Words matter — and never more so than when race is involved. For more than a week, we have been repeatedly told that a white police officer shot and killed an "unarmed black teenager" on a street in Ferguson, Missouri. The words conjure the image of a kid gunned down because of the color of his skin by a trigger-happy white cop.
And now we have the highest law enforcement official in the nation reinforcing this narrative. After visiting Ferguson this week to initiate a federal civil rights investigation into the shooting, Attorney General Eric Holder declared that he understands the distrust of police that many blacks feel.
"I understand that mistrust. I am the attorney general of the United States. But I am also a black man," he told an audience in Ferguson. Holder then met privately with the family of Mike Brown, the man shot, and later held a news conference in which he reiterated racial grievance: "This shooting incident has brought to the surface underlying tensions that have existed for many years. There is a history to these tensions, and that history simmers in more communities than just Ferguson."
Unfortunately, such words inflame racial mistrust — and, even more importantly, undermine justice.
Let's start with the "unarmed black teenager" mantra.
Brown was 18 years old — an adult by all legal standards. He was also 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighed nearly 300 pounds. Surveillance video from a nearby convenience store taken shortly before the shooting shows Brown as a towering muscled male stealing goods and then grabbing and violently shoving a store employee who tried to question him. The actual images of Brown on the video surely do not bring to mind a harmless teenager.
Unfortunately, we do not yet know exactly what happened minutes later when police officer Darren Wilson encountered Brown and a companion walking down the middle of a street. Brown's companion, Dorian Johnson, who had been with Brown during the earlier strong-arm robbery, told his version of what took place on St. Louis TV station KSDK on Aug. 13.
Wilson's arm, Johnson said, "extended out the window (and) grabbed my friend around the neck. (Wilson) didn't say 'step back' or anything like that. He started to pull my friend into the window. So the officer's trying to pull him in, and he's pulling away from the officer. He never once attempted to grab for this officer's weapon. He's still holding my friend with one arm. And now, with the other hand, he's pointing his weapon. The second time he says 'I'll shoot,' it wasn't even a second later before the gun just went off, and the officer let go, and that's how we were able to run at the same time."
But is Johnson's version of events plausible? Johnson's veracity is important, and he's told multiple, sometimes conflicting, versions of his story. Moreover, in 2011, Johnson pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of filing a false police report and is currently still wanted on an outstanding warrant for failing to appear on theft charges in Jefferson City, Missouri.
But even without such questions about Johnson's trustworthiness as a witness, other questions about the account arise. Publicly available videos and still photos of Brown and Wilson show significant size differences between the two men, with Brown appearing to have a height advantage over Wilson and outweighing the officer by about 100 pounds. How is it even possible from a sitting position inside a car for a smaller man to reach out and grab someone much larger with one hand and pull him into the vehicle?
Accepting Johnson's version depends heavily on the image of that "unarmed black teenager" minding his own business when confronted by a white cop bent on venting racial animus.
Officer Wilson's version of events has yet to be publicly recounted. Nonetheless, bits and drabs have leaked out, including assertions that Brown blocked Wilson's ability to exit the police cruiser (a fact Johnson concedes but says was caused because Wilson pulled his car up too close to the two men). Sources claiming to be familiar with Wilson's account contend that Brown leaned into the police cruiser, punched Wilson in the face and struggled for control of Wilson's gun, which discharged. Multiple sources allege that Wilson was treated at a hospital for facial wounds, perhaps even a fracture to his eye socket.
A grand jury will hear all accounts of what happened. But Holder's rush to judgment by ordering a full-scale civil rights investigation before the grand jury even reaches its conclusion undermines the criminal justice system. Instead, it fans the very racial tensions Holder says he wants to calm.