Conflicting witnesses on Ferguson, race in America

One of the few certainties about a white police officer’s shooting of a black 18-year-old last August is the uncertainty of the eyewitnesses’ testimony. It’s a metaphor for much larger issues.

In a case rife with official blunders, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch made one good call Monday: releasing all of the evidence his grand jury saw before deciding not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the murder or manslaughter of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Roughly 60 people had testified to the grand jury, many who’d seen the shooting or thought they had. But some of them might have been on other planets when it happened, given their wildly conflicting testimony.

Depending on the witness, Wilson attacked Brown at the door of his squad car or was attacked by Brown. Brown reached inside the car for Wilson’s gun or didn’t go for the gun.

Wilson got out and shot Brown in his back as he was running away. Or Brown turned around and raised his hands in surrender before he was shot, the scenario most of Brown’s supporters believe. Or – most damning for Wilson – Brown was kneeling in surrender when he was gunned down.

Or Brown turned and charged Wilson, was shot, then continued charging and was shot again, this time fatally. This was Wilson’s account; it aligns with the statements of some witnesses and contradicts others.

Some forensic evidence supports Wilson’s version: Brown’s body lay closer to Wilson’s car than the point where he was first shot, for example, as evidenced by blood splatter. The discovery of Brown’s DNA on Wilson’s gun supports the officer’s claim that Brown had tried to grab his gun during their struggle at the car.

These scenarios are now fraught with national tensions that have erupted into riots in Ferguson and large peaceful protests elsewhere. The shooting of Michael Brown is now about much more than the shooting of Michael Brown.

Blacks in America are understandably suspicious when a young black man – especially an unarmed one – is shot by a police officer. They’ve suffered centuries of abuses and humiliations at the hands of authorities.

White Americans have no such history, which explains the stark differences in the way whites and blacks have reacted to the Ferguson shooting. A large majority of whites see the shooting as probably justified; a large majority of blacks see just the opposite.

Whites tend to see Brown as a young man who got in a foolish fight with a police officer. Blacks remember the murder of 15-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 and any number of racially motivated killings since then.

The conflicting testimony of the witnesses in Ferguson reflects in miniature the radically conflicting perspectives of black and white Americans.

Brown’s death at age 18 was a tragedy, however it happened. And Wilson may be haunted by the shooting for the rest of his life. Much as they’ve become symbols for all young black men and all white officers, they are individuals who collided in unusual circumstances.

As in many criminal cases, the pattern of facts in this shooting is unique and complex. Despite the heated rhetoric, Wilson is hardly a Klansman. Brown made mistakes many 18-year-olds make, but most of his peers survive to learn from their mistakes.

The case has focused attention on continuing injustices in Missouri and the entire American justice system. But the details of the shooting itself – unlike the murder of Emmett Till – are too ambiguous to bear the weight of the country’s racial narrative.