In the wake of the grand jury decision to not indict Darren Wilson, some segments of the political left have repeatedly disregarded the facts of the case. The grand jury process was unusual for several reasons, one of which was that St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch released all documents of the evidence to the public. These documents have been extensively reported on by the nation’s major news organizations. However, many journalists, activists, lawyers, and academics on the left have been silent about the facts. They offer no interpretation of what happened that day. In the rare case that they do give an account of the facts, the account neglects to incorporate inferences that follow from the physical evidence. All people, particularly journalists and academics, have a duty to make a good faith effort to seek the truth and tell the truth. There is no excuse for ignoring the physical evidence at the scene of an alleged homicide. But many on the left have done so in this case, because the evidence conflicts with their broader political claims and worldview. They have obscured the truth in order to further ideological aims and have immorally misled the public.
I have spent a lot of time reading and writing about the evidence in this case. After taking a look at the physical evidence, one can reasonably interpret Brown’s behavior as being recklessly aggressive both times he and Wilson confronted each other. This scenario has him assaulting a police officer with little provocation and about a minute later aggressively running at the officer when shot and killed. The most charitable interpretation for Brown, that I can see, would be to assume that Wilson instigated Brown to assault him in the police car. After running away with a minor gunshot wound, Brown, in a state of shock and confusion, turned around and walked back at least 22 feet toward Wilson. All the while, Brown was being told to stop and had a gun aimed at him. This is the range of stories the evidence supports, as best I can tell.
The physical evidence paints an unfavorable picture for Brown. But the testimony in this case was all over the map and ambiguous. Many witnesses contradicted each other, contradicted themselves, gave testimony that was inconsistent with the physical evidence, or even lied about seeing the incident. The testimony gives a murky picture. So ignoring the physical evidence significantly biases one’s judgement in favor of Michael Brown. There are two reasons for this bias: (1) The “hands up, don’t shoot” slogan and imagery spread quickly after the shooting, because it supports the beliefs and attitudes that many people hold toward the police. (2) It’s hard to believe anybody would behave as Brown apparently did, until you look at the physical evidence. The most important, and seemingly unknown, facts on this point are that Brown’s blood was found in the car, on Wilson and his gun, and 22 feet down the street from where his body lay. The blood on the street proves that Brown, contrary to the testimony of many, did move toward Wilson a considerable distance in those final moments.
The complete silence from the left regarding the physical evidence has been shocking to me. It’s hard to believe the extent of it until you take a close look. But first, let me roughly define what I mean by “left.” I’m talking about The Nation, Democracy Now, and people of that ideological persuasion. For two weeks after the grand jury decision, I tried to read all the articles on Ferguson in The Nation and I’ve watched all the Ferguson clips I could find on Democracy Now. In writing this essay, I double checked that I didn’t miss anything, by googling each news organization’s URL, “ferguson”, and keywords “physical evidence” or “dna.” I’ve found nothing. The physical evidence is not mentioned in any of their reporting.
While The Nation, Democracy Now, and friends have not mentioned, let alone analyzed, the physical evidence, it is instructive to note what they did say in their reporting of the Michael Brown case. Since the day the evidence was released, these news sources almost never give an account of what happened between Wilson and Brown. What follows are the few descriptions I’ve found. None shows any sign that the physical evidence was taken into account.
In an interview on Democracy Now, Vince Warren, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, states, “I don’t think the evidence [to not indict] was overwhelming.” First of all, overwhelmingness is irrelevant since the legal standard for an indictment is probable cause. And none of the definitions of probable cause that I’ve seen have anything to do with overwhelmingness. But more to the point, Warren doesn’t give any evidence-based reasons for his judgement. He goes on to declare, “I don’t think we can take away anything from this decision not to indict other than that it is now officially open season on black folks when it comes to police violence [emphasis added].” One wonders if Vince Warren thinks about the meaning of his words.
