No, We Should Not “Respect The Grand Jury’s Findings”

Have you all read Darren Wilson’s testimony? Here’s his story: he drove up beside two young men and politely asked them to walk on the sidewalk. One of them said, “Fuck what you say.” So Wilson politely asked again and the young man again cursed. Wilson tried to get out of his car and the young man slammed the door shut on him and started punching him through the window. Then, that young man stopped punching Wilson for a moment, turned to his friend, and handed him the cigarillos he had just stolen from a convenience store, then went back to punching the cop. Then he got shot in the hand and fled, got shot some more, and then turned around, seemingly unharmed, and charged. Remember, this is a college-bound eighteen-year-old with no criminal record. Wilson told that story for the first time after three months, after consulting extensively with a lawyer. Read the transcript: the “prosecutors” sometimes prompted Wilson so he would testify in a way that satisfied the legal requirements of self defense.

Any sensible person reading that testimony should be suspicious of its truthfulness. An experienced trial lawyer (I say this because I am one), especially one in possession of a lot of contradictory evidence, should be able to tear a witness like that apart. Easily. But the prosecutors in this case just let Wilson say his piece, and chimed in to help him out (“So at that point, you were afraid for your life?”).

If you think that this process has yielded us reliable facts, it’s either because you desperately want to believe that, or because your personal experience is so removed from neighborhoods and people of color that you really don’t know what goes on. For the benefit of the latter group, let me point some things out:

I have lived in poor, predominantly non-white neighborhoods in New York, Boston, and Hartford for large portions of my life. I’ve also practiced criminal law for ten years. Something you almost *never* see is a cop politely asking a young man of color to do something. Police are trained to view poor neighborhoods as highly violent combat areas and to gain tactical advantage of every interaction. If I had to guess, Wilson probably said something along the lines of “get the fuck out of the street.” And I guarantee you that if Brown had said, “fuck what you say,” Wilson would not have politely asked again and then deliberately gotten out of his car.

But let’s talk about what Brown supposedly said. Contrary to popular belief, most people of color in this country tend to be wary and frightened of the police, and with good reason. And remember, Brown was, by all accounts, a basically good kid, who would have been schooled at home in how to talk to cops. (And before you say, he wasn’t a good kid because he stole Swisher Sweets and smoked weed, let me remind you that that is exactly what teenagers from all walks of life do; I am a well-respected lawyer, father of two, and more or less a pillar of my community, and when I was a teenager, I smoked weed and shoplifted.) The idea that Brown would have not just cursed at a cop, but done so twice and then started wailing on that cop is, to say the least, far-fetched.

And that part about stopping the punching to pass off the stolen smokes — doesn’t that strike you all as a little bit too convenient? Like, Wilson is just trying to get kids out of the street, and then, lo and behold, here’s perfect evidence that his assailant is also the suspect in a recent larceny! Plus, it requires us to believe that in the middle of doing something maniacal — savagely beating a cop for no reason — Brown had the presence of mind to pass off his cigarettes.

Compare all that to the story told by Dorian Johnson, who was right there: Wilson drove up and cursed at them. When they tried to explain themselves, Wilson opened the door to his car so violently that it bounced off Brown and shut again, after which time Wilson grabbed Brown through the window. If you’ve ever watched cops interact with young men of color in a minority neighborhood, that chain of events sounds plausible. I can look out my living room window on a summer weekend night and see cops grab people without even saying anything, spin them around, and cuff them, just to “secure a scene,” and then end up releasing all of them without charges once they figure out that everyone lives there and no one is trespassing.

Police come into minority neighborhoods trained for combat and carrying all the racist baggage that most white people have in this country without even realizing it. (If you don’t believe me, I can give you a wealth of scientific evidence that white people have strong subconscious fear reactions to the sight of black men, and are statistically more likely to assume black people’s guilt and criminality.)

So if you think this process was just, or that the outcome is presumptively reliable, you probably need to check your assumptions and think again.

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