Politics & Policy

Not Every American Shot by the Police Is Michael Brown

Protesters confront police in St. Louis, Mo.
The rush to proclaim “another Ferguson” is too hasty.

Last night, as social media buzzed with the news that a black teenager had been shot dead by police a few miles from Ferguson, Mo., the protests began all over again. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, these killer cops have got to go,” the crowd sang, smashing police cars, castigating cops, and threatening civil disobedience. “That was somebody’s baby,” one main screamed plaintively. “Think about your own child,” shouted another. Yet more reclaimed a familiar chant: “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

Taken literally, none of these statements is offensive. Certainly, “killer cops” have “got to go” — at least, they have “got to go” if they have been proven to have indiscriminately, gratuitously, or illegally slain those whom they were charged with protecting. Certainly, too, every person who has ever walked the earth is “somebody’s baby.” But, despite the media frenzy that accompanied the rumors, the outrage struck me as being rather rash. Because police occupy a powerful position within our social and political order, our scrutiny of them must, by habit, be relentless and thorough. Nevertheless, we surely cannot afford to reach a point at which it is presumed as a matter of course that all bloodshed is unnecessary, that each official report hides a conspiracy, and that every incident in which a white police officer shoots a black citizen is indicative of latent racial animosity. Is every episode in Missouri to be a replay of Ferguson?

Unless we wish to diminish the impact of that moment, I would hope not. Michael Brown’s case was nationally compelling because its most crucial details were unknown and because, in consequence, it became a Rorschach test onto which a nation’s resentments, suspicions, prejudices, reflexes, hopes, fears, and, yes, broader political worldviews, could be grafted. It was crucial that the accusations of the Ferguson community be taken seriously because those accusations were extremely grave, because nobody had a clue as to their veracity, and because the city seemed to be doing everything that it could to sow mistrust and confusion among its residents. Now, as then, I have no idea what really happened between Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. But I do know that, if the eyewitnesses who cried foul turn out to be correct, the crime will have been a serious one and the wounds that it will have re-opened will be deep and wide. Did pretty much everybody involved behave badly in the aftermath? Absolutely. But was there ample cause for suspicion? Yes, I think there was.

It is natural, of course, for human beings to look for patterns. But, leaving to one side the largely irrelevant question of proximity, the notion that there are any real parallels between the shootings in Ferguson and in St. Louis simply does not seem to be supported by the evidence. For a start, an account of events was immediately issued by authorities — and, prima facie, it seems credible. Per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said the officer was off-duty, working a secondary job for a private security company patrolling the Shaw neighborhood, when he chased and fatally shot an 18-year-old male Wednesday night who came at him aggressively in a gangway.

The teen had a gun and fired at least three shots at the officer, who returned fire, the chief said. The teenager attempted to fire more but his gun jammed, Dotson said.

The officer was unhurt. The officer fired 17 times, Dotson said. It is unclear how many times the teenager was struck.

“A forensics search” of the scene, the paper confirmed, “located three projectiles that had been fired at the officer.” A “9mm Ruger handgun” was also found. In a midnight press conference, St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson informed reporters that there were “three projectiles that we recovered with trajectories going towards the officer, down the hill, and one piece of ballistic evidence located behind the officer.” “At that point,” Dotson claims, “the officer returned fire.” At the time that he died, the suspect, 18-year-old Vonderrit Myers Jr., was wearing an ankle bracelet, waiting to be tried on suspicion of “unlawful use of a weapon and resisting arrest.”

This account is disputed by the victim’s family and friends, who have claimed variously that the suspect was either “unarmed” or that he had been carrying only “a sandwich in his hand”; that “security was supposedly searching for someone” other than Myers; that the involved officer at first “tased” Myers without provocation (police claim that the officer did not possess a Taser) and then “went off and shot him 16 times” — an act of “outright murder”; and that the police had likely contrived to “plant a gun on him.”

As always, I don’t know the answer here. But, given the nature of these competing accounts, it seems something of a stretch to compare this incident to the shooting of Michael Brown, does it not? In Brown’s case, the essential claims were a) that a white cop had been unforgivably trigger-happy and gunned down a black teenager who had turned out, indisputably, to be unarmed; b) that the city had been shifty and unreliable in its response, consistently failing to provide vital information to the public; and c) that both the lack of available evidence and the conflicting eyewitness reports worked to the advantage of authorities, rendering the skeptics powerless. In consequence, critics charged (prematurely), the incident demonstrated neatly that black life was regarded by authorities as being inherently expendable. In Myers’s case, by considerable contrast, the claim is not so much that the St. Louis cops are overzealous or that the deceased was engaged too soon or that the powers-that-be are dragging their heels, but that a law-enforcement officer tased and then executed a perfect stranger, planted a gun on him, and conspired with his department to fake the forensics.

That the police account may be in some way either unreliable or self-serving is not beyond the realm of possibility. As anybody who is paying attention knows, governments lie all the time. Nevertheless, what the family is accusing law enforcement of doing is wild enough to compel circumspection. Customarily, sober people do not contrive, accept, and violently protest about conspiracy theories of this magnitude in the space of a few hours. Why not? Well, in large part because the risk of crying wolf is so great as to make impulsive behavior unappealing. Frankly, for bystanders in St. Louis to have so hastily and casually linked the incident to the events in Ferguson was both irresponsible and counterproductive, their urgency having likely served only to dilute the concern that so many felt in the wake of Michael Brown’s death and to conflate important issues in the eyes of a now skeptical public. Striking a measured tone, St. Louis alderman Antonio French tweeted yesterday from “the scene of yet another young man’s death.” “This happens too often in our city,” he wrote, and “it’s a crisis that we should all be concerned about.” Indeed we should, whatever the facts of the case. But not all cities are Ferguson, not every dead American is Michael Brown, and we are no less obliged today than yesterday to wait before raising our fists into the air.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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