Politics & Policy

Anatomy of a Lie, According to Ferguson Witnesses

Demonstrators at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., November 25, 2014. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
How the hands-up meme began

When the details of the events in Ferguson, Mo., this year are long forgotten, one thing will remain: “Hands up, don’t shoot,” the potent slogan that has animated rioters in Ferguson, anti-Israel demonstrators in Oakland, and Occupiers in Manhattan. The meme has been taken up by professional-football players and federal legislators, by an activist organization (Hands Up United), and fashion designers. The words are powerful. They are also, according to the most reliable evidence, bogus.

One can hear the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative taking hold only minutes after Brown’s death, via cell-phone footage recorded by a local resident. “They say he had his hands up and everything, man,” says the amateur cameraman as he films Michael Brown’s body in the street shortly after the 18-year-old was shot and killed by Ferguson policeman Darren Wilson. “Said he had his hands up and everything. They still shot him. He fell on the ground, they stood over him and shot him some more. . . . That’s f****d up, man.”

The cameraman did not come up with the idea that Brown had been murdered; by the time he showed up on the scene (he says on camera that he was not an eyewitness), it appears to have already been common knowledge. So claimed multiple witnesses who testified before the St. Louis County grand jury.

According to Witness 14, who testified in late September, people gathered “from everywhere” in the moments after Michael Brown’s August death: “In a minute — in a minute maybe 20 or 30[,] about two minutes then three minutes it leads to be about 70 or 80, big group.” By that point, as the video indicates, a narrative had already crystallized: that Brown’s hands were raised, that he told Wilson “don’t shoot,” that he knelt down, that he was shot in the back. “None of those things happened; none of those things,” Witness 14 said. “They embellished it.” The witness added that “especially they started embellishing it when the stepfather showed up.” Louis Head’s penchant for inciting is well documented.

Witness 10 recounted a similar situation: “I was down on the scene maybe five to ten minutes. And just observing everything and how the uproar [came] about so quickly,” he told the grand jury. “It got so chaotic so quick, and [the] different point of views . . . didn’t add up to what I actually witnessed.” The witness recalled Dorian Johnson, Brown’s companion at the time of the shooting, saying, “‘They killed him’ . . . yelling it loud.” When Witness 10 countered that Brown had charged the officer, the crowd became verbally “violent,” he told the grand jury, attacking him with “racial slurs.” Witness 10’s testimony that Brown “ran towards the officer full charge,” and, after briefly halting, “started to charge once more at him,” conformed not only to Wilson’s account but to the physical evidence. Johnson’s testimony did not, though he told media outlets that Brown was “executed,” “like an animal.”

Witness 30, interviewed just days after the shooting, maintained that the officer “was just doing his job,” adding, “Look, I’m a felon. I don’t have any love to the police. . . . But what I saw, to me, appeared to be an officer taking down a gunman, in a crowded residential neighborhood, and before somebody else got hurt.” (The witness wrongly believed Brown was armed.) “Now I’ve heard lots of people talking about how he had his hands up,” he added. “He did not have his hands up.”

Given the physical evidence and those witness accounts that conform to it, it is clear that at least some “eyewitnesses” were nothing of the sort. Like so many in the crowd, they only repeated the false details Dorian Johnson, and perhaps others, put forward, encouraged by grief, racial tensions, political opportunism — and perhaps sheer boredom, as suggested Witness 14. For some they became confabulation, for others outright lies, but they were always fictions.

In Ferguson, the truth never made for a convenient slogan.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.


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