Public Editor

The danger in Ferguson commentaries

Michael Brown, left, and Darren Wilson, right.
Michael Brown, left, and Darren Wilson, right. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

I wasn’t on that street in Ferguson, Mo., on the hot August day when police officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown to death.

And unless you are one of a tiny number of people, neither were you. Almost nobody on the planet knows exactly how the struggle between the two unfolded.

We do have a large number of documents that were presented to the grand jury that declined to indict Wilson (though not the FBI interview with Dorian Johnson, Brown’s friend who was with him at the time of the shooting — an omission that ought to pique anyone’s curiosity).

From these often-conflicting accounts, people can piece together roughly what seems to have happened. There was struggle at the police vehicle, where Wilson shot Brown in the hand. Brown then fled down the street and Wilson pursued him. Brown was killed after Wilson hit him with seven or eight shots, out of many more fired.

There is immense room here for individuals to piece together their own narratives. We know what Wilson said. We haven’t yet been able to read Johnson’s version of events. And we will never know how Brown perceived what happened.

I see plenty of reason to doubt Wilson’s claims about the severity of his injuries from the teenager he described as a “demon.” And it’s also obvious to me that many of the “witnesses” who claimed firsthand knowledge of the incident weren’t really there, or inaccurately described what they saw.

Eyewitness testimony is notoriously suspect, even from the people directly involved in events. When in the middle of a violent altercation such as this, adrenaline and emotion cloud memories.

The majority of punditry I’ve read in The Star and elsewhere, and the comments I’ve heard from readers, have taken a rather binary view of the situation. I’ve lost count of how many people have wanted The Star to stress that if Brown hadn’t robbed a convenience store, prompting the call to the police, none of this would have happened. (Many have also alleged the robbery was never reported in The Star — a concrete falsehood. It’s also worth noting that Wilson was not responding to the robbery report.)

And on the other hand, many readers want The Star to cover the story as a simple matter of police oppression and brutality as a matter of routine business. They want to underline that black people often feel unfairly targeted by law enforcement all day, every day.

I have heard numerous rote denouncements on both sides, in other words.

Again, I didn’t see it. You didn’t either. And that’s a problem when it comes to the endless commentary the case has produced, much of which has introduced narrative elements into the timeline that nobody can verify.

Numerous readers have objected to a Midwest Voices column that ran in the print edition Saturday. In it, Melvina Johnson Young passionately and personally explains the special anguish felt by black parents in the wake of the high-profile deaths of three black men at the hands of law enforcement in recent weeks.

Her point of view is one that people who aren’t black need to listen to and at least try to understand. We all experience events differently, and the purpose of commentary is to help those outside our own experiences see things through our eyes. That’s especially important for those who aren’t members of minority groups.

Young’s detractors have seized on one bit of wording that should have been avoided in the original version: “A cop shoots a fleeing, unarmed teen.” There is no question Brown was unarmed. He also appears to have fled from Wilson after the initial scuffle at the vehicle.

But according to the autopsies on Brown’s body, none of the shots Wilson fired hit him in the back. To Wilson’s supporters, this means the officer didn’t fire on the teenager as he ran away.

But — and this is crucial — we also know Wilson shot several more rounds that didn’t hit Brown. It is reasonable to imagine that some of those were fired as Brown ran away. But that’s only a guess. An assumption.

Regardless, the wording of that sentence should have been more careful. The Star needs to be excruciatingly exact in differentiating what we know for sure from what we surmise, even in opinion pieces. That’s what readers rightly expect —and it’s what makes for strong commentary. I know some people didn’t give proper consideration to Young’s point because they were caught up on that one word.

This detail doesn’t rise to the level of requiring a correction, but the word “fleeing” has been removed from the version online. It does no damage to the point of the column.

Our fractious discourse over Ferguson is the product of an episode that’s deeply frustrating: A violent interaction between a black youth and a member of an almost all-white police force. Few reliable witnesses. A body left on a sweltering street for hours after the shooting. Taciturn police communication after the incident. Incomplete evidence presented to an always-secretive grand jury. And most of all, a widespread belief that justice was not served.

These elements are a recipe for us all to project our deeply personal feelings about prejudice, crime, protests spiraling out of control, and myriad other tangential issues. Ultimately, it’s a natural urge to want to choose “sides.”

But in reality, that can be dangerous in a case such as this. Neither Brown nor Wilson are characters in a morality play. Brown did intimidatingly overpower a shopkeeper shortly before he was killed. Wilson did react to a tense situation in a way that many people credibly regard as inept and unprofessional, and an unarmed teenager died at his hand.

The furor over Ferguson is obviously ultimately far bigger than just the incident that inspired it. And rightly or wrongly, it’s become permanently intertwined with other news and our subjective, often imperfectly-formed emotions.

It’s oversimplification to turn this case into too facile an example to illustrate the inexorably complex world of American race relations. But as we have these important discussions, we need to keep what is and isn’t known crystal clear.