistent in this critical detail. Here is another version

According to (other accounts), Brown and his friend … fled and were pursued by Wilson, and asked to stop. When Brown turned around, he began taunting Wilson and then charged him at full speed. Wilson then fired on Brown, killing him. The New York Times reports that, according to investigators, “some witnesses” have backed up the account, but the paper gave no further details. (emphasis added)

Very interesting. The first story that Brown posed no threat came directly from known sources. Real people. So who is behind this second version? Apparently it comes from police investigators. BTW, we might also take note that apparently, Officer Wilson did not file an incident report after killing Brown. In other words, we have no documentation here from the police. This is in itself a matter of concern.

MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell challenged the NYT to reveal what the witnesses behind the second version actually said.  NYT has not produced that back up, and instead the NYT public investigator criticized the NYT reporting.

See the problem? O’Donnell makes the point that the stories from identified eye witnesses are consistent in what happened after the police scuffle. If there are other versions about what happened after the scuffle, we need to understand exactly what they are rather than accept a summation which is apparently from the police. It is a crucial point for the rest of us to decide how deep this rabbit hole goes.

Let’s put this another way. One need not be an advocate for racial justice to have an interest in understanding whether police are constrained by rules or have gone rogue.

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