Last week, I wrote about what I call the “color of life.” Specifically, I explored how we as a society draw conclusions about the death of a victim based on how we decided they lived.
I wrote about the disparities of how rigorously those deaths are investigated, prosecuted and sentenced based on their socio-economic and physical characteristics. I said plainly that our justice system has a race, a gender and an income and uses those things — consciously and unconsciously — to place a value on human life.
The same is true for American media and how we chose to cover those deaths — on the right and the left. All too often, personal ideology fueled by socialization is the determining factor.
That writing was never more relevant than it is this today. Put simply, we assign moral judgments based on that information and our ideological perspective, and that, in turn, forms our assessment of what justice — civil and criminal — looks like.
It also matters what the shooter is wearing — especially if it is a police uniform. Reasonable doubt almost always tilts in favor of those wearing blue. If you are shot by a police officer, rightly or wrongly, the assumption is you were doing something wrong. Your presumption of innocence evaporates. How you see this depends largely upon the quality of the relationship your community historically has had with law enforcement.
Yesterday morning, as Ferguson, MO police chief Tom Jackson stepped to the podium and released the name of the officer who shot 18 year old Michael Brown, for a moment, many felt some sense of relief. Local residents and reporters covering the incident had demanded transparency. However, Jackson’s stated timeline pointed to a “strong arm robbery” previously unreported by media and inferred that it led to Officer Darren Wilson confronting Brown on the street.
He took no questions.
In an information package given to attending press, Brown was named as a suspect in that robbery. Still photos taken from surveillance footage included show a large black man apparently committing an assault. Police say they identified that person as Brown after the shooting. Yesterday, the lawyer for 22-year-old Dorion Johnson — the second young man on the scene — said Johnson admitted to federal investigators that he was with Brown in the convenience store and that a pack of “rellos” was taken. I met and spent a great deal of time with Johnson and his lawyers, and I believe him — about the store encounter, about the shots fired.
It’s worth noting that it took nearly a week to receive this information. Transparency is not only about the integrity of content but the timing of its release.
What concerned me immediately was this: Did Wilson suspect Brown of the robbery when he saw him walking with Johnson and, if so, why were they simply told to get out of the street? Are those the words of a man who suspects that another has allegedly just committed a robbery and assaulted a store clerk? Furthermore, did Wilson radio dispatch about those suspicions prior to engaging Brown?
The answers to those questions came quickly. Chief Jackson said on camera in a second press conference today that Wilson did not know about the robbery and thus did not regard Brown as a suspect when he was stopped. They were stopped solely for jaywalking, according to Jackson.
The question then becomes: Why was information about the robbery released simultaneously with the officer’s identity if not to establish probable cause? Why was it worth knowing, if not to cast doubt on the morality of Brown? Did he steal from the store and push the clerk out of his way? Yes. Does that mean he was also hostile toward the officer? That is for a jury to decide. But Jackson clearly believed that assessment was better made by the general public without legal context. He blamed media inquiries for the release of the store tape.
However, a St. Louis-based attorney told me last evening that the surveillance video released was “non-responsive” to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or Sunshine Law requests generated by the media. Most tellingly, members of the press did not know about the robbery until yesterday morning when Jackson announced the timeline and did not specifically request any information associated with it. Brown is allegedly shown on the tape stealing the carton of cigars and shoving the cashier as he exited the store. Despite what Chief Tom Jackson said, according to the Mound City Bar Association, the FOIA requests were specific to the shooting incident. Further, CNN reported this morning that the tape was released over the clear objections of the Justice Department, which warned the information could renew tensions in Ferguson.
Unfortunately, they were right. Tensions flared again last evening, and some stores were looted. Peaceful protesters stood guard over many retail outlets in an attempt to hold the line. Community leaders and elected officials are now calling for Jackson’s resignation. Questions surrounding his motives for releasing the surveillance tape remain.
However, the real question is: Did Brown deserve a death sentence for jaywalking? What did he do, if anything, out there on Canfield Drive to spur the officer’s deadly response? It is worth knowing many shots were fired, from what distance and what was Brown doing when each of the shots was fired. Thanks to science and witnesses, this is knowable information. The answer means the difference between a “clean” shoot and a murder charge.
Despite the absence of an onboard dash camera, something else is knowable: The first shot came from inside the police car. According to police statements and independent eyewitnesses, there was a struggle. Brown was either attempting to get away or grab the officer’s gun when he was first shot. Wilson exited his vehicle and gave chase. A second volley of shots was fired as Brown ran away. Witnesses say Wilson was running and shooting. One bullet was found lodged in a neighbor’s apartment.
At least one bullet, I am told by lawyers connected with the case, hit Brown in the back.
Witnesses on the scene say Brown stopped, turned around and raised both hands in a universal sign of surrender. “I don’t have a gun,” he reportedly said. A third volley of shots was fired.
Brown was hit multiple times and died at the scene. He was unarmed.
Videotapes show Brown lying there in the street, uncovered, with no medical attention for hours. At some point, according to the incident report, an officer compared surveillance photos obtained from the store to Brown and determined he had committed the convenience store robbery. Despite official police statements, witnesses say rather than summon an ambulance, a black SUV arrived to take the body away. The officers on the scene, it should be noted, never checked for a weapon or to see if Brown was responsive. They knew Brown was unarmed. And they knew he was dead.
For those who had always believed Brown to be a “thug” and a “thief,” news of the robbery was all the validation needed. To hear them tell it, the African-American community has no right to be outraged with the lack of transparency in the shooting of an unarmed person when “black on black crime” is so prevalent. Such arguments are meant to deflect and marginalize. They are designed to protect a narrative that criminalizes black life and justify over-policing policies like stop-and-frisk.
Are there hustlers out there who use cases like this to further their own prominence and line their pockets? Sure. And there are just as many who make a living marketing racial animus cloaked in concern for the greater good. The sad fact is that business model works both ways. Both take advantage of confirmation bias, fanning the flames of our collective fears, imbued by socialization. I have little patience for either.
The fact is most crime is intra-racial. You are far more likely to be victimized by someone who looks like you.
If we accept that Brown was, in fact, the person captured on video stealing a $50 box of Swisher Sweets and pushing the clerk (and I do), does that justify his death? Does shoving a smaller, unarmed store clerk mean that you will attack a clearly armed and trained police officer? Does the tape justify the first shot, those that followed or the last?
If we accept each and every element as described by police as fact, what then justifies shooting Brown when he was standing with both hands in the air? Officer Wilson may never face charges in this case. Whether he faces a criminal trial and/or departmental discipline remains to be seen. Like Brown, Wilson deserves every legal benefit due process affords. If and when he does stand trial, he will be able to mount his own defense. He deserves to tell his side of the story, and he deserves an impartial, untainted jury — unsoiled by a video tape that was released outside of a courtroom and without context.
This we know: The trial of Michael Brown has already begun — only he is not here to defend himself.
Goldie Taylor is CEO of Faithful Moon Films, Columnist @theGrio.com and MSNBC Contributor.
Follow Ms. Taylor on Twitter: @goldietaylor