A year after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked days of violent protests and helped launch the Black Lives Matter movement, views of the incident do not appear markedly different from the original snap opinions that were formed without much evidence.
Even as the facts cast doubt on the initial portrayal of an innocent black teenager gunned down with his hands in the air, protesters still invoke to this day the “Hands up, don’t shoot” posture.
“Black Lives Matter came from that case and came from a false narrative,” said Carol Swain, a professor at Vanderbilt University. “When the facts (showed) that they were false, people were not prepared to change their minds.”
Swain, who is black, said the Brown-as-innocent-victim portrayal served the interests of the Obama administration and other politicians who were eager to capitalize on it. Factual details become less important in that context, she said.
“I’ve been watching race relations for a long time. It’s often a false narrative,” she said. “It’s part of that old strategy (of) ‘never let a crisis go to waste even if you have to make up or distort the facts to keep the story going.’”
Certainly the demonstrators in Ferguson and elsewhere in St. Louis County have not changed their view. CNN reported that 200 protesters marched from Christ Church Cathedral to the Thomas F. Eagleton United States Courthouse this week on the anniversary of Brown’s shooting to demand action from the Justice Department. They hung a banner that read, “Racism still lives here #fightback.”
As shots rang out on Monday, St. Louis County declared a state of emergency.
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton told Fox News host Sean Hannity in December that she had not read the grand jury report. “That is not a concern,” she said.
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To Darrell Hudson, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, anger and frustration have survived the evolving “facts” in the Brown case because of long-lingering pressures.
“I think there are other issues at play, tensions that had been building up for some time,” he said. “I think some mistrust has built up.”
The Brown shooting may not have gone down as initially reported, Hudson said, but African Americans have witnessed aggressive patrolling and have been subject to disproportionate policing as detailed by a Justice Department report.
“Those things are real,” he said. “That seems to be something that hasn’t really stopped.”
Ian Reifowitz, a professor of historical studies at State University of New York-Empire College, agreed.
“It connects to these larger issues. It starts with this young man’s body lying on the ground for four hours,” he said. “Because it’s connected to this larger issue, it had resonance and relevance.”
According to an exhaustive grand jury report that accompanied the announcement clearing Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson of criminal wrongdoing, multiple witnesses testified that Brown, far from raising his hands in the air, charged the police officer and tried to get his gun. Forensic evidence seemed to back those accounts.
By the time those facts came to light months after Brown’s August 2014 death, he already had become a symbol, however. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton told Fox News host Sean Hannity in December that she had not read the grand jury report.
“That is not a concern,” she said at the time.
Hudson said it took much longer for the facts to come to light in the Brown case than some other high-profile police shootings over the past year. Even when they did, the absence of video evidence and conflicting eyewitness testimony allowed public opinion to harden, he added.
The absence of video evidence and conflicting eyewitness testimony allowed public opinion to harden.
He said that helps explain why Brown has remained a national symbol even when other, seemingly more sympathetic shooting victims have surfaced, such as Walter Scott — a South Carolina man shown on video running feebly away from a patrol car before the officer shot him in the back. The officer’s immediate arrest also meant it would not dominate the national conversation for weeks as the Brown case did.
Hudson said a history of mistrust between black residents and District Attorney Robert McCulloch led some to discount the voluminous grand jury report — nearly unprecedented in its release of normally secret testimony.
“People felt like something fishy was going on” when authorities did not immediately arrest the officer, he said. “I don’t think everyone is fully trusting of the court system and thinks that justice was served.”
Hudson also pointed to social media, which “got in front of the traditional media” and helped form public opinion before hard facts were available.
Reifowitz said the Brown shooting has gotten a great deal of attention because it was the first in a string of highly publicized incidents. But he said it does not necessarily hold greater importance to activists.
“My guess is some of the others do have more resonance in the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said. “I think the protests are about more than Michael Brown.”
Swain, the Vanderbilt professor, said Brown bears responsibility for his own actions. She said the same can be said for people who get arrested.
“The (disproportionate) incarceration rate is real, and so is the crime rate,” she said.
Of the Black Lives Matter activists, she said, “It seems they’re using Michael Brown to advance their agenda. It’s not good for race relations.”