By Rev. Kate Braestrup
Until Michael Brown died at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, I was pretty darned happy being a progressive.
I was inclined to smugly agree that progressives (“us”) were the smart tribe and conservatives (“them”) the ignoramuses, an impression confirmed by the news and punditry I imbibed from my chosen media — NPR, the New Yorker, the New York Times. Though I counted myself an open-minded and intellectually curious person, I certainly did not deign to listen to anyone who might tell a different story — Rush Limbaugh, say, or Fox News or the National Review.
The problem (or might it somehow prove a solution?) was that I belong to more than one tribe. I belong to the tribe of progressive liberal but I also belong to the tribe of law enforcement. Up until Ferguson, the two tribal identities hadn’t been in conflict.
Don’t get me wrong: There has always been a bit of cop-bashing on the American left. Like medicine and maybe leading the free world, policing is a profession people don’t actually know that much about, but they think they do. So they have strong opinions about how it should be done.
When it comes to law enforcement, this is by and large a healthy thing: free people who understand themselves as being endowed with rights that their government did not bestow and cannot take away should regard the police a little warily. A uniformed police officer represents the potential for a government to use its power not only to protect citizens and provide for public order, but to forcibly deprive one of one’s liberty and even life.
History provides cautionary tales that can’t be ignored: it was German police officers who enforced the Nuremberg Laws that stripped German Jews of their civil rights. French and Dutch police helped their Nazi occupiers round up yet more victims. Those were American cops who massed at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and attacked the civil rights marchers in 1965.
The value and virtue of law enforcement depend heavily on the quality and virtue of the society being protected, and on the quality of laws being enforced. But even in a generally good society with good laws, trust is essential and fragile. A corrupt, brutal, biased or incompetent police officer is, indeed, a terrifying thing.
Still, policing didn’t used to be quite such a partisan issue. Wasn’t it the Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who boasted of toughening up sentencing laws and of putting 100,000 cops on the streets, with help from members of the Congressional Black Caucus? Wasn’t it his wife, Hillary, First Lady and future Democratic candidate for president, who explained: “We need more police, we need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders?”
My first husband, a state trooper, listened to NPR and read the New York Times, too, and, whether he agreed or not with every left-leaning person (his wife, for example) on the specifics of a given issue, he did not have cause to feel his “tribal” affiliations — law enforcement and liberal — were in conflict. Why would I?
One day in the early autumn of 2014, I was sweeping the kitchen and listening to All Things Considered.
“The body of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot and killed by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson, was left on the street for four hours.”
Up until that point, I hadn’t paid a whole lot of attention to the news about the death of Michael Brown. Not from indifference, but from experience. I’m familiar with how deadly force incidents are investigated and adjudicated. I knew it would be a considerable time before the Missouri Attorney General’s office announced its findings, and in the meantime, the AG was constrained by law from public comment. Everyone and anyone else would be free to weigh in, and most of what they had to say would later turn out to be nonsense. This is par for the course. Why get outraged before it’s clear what there is to be outraged about?
But perhaps because it was NPR, my “trusted source of news and information,” or perhaps it was that one element, repeated and commented upon so relentlessly that it was difficult for even me to ignore: Four hours.
As the New York Times put it:
Just after noon on Saturday, Aug. 9, Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer on Canfield Drive.
For about four hours, in the unrelenting summer sun, his body remained where he fell.
“You’ll never make anyone black believe that a white kid would have laid in the street for four hours,” an African-American and chief aide to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley was quoted as saying in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It defies any understanding of reality.”
Interviewed a month later by that newspaper, a chief medical examiner from Baltimore acknowledged, “Sometimes it’s a little disconcerting in an open scene for the family to see a body lying there.”
Other medical examiners interviewed for the same article concurred: “The best way to serve the public and the victim’s family is to do your job properly…and get as close to the truth as possible… But for many in Ferguson, none of that will matter. Regardless of the evidence, the experts, the gunshots and the crowds, a young man’s body left on the street for four hours just doesn’t make sense.”
A year later, in a 2015 memoir he purportedly wrote for his young son entitled Between The World And Me, Ta Nehisi-Coates would reluctantly admit that when all the evidence was in and all witnesses canvassed and deposed, Ferguson Officer Wilson’s version of events was substantiated and the shooting justified. Nonetheless, Coates would still consider the length of time Michael Brown’s body remained on the asphalt of Canfield Drive damning evidence of law enforcement’s exultant racism.
“The killers of Michael Brown would go free,” he writes. “The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished.”
My first husband Drew was a white man and, as mentioned, a State Trooper. He died in the line of duty.
There were no angry crowds jostling and shouting beyond the crime-scene tape at the scene of his fatal car accident. No shots rang out, no bullets whizzed past the head of the forensic investigators. There was no need to wait for additional officers to rush to the South Warren Bridge to provide protection. It was a peaceful April day.
Eventually, as with the body of Michael Brown, the work of processing the scene was done, and my beloved Drew’s body was gathered up and taken to the state medical examiner’s office for exhaustive autopsy.
Eventually, I say, because the body of this, a white law enforcement officer, remained just where he fell for more than four hours.
