Beyond the story of the killing of an unarmed, 18-year-old black man named Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. last August lies the tale of why his death became a national sensation.
For Brown's family and friends, his death was a horrible tragedy— the frequency of which, in black America, is a national disgrace. But a big story? “Unarmed black man shot to death by white cop.” What else is new?
Last night, St. Louis County, Mo prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced that a grand jury called three months ago to investigate the case had declined to indict the officer, Darren Wilson—a decision that triggered a new wave of violent street protests, but also an appeal from President Barack Obama for greater understanding of the impact the decision would have on many African-American communities.
“We need to recognize that the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation,” said the country's first African-American president. “In too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color.”
And that in itself raises the harder question: why did Brown's killing become, arguably, the biggest criminal justice story of 2014, when what some might consider an even more egregious police killing that had occurred at about the same time did not?
Death by Chokehold
I'm referring to the chokehold death of an unarmed, nonviolent 43-year-old black man named Eric Garner at the hands of a white officer of the New York Police Department (NYPD) in the city's borough of Staten Island in July. It had the same racial dynamic: white cop; dead, unarmed black man. Moreover, the use of the chokehold had been banned for use by the NYPD since 1993.
The officer was enforcing what some reports said was a police sweep against “quality of life” crimes in the area. Garner was allegedly selling cigarettes illegally, a misdemeanor offense. The incident was graphically captured on a cellphone camera and later shown repeatedly on television and the web.
Although Garner's death aroused considerable outrage at the time, the response was nothing like the weeks of protests, tear gas and militarized police response that followed the shooting of Michael Brown.
(Last night those protests continued. Clashes between demonstrators and police in Ferguson left at least two St. Louis County Police cars set ablaze, and at least twelve businesses on fire. Meanwhile gun shots sounded in the distance, and an elderly man was run over as his car was highjacked. Demonstrations also erupted in scores of cities including New York, Chicago, Oakland and Seattle.)
What accounted for the difference?
The answer: in the wake of Brown's killing, the Ferguson Police Department and St. Louis County Police Department did everything wrong. And the NYPD, under its new Commissioner, Bill Bratton, and its new mayor, Bill de Blasio, did most things right.
There was already a powerful feeling of alienation, helplessness and mistrust within Ferguson's African-American community towards the local cops prior to Brown's killing. Consequently, black Ferguson was primed to react polemically to a situation in which they believed they had few other avenues of redress.
The local cops validated their mistrust, and then some.
Brown's body was left in the street uncovered for more than four hours after the shooting—an apparent lapse in procedure that even seasoned cops elsewhere have questioned. That disrespect couldn't help but underscore those feelings among the African American community.
Then, reacting to some looting as well as to throngs of determined, but mainly peaceful, protestors, the police responded with a stunning show of force.
Dressed in full military combat gear, they arrived at the protest scene in army-surplus armored vehicles, and proceeded to aggressively—chillingly—aim their assault weapons directly at the peaceful demonstrators, sometimes firing rubber bullets into the crowd, and hitting both protestors and journalists alike.
Although there were clearly efforts by some groups to exploit the situation—even inciting some of the violence — the menacing standoff that lasted through the remainder of that troubled August was an eye-opener to millions of Americans—many of whom were too young to recall the violent clashes that set many urban communities on fire in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Was this an American police force, or the U.S. Marines in The First Battle of Fallujah, going house to house in close combat ready to shoot anything that moved? It was provocative. It was outrageous.
And it was riveting television, the kind you couldn't get enough of. Pictures of these warrior cops appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country and were re-tweeted millions of times on social media.
While the videos of Eric Garner's death were equally shocking to watch, they did not carry the emotional punch of the state-of-siege show of force by Missouri law enforcement—not to mention the deployment of the National Guard. And it's also worth noting that unlike Garner's death, there were no videos of the shooting of Michael Brown.
Instead, community residents –and all Americans— were given wildly conflicting and indirect versions of what happened that night in Ferguson, further exacerbating local mistrust of law enforcement, and exposing the gulf in perceptions that Obama highlighted in his comments last night.
If you already supported law enforcement, the fog of evidence might persuade you to give Darren Wilson the benefit of the doubt. But if your daily experience with police—or the experience of friends and family—was troubled, you would draw an entirely different conclusion.
It was no coincidence that one of the most heartfelt responses of the Brown family following the announcement of the grand jury decision was an emotional appeal to equip police with body cameras.
But there were also millions of Americans who were caught in the confusing middle. The Ferguson events revealed in gripping detail the new reality in American policing: the empowerment of the warrior cop and the consequent militarization of our police departments.
Spurred by $4 billion in surplus military equipment offered by the U.S. Defense Department to police departments around the county, and by $34 billion in “'terrorism grants” made by the Department of Homeland Security, many police departments took as much as they could get. (Since the media attention, some of that military equipment has been withdrawn, some sources say.)
Nevertheless, Americans registered the impact of the country's shift towards hard-line domestic policing—spurred by more than a decade of fear over terrorism and perceived threats to police officers—and it made many uncomfortable. That was the biggest driver of the story.
But there were others as well, captured by some of the questions raised by community residents, civil liberties advocates, and the press.
Why did it take so long for police to release the name of the officer who'd killed Brown? Why did police refuse to issue an incident report or any information at all about the shooting?
And why, while refusing, were they moving so speedily to release a damaging security-camera video of Brown minutes before the shooting, where he was seen shoplifting some cigars at a local a mom-and-pop convenience store, and menacingly shoving aside the elderly store clerk who tried to stop him?
What did all that say about the impartiality of those charged with investigating the incident?
All this kept Ferguson in the national headlines, and the local police and criminal justice establishment on the defensive.
Contrast with NYC
In New York, on the other hand, relations between the police and the African-American community since the election of de Blasio and appointment of the veteran Bratton (both white) —while occasionally testy—have been marked by greater transparency.
De Blasio, an unabashedly liberal populist, had sharply criticized the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policies during his successful 2013 mayoral campaign. He captured an impressive 95 percent of the black vote. He was well connected with the city's progressive black leaders, and they trusted him. Bratton, who understood the dynamics of managing a police crisis better than anyone, reacted quickly to Garner's death by ordering the retraining of his 35,000 officers in the use-of-force.
A march called to protest Garner's death was large but peaceful. And the New York coroner's office declared his death to be directly the result of the chokehold. While the fate of the officer involved remains unsettled, it has not fueled a lot of attention.
The Ferguson grand jury's decision was predictable. Prosecutor Robert McCulloch went to great lengths to explain that jurors had gone over every conceivable detail of the incident, including forensic reports disproving earlier allegations that Brown had been shot in the back while fleeing. He promised that the public would eventually see all the evidence the grand jury saw.
But what was missed was the bitter truth that when Darren Wilson and Michael Brown confronted each other on that August day, they were already—and fatally—condemned to misinterpret and mistrust the responses and actions of each other.
Closing that gap in perceptions remains the central challenge of law enforcement in urban America today.
Joe Domanick is associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay and West Coast Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. His new book, Blue: The Ruin and Redemption of the LAPD will be published by Simon & Schuster in February 2015. He welcomes comments from readers.