Bulletproof: A Look at Ferguson and America
The Ferguson tension and grand jury verdict, concerning the Darren Wilson killing of Michael Brown Jr., has left me with complex emotions and responses. Clearly this is not the first encounter of its kind, yet the enigmatic circumstances remain. Considering the fact that I have lived through this experience with my wife and family, as her unarmed brother was gunned down by two Oakland Police Officers in a cold dark alley on November 8, 2010, the Ferguson dynamics are all too familiar. My wife has not been able to watch proceedings or engage in dialogue with me over the verdict or Ferguson fallout, because it is a mere replay of emotionally painful injustice.
On November 5, 2010, Officer Johannes Mehserle was sentenced to two years, minus time served for the killing of Oscar Grant. During that time the town of Oakland was reeling from this sentence, feeling it was too light, considering the caught-on-camera killing of Mr. Oscar Grant. Just a few days later my brother in-law was murdered by two OPD Officers. The city was now on high alert. People were already upset by the Mehserle verdict, and now a wound was freshly re-opened by another police-involved killing of an unarmed Black man and father. Tensions were high and the community came together for solutions, accountability, and justice. We marched, protested, held rallies, met with the District Attorney (Nancy O’Malley), then Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts, and much more.
During one of the forums I attended during this time, trying to gain information to be supportive to my family, a panel of law enforcement officials and researchers, revealed that in police simulated shootings, unarmed Black males were shot faster than unarmed white males. Why is this the case? There is an inherent fear and suspicion of the Black male image and this is confirmed through empirical and anecdotal research.
Thus, in reflection to Ferguson, on the evening of November 24, 2014, I watched and listened attentively and critically to the words and presentation of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch. I am not an attorney, but following his trajectory and targeted discourse was confusing. It seemed as if he was the prosecution against Michael Brown Jr., and the urban Ferguson community.
Later that evening, like millions of others in America and across the world, I watched the protests and burnings. The following day I viewed the aftermath and immersed myself in the released documents of the grand jury verdict. It all felt and feels eerily surreal. I have previously been down this path. Before viewing the documents, the one puzzling question that remained for me was the distance between Michael Brown Jr. and Darren Wilson, at the time of the second shooting location, outside the patrol vehicle. I still have that question. I have heard 30-40 feet and then 8-10 feet.
Volume 5, page 196 begins the testimony of Officer Darren Wilson and it ends on page 286. For a police shooting or killing to be deemed legally justifiable, the shooter must feel that his/her life is in imminent danger. The federal protective law is termed “qualified immunity” and provides immunity for police and other governmental/federal officials from being held responsible for murder in the face of using deadly force in response to feeling their life was in imminent danger. When viewing testimony and police reports, this is an important fact and critical lens through which to look, process, and assess.
Because of qualified immunity, it would behoove an Officer to make explicitly clear in their testimony how they felt threatened. Without making the perceived threat emphatic, there is no immunity and the shooting could easily be tried as a murder. There is always one problem with this scenario, unless caught on camera, the deceased cannot share their factual account of the story. Within his testimony, Darren Wilson repeatedly expressed the level of fear he felt, even to the point of feeling unarmed Michael Brown Jr. could kill him. I cannot say that portions of Mr. Wilson’s testimony are untrue, but what is interesting is the consistent similarity in the narrative and messaging when African Americans are shot dead by police.
On that cold November 8, 2010 night, the police had my brother in-law, Derrick Jones, cornered in a dark alley. I read the DA report that, yet again and in classic form, deemed the unarmed Black male killing justified. In terms of the two officers, their guns were drawn and pointed at him. Despite that reality, the two officers said Derrick Jones looked at them angrily, as if he wanted to fight. What unarmed individual with guns pointed at him would want to fight? However, this portion of the narrative is important because it is the initial building block of the officers in painting a picture of feeling mentally and bodily threatened. Without it, there is no “qualified immunity.”
Still in the alley with guns drawn, the report indicates they asked Derrick to remove his left hand from his pocket. They claimed they saw a bulge in his pocket and believed it to be a gun. The two officers said he would not remove his left hand from his pocket, so the first officer shot him 3 or 4 times. After being shot by the first officer, the report says he removed his left hand from his pocket and leaned to the left (the depiction of this encounter, as rendered in the DA report, is forever etched in my mind). I guess like some bionic character, after being shot 3 or 4 times, according to the report, he returned his left hand to his left pocket, at which point the second officer shot him 4 more times. He then fell to the ground, was handcuffed by the two officers, and then they administered CPR (in that order). He died in that alley. It was determined that he was not in possession of a weapon.
In addition to qualified immunity, police officers must also make sure they do not use excessive force. In my opinion, the shooting of Derrick Jones is described by two officers shooting at two separate times because if both were shooting at the same time it could have been considered excessive force. So reportedly and conveniently, the first officer started shooting when he felt his life was in danger and stopped when he felt his life was no longer in danger. However, when the victim allegedly returned his left hand to his left pocket, the second officer was overcome with fear and started shooting. Somehow the first officer was no longer in fear while the second officer started shooting.