Four hours is a long time.
It felt long to me at the time — it was definitely “disconcerting” to find myself asking, again, where is he? and to have the troopers tell me, again, his body is still at the scene.
I am quite sure it was terrible for Brown’s neighbors — let alone his mother and father — to see his body lying there as the minutes ticked inexplicably into hours Still, however it may be perceived by the traumatized uninitiated, four hours is not an unusual length of time for the primary piece of evidence in an actual or potential murder investigation to remain in situ while the scene is photographed, measured, mapped and documented.
This is especially true when a police officer is involved: Drew’s accident scene was processed with particular care because, as a State Trooper, he had been entrusted with the safety of the citizens of Maine. The police owed it to the public to determine, and be able to demonstrate with evidence, how and why the crash occurred. After all, Drew might have been drunk, drugged, reckless or suicidal.
He wasn’t. It was a simple accident…and still, the bound copy of the accident report I would later receive from the Attorney General’s office was over an inch thick.
The evidence at the scene of Michael Brown’s death deserved the same scrupulous investigation, especially since at that point, deliberate homicide could not be ruled out. If Officer Wilson had, for whatever reason, murdered Brown, his successful prosecution — and justice for Michael Brown — would have depended on a thorough and conscientious forensic examination of the scene of his crime.
Ironically, a corrupt police department bent on shielding a violently racist colleague from legal consequence would certainly not have left Michael Brown’s body where it had fallen. They would instead have swiftly scooped it up and whisked it away. They could have used the proximity of a threatening crowd and occasional gunfire as an excuse for doing so. Instead, the police in Ferguson conscientiously followed the proper protocol. The four hours Michael Brown’s body lay beneath the “unrelenting summer sun” was, therefore, evidence of good police work, not bad.
I know this, because I work in law enforcement. But surely, I thought, any news reporter with even minimal experience of crime scene investigation would know this too?
Perhaps this seems like a small detail, but there were more details reported that, in time, and after two highly-motivated investigations by the State of Missouri and President Obama’s own justice department, turned out to be false. The credible evidence showed that:
- Michael Brown had not merely shoplifted from the neighborhood convenience store, but committed a strong-armed robbery.
- Michael Brown had attacked Officer Wilson and attempted to remove Wilson’s duty weapon from its holster.
- Michael Brown was not surrendering with his hands up when he was shot, but was charging toward the police officer.
Neither the press nor politicians could know all of this right away. Still, they should have been capable of providing at least some context for those famous four hours. They ought to have felt strongly inclined, even honor-bound to do so, given they might thereby have relieved at least a little of the anguish felt by the people of Ferguson.
The false narrative bound progressives together in self-exalting public lamentation. “The protests and the banners and the window signs are the latest actions in our long tradition of struggling against racism in America,” UU President Peter Morales proclaimed. Oh yes: We bravely hung banners on our middle-class, mostly-white churches and felt splendidly menaced when unusually careful vandals crossed out “black” and wrote “all,” or even took scissors to the vinyl so that the banners read simply “Lives Matter.”
Meanwhile, the faulty narrative sparked demonstrations and riots in Ferguson; people were hurt and badly-needed businesses were looted or burned to the ground. Police officers attempting to keep order and prevent injury were screamed at, spat upon and doused with urine. Black police officers received extra vituperation (and urine) from the protesters, who called them “Uncle Toms” and worse.
Eventually, the activists decamped and headed off to bring their healing presence to other cities. Soon, other cities would ring with anti-police chants. In more than one, witnesses reported the call-and-response: “What Do We Want? Dead Cops. When Do We Want Them? Now!” Soon, other cities would burn.
Left to itself, Ferguson experienced a dramatic increase in crime, with the accompanying pain experienced by the victims of rape and assault and the agony of those whose loved ones have been murdered. Thanks to the attentions of Black Lives Matter, the Ferguson police department was depleted and demoralized, with even fewer officers to provide for safety on the street and fewer detectives to investigate those assaults, rapes and murders and provide a chance of justice for the victims. The majority of these were, of course, black. Which is supposed to matter.
Officer Darren Wilson was cleared of wrongdoing but nevertheless lost his job and his profession. To this day, he and his young family live in hiding, beleaguered by death threats that seem very plausible in an age when, across the country, police officers who haven’t killed anyone have been ambushed and murdered in the name of the mattering of black lives.
“The protests and the banners and the window signs are the latest actions in our long tradition of struggling against racism in America…We were there in Selma fifty years ago and again this spring.” Morales declared. “The best of our forebears stood against slavery.”
On January 21, 2015, Unitarian Universalist clergy joined Bend the Arc in a staged interfaith die-in during lunch in the Longworth cafeteria on Capitol Hill in front of members of Congress and their staff. From the Washington Post:
Organizers had originally planned to lay [sic] in the cafeteria for 4 1/2 minutes – a timing often employed during “die-in” protests to symbolize the amount of time Michael Brown’s body lay in the street after he was killed.
Oh, how proud we progressives are of ourselves! And how impervious we can be to the suffering our tribal narrative inflicts; how wedded we can be to a lie if it serves us.
Copyright 2017 © Kate Braestrup