In another interview on Democracy Now, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson cherry picks from witness testimony to give a very skewed picture that leaves out all the implications of the physical evidence. He neglects to mention that Brown moved back toward Wilson, let alone explain why. Self-described “antiracist essayist” Tim Wise writes on his blog that he can’t believe that Brown would “run through a hail of bullets.” He apparently believes that the only evidence for this admittedly hard to believe scenario is that “a white officer” said so. I’d encourage Mr. Wise to take a look at the physical evidence, but on the day of the grand jury’s decision, he wrote, “I suppose there is no longer much point in debating the facts surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown.” I’m going to restate that: On the day all the evidence was made public, Tim Wise decided it was time to call it quits on figuring out what happened. Unfortunately, he wasn’t alone. This seems to have been the attitude of most of the left. Who needs evidence when you have beliefs consistent with your ideology?
There are only two explanations for the leftist media’s omissions regarding the facts of the case: (1) They aren’t doing their homework. Or (2) they know how bad things look for Michael Brown but their commitment to truth in this particular case is trumped by their broader political goals. I reject the former explanation because the physical evidence has been extensively covered in the media, namely by the New York Times and the Washington Post. And the need to analyze the physical evidence is obvious. Regarding the latter explanation, that the left deliberately placed ideology and politics over truth, their priorities here are out of order and immoral.
There is a lot of complexity and uncertainty surrounding politics, and it often requires much time and effort to decipher the facts and arguments for particular policies. There are many talking heads and it’s difficult to know who to take seriously. One’s sources need to meet standards of integrity. Personally, I’m drawing a line at “ignores physical evidence when politically inconvenient.” This is the behavior of ideologues so committed that they don’t feel the need to give an accurate account of the relevant facts. Even worse, many on the left fed their misinformation to the public while youths in Ferguson burned and looted, likely harming their community for years to come.
My expectations here are minimal. I’m just asking that journalists and pundits on the left say something to the effect, “The initial Ferguson narrative was very likely inaccurate and biased in favor of Michael Brown. Nonetheless, there were several problems with these particular grand jury proceedings. And more importantly, there are systematic problems with policing and criminal justice in America . . . ” This is what honest leftists should be saying to maintain their credibility.
Let me be clear, I believe that pretty much everybody has a bias, conscious or unconscious, against black and brown people to some degree and in some circumstances. I concede that as a white male, I have no idea what it’s like to be a black male confronted by police. I’m privileged in this way as well as many other ways for simply being white. To the best of my knowledge, “stop and frisk” policies have done more harm than good. I support the use of police body cameras and special prosecutors for grand juries. I’m open to the idea that the laws constraining the use of lethal force need to be tightened. And to the extent the left and protestors want to advertise these issues and talk about potential policy changes, I’m all on board.
But what I can’t support is blatantly misinforming the public—in this case, lying by omission—on particular issues to advance broader political goals. If the left is willing to distort Ferguson facts this much, then I should suspect they have done this in the past and will continue such misinformation in the future. The question arrises whether the left’s position on the broader issue is based on inaccurate analysis of the particular cases. In other words, perhaps not only do they have the facts wrong on the individual shootings; their broader political program for the policing issue is based on skewed interpretations of each incident. Having done a bit of research on many recent shootings, I do believe this to be true to some extent.
The left’s Machiavellian omission of the facts in the Michael Brown case has helped motivate a political movement and might be instrumental in bringing about needed reforms in policing and criminal justice in America. On the other hand, the leftist media’s propagation of such an inaccurate narrative has harmed their credibility and may have diminished wider popular support for policing and criminal justice system reforms. To those who have taken a look at the physical evidence, protestors waving banners saying “hands up, don’t shoot” likely look foolish. And the leftist media has done nothing to dispel this misleading mantra. Its probably impossible to determine if the left’s tactics here lead to a net benefit or loss for the cause. Fortunately, the solution is simple: Don’t lie or mislead for political gain or ideological pride. Trust that the truth will win out, and faithful try to speak it.
If The Nation, Democracy Now, and likeminded leftists are willing to bury the facts in this case, isn’t it reasonable to assume they do this in other areas of their reporting? Whatever one’s opinion of the integrity of these news organizations and individuals was prior to Ferguson, it should be downgraded now.