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Member since: Tue Nov 16, 2004, 03:14 PM
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Ferguson: an alternative narrative

Having read the grand jury testimony given by both Dorian Johnson and Darren Wilson, I have considered the narrative of events given by both men, and found that there are numerous questions remaining which Mr. Wilson's narrative does not address. I would like to offer an alternative account of the "altercation" that makes more sense to me. This account will make use of parts of both Johnson's and Wilson's testimony.

Johnson and Brown first come to the attention of Ofr. Wilson when they are walking down the middle of Canfield Dr. If Wilson had suspected them of involvement in the incident at the quick mart, he would not have greeted them by ordering them to "Get the fuck on the sidewalk," as Mr. Johnson reports. Wilson emphasizes several important points in his narrative, but never says he was planning to arrest them on suspicion of robbery or shoplifting. He simply didn't know about the events at the quick mart when he observed them jaywalking. So, according to Johnson, he ordered them onto the sidewalk vulgarly, and it appears Wilson expected instant obedience. Because as Johnson reports, after driving on, he stopped, reversed the car, and backed up so close to them that he nearly hit both of them, He then attempted to exit the car, only to find that he was too close to Brown to get the car door open far enough to get out. Wilson was annoyed to find them in the street to begin with, and he was getting angry when they did not instantly remove themselves to the sidewalk. I suggest that when he found he could not exit his own car, he got seriously ticked off.

It is at this point that the two men's accounts begin to diverge. Wilson says Brown reaches into his cruiser, punches him a couple of times, and makes an attempt to turn Wilson's gun (which has suddenly appeared in his right hand) upon Wilson himself. Johnson says Wilson reached out of the car with at least one hand, his left, grabs Brown by the shirt and arm, and attempts to pull Brown's head inside the car. Brown then, according to Johnson, plants both hands on the door frame, one at the front of the window, and one on the top of the door where it meets the roof. One of Brown's hands is still gripping a handful of cigarillos, according to both Johnson and Wilson. And also according Johnson, the struggle was inconclusive--Wilson couldn't get Brown's head into the car and Brown couldn't pull himself away from Wilson's grip on his shirt. Johnson reports curses flying during this struggle, but quotes neither of the combatants directly.

I would like to suggest that Ofr. Wilson started annoyed, got really irritated, got really angry, escalated the emotional level of the encounter right into rage, and that perhaps at that point he drew his gun. In grand jury testimony, he recounts his decisions not to use his night stick or his mace, but he is never asked why he doesn't simply put his car in drive and idle a few feet forward. This would have dislodged Mr. Brown quickly, and Wilson could have followed up by driving off to a secure location and requesting backup in arresting Brown for assaulting an officer.

Of course, Wilson would be reluctant to do that if Johnson's account is accurate and it was Wilson who picked the fight, threatened both Brown and Johnson, and then assaulted Brown. After he had his gun out, he shot Mr. Brown, and perhaps his own car. There is an account of a bullet going through the door of the police cruiser and shattering the window glass inside the door, causing a shower of glass to exit the gap. Now, I have a vague impression that it may be procedurally forbidden for an officer to discharge a firearm in his own car. Whether that's true or not, Ofr. Wilson, once he had shot Mr. Brown, is in a bad place, as regards his career. He has shot a person who was certainly jaywalking, but both Brown and Johnson can testify as to who started the physical tussle that followed. I suggest that Ofr. Wilson may see his career going down the tubes as he tries to decide what to do next.

He could still, at this point, have put his car in gear, driven to a secure location, and sent for backup to arrest Mr. Brown for assaulting a police officer. Brown was wounded but able to run almost 150 feet before turning to face his assailant. But at that point Wilson has two witnesses still alive, Brown and Johnson, who may tell a different story from Wilson's. In Ferguson, who knows whether they will be believed, but it seems at least possible that Wilson was trying to save his career when he decided to finish Brown off with his remaining bullets. Johnson was hiding behind a car by then, and there were two people in the car, who drove off soon after Johnson asked for a lift to a safer location.

If this scenario has credibility, it would indicate that Wilson was both fearful and angry. I question whether Wilson feared Brown at the end of the encounter, or his own superiors, who would cover for him, but could not really change the fact that a stop of two citizens for jaywalking had resulted in one of the jaywalkers dead of six bullet wounds. At the start of the altercation, Ofr. Wilson had a police cruiser, a night stick, a radio, a can of mace, and a service weapon. He ended it with the cruiser, somewhat wounded, the mace and club unused, the radio unused, and the gun empty. And one of the jaywalkers dead.

As Frank Serpico has been telling us since the 1970s, police departments function behind a blue wall of absolute solidarity with each other. In the Ferguson case, Ofr. Wilson was protected from close scrutiny of his actions by the police-AG team. The fact that he resigned soon after the grand jury verdict without retirement benefits may indicate his department's attitude as to how much protection they wanted to give him.

Justice is not possible for Michael Brown, nor his parents, nor his fellow citizens

Justice is an abstraction, which is to say it is not found in nature. It does not flower on a stem, or carpet a field, or sink roots and grow branches. When we speak about justice in human affairs, we mean some degree of fairness -- if a company or person has stolen our money or our health, a fair trial of the matter can compensate us for the money, and offer some compensation for the loss of our health. But in a case of murder, compensation is not possible. We cannot give life back to its owner. The life of a human being is gone, we know not where. The Christian religions believe in a life after death, of course, but its existence is unproven. As far as human knowledge reaches, this life is what we certainly have, and it may be all we have. If we bring a charge of murder against Officer Wilson, we can deprive him of liberty, and in some states deprive him of life. But none of this replaces or compensates Michael Brown, or his family or his fellow citizens.

We can all easily imagine the deprivation his family feels: all the attention and love of raising him through high school is now wasted. He will not complete a technical course in college and become a plumber or electrician. He will never decide that he needs a business course to go with his plumbing experience and start his own business, which will employ several more plumbers. He will never marry and become the father of adorable grandchildren (although I have none, I'm reliably informed that all grandchildren are adorable). He will pay no more sales tax, no income tax or corporate tax. He will cast no votes. He will never become a backyard barbecue expert or learn enough carpentry so that he can add a room to his house to accommodate a growing family. He will never sing in his church's choir or a barbershop quartet or take up needlepoint. All that he might have done is gone with him. No justice is possible.

So Michael's parents can't hope for justice. They will settle, as Trayvon Martin's parents have, for working to reduce the chances that other boys' parents will suffer what they have. It's good of them. Very good of them. But it's not justice.

Something has to be done about the way Michael Johnson died. Officer Wilson recognized some of the implications of what he had done very soon after he did it. Hence his absence from the scene at the moment. But he will have to come back. He might have started with a moment of temper, during which he made a mistake. But somewhere between the second and the sixth shots, it stopped being a mistake and became, under the law of our land, murder. Clearly America's police forces aren't accustomed to thinking of themselves as capable of crimes, much less capital crimes. It is good that the FBI and the U.S. Attorney General are taking an interest in the case, and I hope their efforts will produce some semblance of accountability. But that won't be justice for Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, or the hundreds or thousands of other black citizens whose lives have been cut short because of America's endemic racism.

The only objective that even exists in the same universe as justice is to make damn good and sure it never happens again.

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