Who is the unarmed man in this picture?
Who is the one in danger?
Who is the unarmed man in this picture?
Who is the one in danger?
I just grabbed these pictures and threw them up because they’re from my own limited experience and they illustrate how unclear the dynamics can become in an entangled encounter between two men when one of them is armed and the other one isn’t.
If you haven’t ever been faced with this, it can seem like a no-brainer. The guy with the gun calls the shots. He has the gun, the other guy has to do what the guy with the gun says. You know, or he’s fucked. Dude’s gonna shoot him.
But in both of these pictures it’s pretty clear that things actually are not that clear at all. A gun in play, when things are up close and personal, is a gun in play. It’s not always the case that the guy who starts out with the gun gets to finish with it. Sometimes the bigger, stronger, more violent guy can take that gun away and use it for what he wants. Sometimes the bigger, stronger, more violent guy doesn’t even WANT the gun. He doesn’t need it. He’d rather use his hands to kill the other guy.
So, Ferguson, right? Michael Brown.
You guys all know I carry a gun and a badge so I must be on Officer Darren Wilson’s side. When cops look at this shooting of an unarmed teenager on his way to his grandmother’s house, we see a good shoot. I know it doesn’t look that way to a LOT of people, and frankly, I don’t expect it to. It should horrify people when an unarmed black teenager on his way to his grandmother’s house is shot by a white cop in broad daylight.
But that doesn’t make it a bad shoot. It just doesn’t.
And I’m not here to argue that it’s a good shoot and everyone should agree with me and move on, lets end the discussion. I think the discussion is so vital, so important, and so necessary. It really is. Because it’s totally fucked all the way through and we have this terrible tendency to look at the many facts involved and choose to see the ones that support our view as the ones that really, truly carry the most weight. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t facts that don’t support our view, it’s just that, honestly, those facts just aren’t as important as these other facts over here that really do prove that how I see it is justified.
So I have some limited experience with these kind of encounters, where there’s a fight, there are some punches thrown, there’s a struggle over a gun, and I just wanted to take a second and throw out some stuff to consider around that dynamic. And maybe I’m just sensitive about this issue because I know that one day I might be in Officer Darren Wilson’s situation and it’s a horrifying thought. And I’m not saying it’s not horrifying to find yourself in Michael Brown’s family’s position, either. It’s just that this was, in the end, a human interaction. Two human beings’ lives intersected in a moment of violence that changed both of them forever. There’s a human cost on both sides.
And, you know, I recognize that this isn’t going to solve anything, or change anyone’s mind about the significance of this shooting and the presence of racism in this country and the rage and helplessness that people feel when they’ve been on the receiving end of racist acts by the people who we pay to protect us and to enforce the law. I know that. And really, in the end, that’s the conversation that needs to keep going- how do we address these problems so we can drag them out into the light and uproot them?
But I keep coming back to this particular shooting and I want to poke around at the dynamics of the encounter because there are aspects of it that may not be apparent to people who don’t get in fights like this. And my heart goes out to Officer Wilson and his family and I want to come to his defense a little bit because I haven’t heard or read anything that sheds much light on this messy aspect of the lethal encounter.
So we know a couple of things about how the violence in this encounter began. We know we have a cop on patrol, in uniform, driving around the city he’s working, doing his job. And he’s heard this scanner traffic about this theft of cigars and a description of a suspect in a black shirt- he’s not going to the call, but he hears the traffic and it registers. Then he sees Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson walking down the street and he contacts them, tells them to get out of the street.
And we can shift our camera view now and look at this from Michael Brown’s perspective- he’s just walking down the street with his friend. He’s not doing anything wrong. He’s completely innocent. He might have boosted some cigars, he might have smoked a little bit of pot, but this cop right here doesn’t know any of that. As far as this cop right here knows, all he’s got is a innocent black man walking down the street, minding his own business, and now he’s trying to tell him what to do. Trying to tell a grown man living in a free country he can’t simply walk around with his buddy in the middle of the day doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WRONG.
Both of them are coming at this thing from VERY different perspectives, and both of them have some justification for their points of view.
Officer Darren Wilson’s been on the job a while, he’s had plenty of encounters with people having bad days, people who are angry, who feel that they’re being harassed- this is not the first time he’s talked to someone who doesn’t want to hear what he has to say. He’s going to handle this contact, and the dude’s going to do what he’s supposed to do. And if there’s something up, if there’s something went down he thinks is criminal in nature, well, he’s going to do something about it. He’s not just going to let it go. That’s what we pay him for.