In terms of Michael Brown Jr., a similar script and narrative is displayed. For qualified immunity to be a factor, Mr. Brown Jr. had to be depicted as a menacing image with the potential to harm or kill Darren Wilson. The testimony of Officer Wilson does just that. Just a few of his critical testimonial quotes are below.
According to Wilson testimony, while he and Brown Jr. struggled at his patrol car, Wilson was initially struck in the face and at that time, Michael Brown Jr. was said to still be in possession of the Cigarillos in his right hand (page 210-211, volume 5.). Wilson also stated that at that time, the Cigarillos were not broken, but also according to Wilson, at some point the scuffle momentarily stopped and Wilson reported seeing the Cigarillos in the left hand of Michael Brown Jr. (page 211, volume 5.). Additionally, as the intense struggle resumed, according to Wilson, Brown Jr. had enough time to stop and ask Johnson to hold the Cigarillos while Wilson held on to the right arm of Michael Brown Jr. According to Wilson, Brown Jr. said to Johnson, “hey man hold these” (page 212, volume 5.). So at one point during the chaotic scene, Michael Brown Jr. is depicted as strong enough to keep Wilson locked in his car and subdued with his right hand, while verbally beckoning his friend and handing off the Cigarillos to Johnson with his left hand. Wilson said he did not recall seeing any broken Cigarillos in his vehicle or on the ground (page 211, volume 5.).
After shooting Mr. Brown Jr. the first time through the car door, Officer Wilson said (p. 225 volume 5.), “He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” Again, I cannot say what is true or not, but officer Wilson makes it clear that he was in fear for his life because after he shot Michael Brown Jr. once, Mr. Brown Jr. was so angry he looked like a demon.
After Mr. Brown Jr. ran from the vehicle, having been shot at a second time at the vehicle, he was shot a few more times on the street, after Mr. Brown stopped running and turned toward Officer Wilson, ready to charge him, according to Wilson’s testimony. Tragically after being shot several times on the street after the chase, it says on page 228 (volume 5.), “At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way. Well, he keeps coming at me…” Again, after Brown was shot several times, on page 229 (volume 5.) Wilson said, “I’m backpedaling pretty good because I know if he reaches me, he’ll kill me.”
Above are critical and key points of testimony because contained therein are the stated justifications for Officer Wilson to use deadly force, toward an unarmed High School student. Not to mention that he also stated that as Michael Brown prepared to charge him, one hand was clinched as a fist and the other was in his waistband, under his shirt (page 229, volume 5.). Here again you have a familiar script that surfaces in most African American slayings by way of law enforcement. Something is amiss in our country and it needs to be holistically resolved.
According to Wilson’s grand jury testimony, the depiction of Michael Brown Jr. is summed up as a — Police defying, Hulk-Hogan-type, demon-possessed, gun-grabbing, bionic monster who could walk through bullets, looking straight through a shooting officer, with one hand clutched as a fist and the other in his waistband (under his shirt). Additionally and according to testimony on page 230 (volume 5.) – Brown was allegedly charging Officer Wilson with so much speed just before Wilson shot him one last time in the top of the head he said, “I remember his feet coming up, like he had so much momentum carrying him forward that when he fell, his feet kind of came up a little bit and then they rested” (page 230, volume 5). The subtle statement about the feet coming off the ground is a message for forensics, by way of physics, to prove he was charging with so much speed, that again, he was in fear that if this Hulk-Hogan monster would reach him, he would kill him. Remember, Officer Darren Wilson depicted himself as a 5 year old fighting against a powerful Hulk-Hogan. In the 2010 case of Derrick Jones, he was presented as having the ability to withstand 3-4 bullets and then return his hand to his pocket. It was only after being shot a total of 7 times that he fell to the ground.
So now not only are Black males more suspicious, lethal, and criminal than the rest of society, we are now also depicted as bulletproof.
This is truly tragic, and what is even more tragic is that it is a trend within the Black community. The script is tired, old, and predictable. A Black male or female (but especially Black males), cannot afford to make any false moves because it could result in death.
Additionally, we better wake up in the African American community, and cease with all forms of dehumanized behavior that is a clear result of slavery and continued conditioning through the maafa. Regardless of the actions of Michael Brown Jr. in the store, they do not justify murder. If he was initially non-compliant with an officer, that too was wrong, but it did not and does not justify death.
In addition, the church and members therein must present as critically conscious, relevant, and connected, using the power of the Word of God to educate, address, and heal the social ills that exist within the world and our American urban communities. The solution to the racial ills and current climate in America and beyond, traverses political parties, socioeconomic status, and education levels. It requires radical anti-racist action through dialogue, acknowledgement, policy, repentance, forgiveness, and the strongest of all, Love… Do not mistake love for soft and passive inaction. It is harder for some to love than it is for them to pull a trigger, confess the truth, forgive, repent, or act out of an unbiased character.
“Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:12-13).
Ammar Saheli, Ed.D, MS, PPSC
Rest In Peace Michael Brown, Jr., Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice