Some of what you’ve heard about the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., is incorrect. Some of what you’ve heard is correct, and chilling.
Trouble is, we don’t yet know enough of what occurred Aug. 9 in that St. Louis suburb to adequately separate fact from rapidly widespread fiction. Nor do we know enough to pass judgment on Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot him, or on others who were directly involved in this volatile episode.
In a better world, all of us who want justice done would be pressing for hard facts, evaluating eyewitness and official accounts — and suspending judgment until we know as much as we can. But that clearheaded methodology demands more patience, more suppression of preconceived notions, than we can muster. The human mind craves a plotline that pulls dots of information into a mosaic — a plotline that brings comforting order to troubling ambiguity.
Fortunately, the eventual disclosure of facts often mocks these declarations. We’d bet that within days, weeks, months, we’ll all learn facts that disprove some of the facile judgments now passing for knowledgeable commentary about this case. One example of how time can bring clarity:
We were struck early on by the fast framing of this story. Those accounts had Brown, hands raised as if in surrender, being shot in the back. Reports Monday said the two autopsies performed to date have all of the bullets striking from the front. Was Brown surrendering to Wilson? Charging Wilson? Something else?
The answer could hardly be more crucial. Yet all we can say for certain is that this early framing of Brown’s death as a street execution has played a powerful role in forming Americans’ attitudes.
Actually, we can say something else for certain: Some opportunists are busy hijacking Ferguson. Our list includes looters and others who’ve thrown Molotov cocktails and fired guns — violent acts that undermined the admirable and restrained calls for peace and justice that protesters, church congregations and many residents of Ferguson have requested of us all.
Whenever Ferguson does again have a sense of peace and justice, there’s a debate to be had over what’s being called the militarization of U.S. police departments in the dozen years since 9/11. Chilling photographs of officers uniformed in camouflage and pointing rifles at people in Ferguson has energized the broader liberal and libertarian argument that police agencies have too much firepower. To which conservatives are retorting: When an emergency erupts, police have to be prepared for whatever happens next; they can’t let crowds destroy businesses and then plead that they didn’t expect a protest to turn violent. Our own view is that it’s wise for authorities to have the equipment that allows them to restore order; the question here is whether — at the moment the equipment was deployed — that was a reasonable response to the evident threat.
Determining reasonable responses, of course, requires that all of us work from reliable information. That’s been difficult. With each night’s outbursts in Ferguson, Twitter and other social-media streams have brought events on the streets to the screens of followers everywhere. If you cannot get enough, then you see this chiefly as a wonderful new means of instant communication. If, though, you want confirmed facts and context so you can assess public policy, then you see this surge of social media as a scale on which immediacy and accuracy are never quite balanced. Ask the Huffington Post reporter who, in one heated moment, distributed a photo of what he thought were rubber bullets, but which turned out to be … earplugs. (The reporter’s subsequent apology couldn’t fully repair his credibility.)
The opaque nature of this tragic death invited mistakes and misstatements: Other than Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, few if any other individuals knew exactly what was happening; most of what we’ve all heard comes from people who weren’t there and are relaying accounts that are, at best, secondhand.
The flip side of what’s hard to assess — that is, what occurred between an officer and a young man when few people were around — was the first official response to the ensuing rioting: an increasingly intimidating police presence, unleavened by an explanation of what authorities already knew about the incident. The police would say their first priority was to protect Ferguson; more transparency might well have defused anger in the streets.
Much as all of us would like to have every answer today, the people of Missouri have a criminal-justice system that will try to sort out what occurred in Ferguson on Aug. 9. Our system offers no guarantee that it will uncover the full truth or yield perfect justice. But it’s our best hope for both.