And I’ll bet that Michael Brown had had some contact with The Man before, too. And even if he hadn’t, he knew lots and lots of people who had. Men in his family, in his community, who couldn’t walk down the street without the po-po messing with them. He’d lived with it his whole life. I don’t know a single black American man who has not had some encounter with a cop that left him feeling harassed just for going about his business. So, yeah, it’s pretty easy to see that even if Michael Brown had been up to no good, he could seriously feel justified in saying to himself that this cop didn’t know anything about what might have happened earlier, and RIGHT NOW all he’s doing is walking to his grandma’s with his friend and fuck this cop if he is going to apologize for THAT because that’s bullshit.
So, things don’t start out well, and they get worse fast.
And there comes this point where Officer Wilson is in his car, seated, and Michael Brown is reaching into the unit and punching Wilson in the face a couple of times. And Officer Wilson gets his gun out and at some point the gun goes off, and then Michael Brown starts to walk or run away from Officer Wilson’s car.
And that fight in the car is where I think a lot of people might look and say that Officer Wilson is just not justified in trying to shoot Michael Brown at all. I mean, the guy is hitting him, or hits him, and the cop tries to shoot him, that’s an unreasonable use of force! That’s overkill. That’s racist or unfair or crazy bloodthirsty, just looking for an excuse to shoot a black man. And you know, maybe it was. I don’t know.
But I do know something. I do know that when you’re seated in your patrol car and there’s a guy reaching in through the window and beating you in the head, you don’t have very many options to unfuck your situation. I haven’t ever been hit in the head by someone who was 6’4″ and 280 pounds, but I’ve been hit in the head by some pretty big guys, and I’ve been hit in the head by little guys, too. And I’ve been hit by guys a lot when I’ve got headgear on and had my bell absolutely RUNG so that for a good long while I don’t know up from down- and that’s getting hit by a guy wearing big boxing gloves and hitting me when I know I’m going to be hit, and I’ve got a mouthpiece in, and headgear on, and I can defend myself.
I can tell you that it can be a very frightening, very disorienting, very unpleasant experience. It can make you want to cry, it can make you want to throw up, it can make you want to do anything in the world to make it stop. It’s fucking awful.
Now imagine that you are Officer Wilson and this guy is reaching in your car window and punching you in the head. You throw your hands up to protect your head and maybe block the punch a little bit, but how do you get the guy to stop doing what he’s doing? You can’t open the door because he’s blocking it. You can’t slide over because you’ve got your computer terminal and your radio and gun rack blocking you in, and there’s a cage behind you so you can’t jump back in the back seat. You have a baton, but you can’t get it out and if you could you couldn’t swing it. You’ve maybe got pepper spray, but if you launch that you’ll blind and choke yourself, too, and that’s no good. You know that any one good punch can knock you unconscious, and you know that whatever happens after that, it ain’t going to be good.
So you do the only thing left to do, and you take your gun out and hope you can get the guy to stop hitting you and chill out and let you arrest him, and if he’s not going to stop, well, then, you’re going to stop him. You’re not going to let him knock you out, take your gun, and kill you with it, which is a reasonable position to take.
But because he’s got a better position than you, he can see what you’re doing and he grabs the gun as you draw it out, and now you’re fighting over it. Now things really are pretty awful. Officer Wilson testified before the grand jury that Michael Brown grabbed his gun and twisted it down and into Wilson’s hip. This is really bad, any cop knows, because that’s where your femoral artery is, and if you take a shot into anywhere in the pelvic girdle you are in a world of hurt and you stand a very good chance of bleeding to death right where you’re sitting. You’d be dead long before any medics could get to you.
So now you pull the gun back and try to shoot through the door, but the gun won’t go off. If you look at that second picture up at the top, you can see that the top of the slide is slightly pulled back by the guy fighting for the gun. The gun is “out of battery” and will not fire in this position. In the picture, I am trying to keep the guy with the gun from shooting me, and I know that “out of battery” thing, so when I grabbed his gun I made sure to clamp down on the slide and pull it back towards him so he couldn’t shoot me even if he could get the muzzle pointed into my body.
