Just how many times can you slay someone? If your name was 18-year-old Michael Brown, apparently more than once. The release of new video footage from the convenience store that Brown patronized in the moments before he was gunned down by then Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, put Brown’s life back in the public and media kill zone. With this latest finger-point at Brown for his actions in the tragic moments before Wilson killed him, it makes the fourth time he has been slain.
The first was the actual slaying of Brown in August, 2014. This touched off weeks of unrest in Ferguson and other cities, a massive and prolonged federal probe, and a contentious, much watched and much debated, grand jury investigation that resulted in no charges being filed against Wilson. The slaying ignited a series of endless news reports, fierce debate and speculation, about just what kind of person Brown was. Police officials kicked into high gear with a loud, long and vicious blame-the-victim campaign. They held press conferences, leaked documents and orchestrated a well-oiled press campaign to depict Brown as having gang ties, smoked dope, dealt dope, had an arrest record, was a school troublemaker and engaged in every kind of deviant behavior ― up to and including, speculation went, that Brown was in the store to rob it.
It was character assassination chock full of the stock racial stereotypes about young black males. It firmly reinforced the public view that Brown was a bad guy who was up to no good when Wilson confronted him.
The second slaying of Brown was the long delay in presenting evidence to the grand jury determining whether charges would be brought against Wilson. There was the careful tailoring and massaging by prosecutors of what the grand jury heard and saw about the circumstances of the killing. It reaffirmed the picture of Brown as a trouble-maker who posed a physical threat to Wilson and left the officer little choice but to kill in self-defense. This view was repeatedly buttressed by the evidence presented and the testimony of Wilson. There was really never much chance that a grand jury that was carefully led to believe the worst about Brown’s actions would come to any other decision other than that Wilson acted properly and within the law.
This didn’t end the matter. The third slaying happened when the lead prosecutor piled on Brown by continuing to tar him as the aggressor and bad guy in the drama, and defending Wilson’s actions. Wilson was given free license to tell his side of the story in a highly-touted network TV interview. This completed the enshrinement of Wilson as the true victim in the Brown saga and fully deserving of public sympathy and goodwill. This closed the door on the at best faint possibility that the Justice Department would file charges against Wilson. The case was officially closed when the Department brokered an agreement with Ferguson officials to revamp its police department’s training and recruiting procedures.
The decision not to indict Wilson ignited predictable anger, fury, more demonstrations, and a spasm of violence in Ferguson. This further reinforced the image of Brown, and those who supported him, as lawless and violent prone. At the same time, Brown became the symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement and the impetus for a renewed movement against police violence against young black males. This in turn cast Brown again as the poster figure in the acrimonious debate over police-black community conflict and further hardened the line between those who believe the police are under attack from the lawless and BLM protesters. This has had dire consequences.
A Stanford study released days before Brown’s killing found that a significant number of whites and non-whites were even more willing to cheer tough sentencing, three strikes laws, and draconian drug busts, when they perceive that most those busted and imprisoned are black. In months after the Brown slaying, the spiral of violence continued with police slaying of blacks in several cities, and the shocking murder of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana by black shooters.
Now there’s the newly released video footage of Brown in the convenience store. The unsubstantiated conclusion is that Brown was doing a drug deal. The clear implication is that if he was engaged in a criminal act in the store, then maybe there was probable cause for Wilson to stop him, and to believe that Brown had reason to resist Wilson. The video certainly won’t change the tragic consequence of Wilson’s action against Brown. It just serves two and half years after the slaying to again to prove to many that Brown was no angel and that Wilson acted properly. That being so, then, the state was right not to act against him. It’s a case of the fourth slaying of Brown.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of In Scalia’s Shadow: The Trump Supreme Court ( Amazon Kindle). He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.