As the nation’s eyes turn to the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson and many African-Americans find themselves dismayed by yet another Black man slain by police, the description of the encounter that resulted in the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown released by St. Louis County police differs dramatically from eyewitness accounts.
While media stories focused on the looting and angry demonstrations that occurred on Sunday night in Ferguson in the aftermath of the Saturday afternoon slaying, many observers were perplexed by the somewhat implausible story recounted by St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar.
Belmar said the 18-year-old Brown, who was due to start classes next week at Vatterott College and was spending the summer with his grandmother, was walking in the middle of the street with a friend when a police officer pulled up next to the pair. But as the officer attempted to exit his vehicle, Brown suddenly pushed the officer back in his car and tried to take the officer’s weapon. A shot was fired inside the police car as the two struggled, according to Belmar, then the officer and the teenager got out of the car, and the officer shot Brown “more than just a couple of times.”
Belmar said the location of the scene extends roughly 35 feet from where the police car was parked to where the fatal shooting took place. Investigators found the shell casings that matched the officer’s weapon. Belmar said toxicology reports could take six weeks.
Police cars in Ferguson are not equipped with recording devices. The unidentified officer, a veteran of six years on the force, has been placed on paid administrative leave.
But Belmar’s story differs wildly from eyewitness accounts.
This is what Dorin Johnson, the friend who was walking with Brown, told Fox 2 News:
Johnson said he was walking in the street with Brown when the police squad car pulled up and the officer told them to “Get the eff onto the sidewalk.”
The two didn’t comply. Johnson said they told the officer, “It was not but a minute from our destination and we would be off the street.”
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said, “We don’t know what happened, and there are lots of conflicting stories. Unfortunately, there will have to be some time taken to understand what happened. Hopefully, we will get to an understanding, and justice will be served.”
The FBI is reportedly assisting in the investigation, while U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has already instructed the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to monitor the case.
Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, told the AP that she would like to see the officer who killed her son “go to jail with the death penalty.”
After the shooting, Louis Head, Brown’s stepfather, carried a sign that said, “Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son!!!”
The family has retained the counsel of Benjamin Crump, the lawyer who handled Trayvon Martin’s case. In addition, Rev. Al Sharpton said in a statement that Brown’s grandfather asked him “to come to St. Louis in light of the police killing of his grandson to assist the family in achieving a fair investigation and justice.”
In reference to the looting and vandalism that resulted in 32 arrests, Antonio French, an alderman in St. Louis, said, “People have a lot of anger and are frustrated. They don’t have recourse in the system, and it happens often in this country, and it has boiled over. I think people are angry and looking for a reason to let it out tonight.”
Many media outlets posted a picture of Brown flashing what some interpreted as a gang sign—though it’s a common hand gesture used in the Black community. African-Americans saw this as the media’s attempts to portray Brown negatively, in the same way that media outlets started spreading unflattering pictures of Trayvon Martin after he was killed by George Zimmerman.
To protest, they started a meme on social media with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, which features people posting pictures of themselves in a flattering light—such as wearing their military officer’s uniform or college graduation gown—next to an unflattering picture of them holding a weapon or smoking.
Many of them asked, if the cops gunned them down, which image would the media use?