Officer Wilson says he tries to pull the trigger twice, but nothing happens. His gun may have been out of battery from the struggle with Brown, and this statement to me is very telling, because it really tends to indicate that there was a struggle over the gun. That just wouldn’t have come up if there had not been some displacement of the slide of Officer Wilson’s handgun.
Then the third time he pulls the trigger and the gun goes off. This startles both of them, and Michael Brown breaks contact with Officer Wilson.
And so this is another point in the story where those of us who weren’t there can sort of slow things down and do some Monday morning quarterbacking, think of all kinds of different options to take so that what happens next, well, doesn’t happen next.
But what does happen is that Officer Wilson calls for backup, puts out “shots fired” on the air, and goes to try to stop Michael Brown from getting away so he can arrest him for the assault. Which is what we pay him to do, I mean, it’s his actual job. If he had just let Michael Brown walk away, he would have been violating the trust we placed in him. He swore an oath.
So, he goes to try to stop him.
And then things went one of two ways:
Michael Brown stopped, turned around, put his hands up, and Officer Darren Wilson shot him to death where he stood.
Michael Brown stopped, turned around, and charged at Officer Darren Wilson, and Officer Darren Wilson shot him to death as Brown closed on him.
And I don’t know which one of those happened. I do know that Officer Wilson told the grand jury that Brown growled and put one hand down inside his waistband as he charged at Officer Wilson, and Officer Wilson shot a couple of volleys at Brown until Brown went down, which Wilson said happened after Brown lowered his head while charging and Wilson shot him in the top of the head.
And this is where my little bit of experience doesn’t really help. I think this part of the shooting- I’m not very sure that anyone is going to change their minds about it, because there’s just no way to know exactly. Eye witness accounts differ, and there’s no dispute that Brown was facing Wilson when he was shot. I’m inclined to look at the whole situation and to me it’s more likely that the guy who started handing out the violence kept handing it out, kept trying to hand it out- that whatever was in his head and in his heart that led him to start punching Officer Wilson in the face did not just suddenly go away when Officer Wilson had the drop on him. But I know human beings, too, and I know that sometimes adrenaline and terror turn into rage and violence, and maybe Officer Wilson shot Michael Brown because he was mad at him. Or maybe because he was black. Or because he was a teenager walking to his grandma’s house in broad daylight.
And here’s where the conversation, in my mind, needs to get a little bit more nuanced, more serious, more contemplative and less reactive. I think that what I’d like to see is that we don’t use Michael Brown as a symbol for all the dangerous, criminal, drugged out monsters who attack the police and make our world unsafe, and that we don’t use him as a symbol of all of the innocent young black teenagers who are violently gunned down in the street in broad daylight by racist white cops for no reason. And we don’t use Officer Darren Wilson as a symbol of all the badge-heavy, jack-booted, racist thug cops who are just looking for a reason, any reason at all, to gun down an innocent black boy. And we don’t hold him up as the shining hero who was out there trying to save the world (although, you know, I personally think there’s an aspect of that in his service to the community- my own bias, I admit.)
The fact is that there are two powerful forces in direct conflict here, and although race may play a part in them, I think that it’s a mistake to conclude that the encounter was all about race, or even about race at all. I think that there was a battle here between the drive for personal freedom and the state-sanctioned drive to control the citizen.
Call it freedom vs constraint, maybe.
I believe that what may have been driving Michael Brown was not a drive to kill a cop, or commit crime, or terrorize anyone. I think Michael Brown was probably, like all of us, simply trying to do what he thought would make him happiest. And getting hassled by the police for walking down the street, despite what he may have been up to earlier, threatened his sense of autonomy and freedom. It felt awful. It felt unbearable. It was unbearable. For whatever reason, he could no longer live with his freedom being constrained by some outside force that didn’t know him, didn’t understand him, didn’t care about him. It was intolerable. I think that is what may have driven him to reach into that police car and start punching away. I think that feeling only grew stronger the harder Officer Darren Wilson tried to control him, tried to stop him, tried to constrain him and take away his freedom.
And I think that Officer Darren Wilson took the job he took because he believed in the state’s right to constrain its citizenry when legally justified to do so. He probably thought that it was right and proper to constrain those who refused to follow the laws and rules of polite society. I think he was probably biased, not against any particular race or culture, but against those who feel that their needs outweigh the needs of others, those who feel that they can do whatever they like to others and not face the consequences. Officer Darren Wilson IS a consequence. And we asked him to take on that role. We gave him training and a uniform and a badge and a gun and paid him to go out onto our streets. We told him, “protect us.”
