On Friday afternoon, two of the leading contenders in the Democratic presidential primary lied. There’s no other fair way to put it. They flat-out spread fiction, libeled an innocent man, and stoked American divisions — all for political gain.
Five years ago, a Ferguson, Mo., police officer named Darren Wilson shot a young black man named Michael Brown to death after an altercation in the street. False rumors about Brown’s death — namely that he was shot in cold blood while trying to surrender with his hands in the air — ignited violent protests in Missouri and revulsion across the United States.
“Hands up, don’t shoot” became a national rallying cry — until the Obama Department of Justice comprehensively and thoroughly debunked it in a lengthy report published on March 4, 2015. Writing in December of the same year, the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler called the slogan one of “the biggest Pinocchios of the year.”
But Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren ignored the Obama DOJ. They blew straight through the facts of the case and published these accusations:
Michael Brown’s murder forever changed Ferguson and America. His tragic death sparked a desperately needed conversation and a nationwide movement. We must fight for stronger accountability and racial equity in our justice system.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) August 9, 2019
5 years ago Michael Brown was murdered by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael was unarmed yet he was shot 6 times. I stand with activists and organizers who continue the fight for justice for Michael. We must confront systemic racism and police violence head on.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) August 9, 2019
To demonstrate just how preposterous it is to accuse Wilson of murder, it’s worth revisiting the actual facts of the case, according to the best evidence available to the investigators. On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown and a friend were walking in the middle of the street shortly after Brown had stolen cigarillos from a local market and shoved away the store clerk when he tried to intervene.
When Wilson first spotted Brown and his friend, he told them to walk on the sidewalk. He then realized that they matched the description of the theft suspects and blocked their path with his vehicle.
Wilson tried to open his door, but it either bounced off Brown or Brown slammed it shut. Brown then reached into the vehicle and started punching Wilson. As Wilson fended off the blows, he reached for his gun. Brown allegedly tried to take the gun from Wilson, and Wilson managed to get a shot off, injuring Brown in the hand. Eyewitnesses corroborated Wilson’s claims that Brown was reaching in the car, and these claims were further corroborated by “bruising on Wilson’s jaw and scratches on his neck, the presence of Brown’s DNA on Wilson’s collar, shirt, and pants, and Wilson’s DNA on Brown’s palm.”
Brown then started to run away. After a brief pause Wilson pursued, ordering Brown to stop. Brown then turned back to Wilson and started running toward him. According to the report, “several witnesses stated that Brown appeared to pose a physical threat to Wilson as he moved toward Wilson.” Wilson fired again, striking Brown several times, yet Brown kept moving toward Wilson until the final shot hit him in the head, killing him.
The report’s conclusion was crystal clear:
Given that Wilson’s account is corroborated by physical evidence and that his perception of a threat posed by Brown is corroborated by other eyewitnesses, to include aspects of the testimony of [Brown’s friend], there is no credible evidence that Wilson willfully shot Brown as he was attempting to surrender or was otherwise not posing a threat. [Emphasis added.]
The report flatly declared that Wilson “did not act with the requisite criminal intent.”
“No credible evidence” is a powerful statement, but if you read the report, it’s a powerful statement based not just on extensive forensic evidence but also on the courageous testimony of witnesses who feared reprisal for speaking the truth. One witness, a 58-year-old black male, told prosecutors that there were signs in the neighborhood that said “Snitches get stitches.” Yet he spoke the truth anyway. Other witnesses overcame their fears and spoke the truth.
How do we have confidence that they spoke the truth? Because, as the report notes, their statements “have been materially consistent, are consistent with the physical evidence, and . . . are mutually corroborative.”
To be sure, there were other witnesses. Some neither incriminated him nor fully corroborated him. And there was an entire category of witnesses whose accounts were “inconsistent with the physical and forensic evidence,” the report noted, adding:
Some of those accounts are materially inconsistent with that witness’s own prior statements with no explanation, credible [or] otherwise, as to why those accounts changed over time. Certain other witnesses who originally stated Brown had his hands up in surrender recanted their original accounts, admitting that they did not witness the shooting or parts of it, despite what they initially reported either to federal or local law enforcement or to the media.
There are few more fraught issues in American public life than the question of police shootings — especially police shootings of black men. I’ve written about the issue time and time again and have come to believe not only that too many American police officers resort to deadly force too quickly but also that there is an unacceptable pro-police bias in our criminal-justice system. There is also evidence that race plays a more malignant role in policing than many of us hoped.
Indeed, while we must of course remember the DOJ’s report exonerating Darren Wilson, we should also remember that there was a second DOJ report in 2015 that found systematic misconduct at the Ferguson Police Department, misconduct that disproportionately affected Ferguson’s black citizens. I urge you to read both reports, and if you read the second report with an open mind, you’ll almost certainly come to believe that Ferguson’s black residents possessed legitimate grievances against their police department.
That’s the complicated nation we inhabit, but the complexity does not mean there aren’t simple obligations that attach to every politician, activist, and member of the media. And the simplest of those obligations is a commitment to the truth. We know that lies and falsehoods can cause riots. They can cause city blocks to burn. They can destroy a man’s life. At the very least, they can further embitter an already toxic public discourse. When issues are most fraught, the obligation of courageous, honest leadership is most imperative.
But Warren and Harris’s failure is more than a failure of leadership. The publication of a false accusation of a crime like murder is libelous under American law. In other words, their lies may well have been illegal. Democrats — especially Democrats who seek to address the very real challenges surrounding police violence in the United States — should demand better. Harris and Warren should do better. They should correct and retract their false statements. There is no excuse for their inflammatory lies.