I think that’s what we rail against, and we’re really, really unclear about it. I don’t hear anything like this being said anywhere on the news or in the media. I mean, I get it, I do, most of our cops are white guys, and mostly we imprison our black males- there’s something wrong with that, there’s real racism active and alive in our society. But that’s true for every society. It’s not a black thing or a white thing, it’s a human thing.
But I look at so many of these encounters, and to my eyes it looks like the State taking individual enforcement action against the freedom of one of its citizens. I think the white cop arresting a black man might not see that. I think the black man being arrested by the white cop might not see that. It seems that the enraged protesters are blind to it, as are the talking heads on TV. If you ask a white cop if he’s racist, he’s going to deny it. He’s going to say he doesn’t give a fuck what color someone’s skin is, he just wants folks to do what they’re supposed to do, and when they don’t, he’s going to make them. A white cop can’t even hear you when you’re telling him he’s racist for doing his job. He knows that it just isn’t true. (Even for those white cops who actually are racist. Maybe especially them.)
Those roles are much deeper and more complex than skin color. It’s deeper than socio-economic status and culture. It’s a really primal thing that is beyond all of those factors. As a society, as a species, we value freedom. We hold it dear, and we’ve killed and been killed for it numberless times. And yet, conversely, we value safety and order. We value the laws and rules of society that allow us to go about out lives without having to carry our own spears and swords and machetes and guns around with us every day in case someone wants to take something that belongs to us- our property or our lives. So we pick a few of us to carry the spear, and we ask them to do the violence for us. On our behalf.
And that’s the discussion I wish we were having. That’s the discussion, it seems to me, that’s important to have and isn’t happening. It is terrible when one human being kills another human being, for any reason. We should be outraged. But we should seek clarity about what exactly we are outraged about. We want our cops to go out there and be brave and heroic and when things get ugly we want them to take care of business. But we don’t want them turning against us. We don’t want them out of control. What we really want is we want them to take it to the other guy, but to leave us alone.
And we should understand the moral weight involved in interfering with another human being’s freedom. As cops we should have the highest respect for the individual freedom of those citizens were are sworn to protect. Even the ones we’re trying to take to jail. The same white cop who can’t hear you when you call him out as a racist for throwing a stop and frisk on a young black man might actually stop and think about what it means that he’s constraining someone’s freedom if it was put to him in those terms. Yeah, okay, you’re not really racist, but you are powerist, you know? You’re exercising power on a brother. No cop can deny that.
And that approach, the one that kind of slips past the obvious, easy to see conflict and actually gets to the dynamic that’s really in play, that might open up some interesting conversations. Because then no one is put in the position of having to admit that they are wrong before the conversation can even begin. Both sides can sort of look at that like, you know, yeah, I’m exercising power over those people that I stop and make empty out their pockets or whatever. Or, yeah, I actually do value my freedom, and it isn’t so much that this guy who is hassling me is white, it’s that my sense of autonomy is being threatened, I’m being controlled by some outside force. That shit sucks, and it sucks if it’s a white cop doing it to me or a black one. It’s the interference with my autonomy that I cannot abide. It isn’t really what the guy dispensing it looks like.
I think it’s easy to imagine a world in which everyone was the same color. Do you think there wouldn’t still be these terrible shootings? There wouldn’t still be injustice? When a human being is the pointy end of our system, and it always will be a human being, then justice is going to be meted out in a human way. And that’s going to be messy.
When these two forces that are in direct opposition come together, it’s only natural for there to be serious conflict. But we need to understand that those forces can never be fully reconciled. It will never be possible to have laws and public safety without being willing to take away someone’s freedom. And we don’t want to give up our own personal freedom, even if we’ve done something wrong. So there are going to be fist-fights, and car chases, and foot chases, and people are going to get killed. It’s messy. It’s a philosophical quandary made flesh, and it’s ugly and horrific under the best of circumstances.
And I think it’s right that we get outraged. I think it’s proper that we examine these shootings and killings and take a look at what happened and see if there’s something we can learn, some way to make it as clean as it can be. But so many times, it’s not that the innocent teenager was really all that innocent, or that the cop was all that racist, or all that pure- it’s just that two opposing forces collided.
Forces we all hold inside us all the time.
We should talk about it.