What Next

“What Happened in Ferguson Was Quite Different From What We Were Told”

If the narrative around Michael Brown’s death shifted, does that change the aftermath?

Demonstrators protest the shooting death of Michael Brown November 26, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri.
Demonstrators protest the shooting death of Michael Brown in November 2014 in St. Louis. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images.

This piece is part of Ferguson Revisited, a series from What Next looking back at Michael Brown’s death, the protests that followed, and their legacy five years later.

This week, What Next is looking back at the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. That summer, John McWhorter, who’s black, was one of many people watching incidents of black men being killed by the police under unjustified circumstances. In the second of our three-part series, I talked with McWhorter, who’s a writer, professor at Columbia University, and host of the Lexicon Valley podcast, about the death of Brown and the story surrounding it.

Mary Harris: Did it feel a particular way, to sort of see these stories come out?

John McWhorter: John Crawford, killed for holding up a toy. Eric Garner was basically pleading for his life. And these sorts of things are not happening once every five years. What was interesting about it was that finally white America could see what ails a lot of black America. I think a lot of very well-intentioned whites look at the race debate and think, “Why are black people still so upset? What’s the issue?” And a great deal of the issue has been the cops.

But so much of what people remember about the August day Brown was killed is simply a myth. We can go on and on with various black men who were killed under conditions quite different from Ferguson. It’s inconvenient to me that the case that forever people will think about is the one where essentially we were lied to.

I am often thought of as a black conservative. I have worked for the Manhattan Institute for a while, and the myth will never die that I’m a right-wing Republican conservative, but that means that I’m used to getting hate mail from people on the left.

Writing about Brown’s death and in support of the protests for Time and the Daily Beast was one of the first times I had gotten that volume of hate mail that heated from the right, and it really got me thinking about the country’s mood.

Can you tell me about one of the letters?

I remember one letter that I got written in a rather crude hand. And the person said, “I’m a white male, sixtysomething years old, and I just have to say … ” And you always have to watch out when somebody says, “I just have to say”: “I just have to say that I’m tired of people like you stirring up racial animus in this country. I’m tired of being called a racist.” And to be honest, I could put myself in the heads of those sorts of people and understand how it might feel.

You can understand this point of view because of everything we’ve learned since Brown’s death. There are two stories of what happened the night that Michael Brown was killed: the story we heard immediately after he was gunned down and then the story we came to know months later, after a federal investigation.

At first, the details of Brown’s death were hazy. Some witnesses say he was running toward Darren Wilson when he was shot. Others said he had his hands up in surrender. It was this image of Michael Brown with his hands in the air that took hold. “Hands up, don’t shoot” was repeated by football players, news anchors, even members of Congress.

After six months of investigation, then–Attorney General Eric Holder announced they found no evidence to support the story that Brown was surrendering to police when he was killed. Witness after witness described Brown reaching for Wilson’s gun and eventually charging toward the officer. One man said he testified so Brown’s family wouldn’t think a police officer got away with murdering their son. Another witness said she would’ve fired sooner.

When you saw the Department of Justice report, did that change how you thought about what you’ve been writing about for a year at that point?

Yes. What happened in Ferguson was quite different from what we were told. No one can doubt now that Brown did not die with his hands up—he had been quite aggressive with Darren Wilson, and Darren Wilson shot him because he was afraid. Now, we can talk about Why did Darren Wilson have to shoot him to kill? That’s a whole conversation, as opposed to shooting him in the leg, but the idea that the “gentle giant” got shot with his hands up is a myth, and we’ve heard this even from the people who were watching.

I have been quite disturbed that a major element in our intelligence and punditocracy pretends that the truth about Ferguson is somehow beside the point. You can assume that there is going to be a movie about Ferguson, and I’m sure they are probably shooting it now, and in the part where Michael Brown was killed you can be sure that they’re going to go in slow motion, they’re going to start with strobe lighting, the camera angles are going to get weird. The director and the writer are going to give interviews where they say that they wanted to make it clear that the truth is unsure, that there are varying perspectives. But no, the truth is quite simple.

There are going to be people who say the way you’re talking is cold.

I’ll preface it by saying that part of the reason the Mike Brown myth sticks is because of a certain narratively compelling nature to what supposedly happened. If you’re trying to raise awareness about the relationship between black men and the cops, what happened to him is almost more educational than things that happened to other black men. It’s a very clean kind of tale. Maybe that makes it better.

One of the reasons you have so little patience for the original story about Michael Brown’s death is that you’d rather we pay attention to the Justice Department’s second investigation into policing in Ferguson.

What I find more interesting about Ferguson is what led to the mood that would make Michael Brown behave the way he did, that led the community to all circle around him at first and frankly promulgate the myth that he was killed in cold blood. The reason that there was this black animus in Ferguson was because of indefensible biased treatment over decades.

That treatment, as exposed in the report, was shocking. It revealed that the city prioritized revenue over public safety. They were floating the city budget by charging residents fines and fees. The police routinely made unconstitutional stops and arrests, and they disproportionately targeted black residents.

In a way, Mike Brown’s death was useful in that it called attention to that. I wrote about that and got more hate mail. The idea being: How dare I stir up hatred about Ferguson, again! But if we’re going to get to the heart of this issue of the cops and black men, we have to know about what had been going on in Ferguson, including the less dramatic, but more important fact, of all of these traffic stops, and fines, and nights in jail, and months and months in prison, based on this open discrimination and running a town based on a collection of all these fees from people who have enough problems already.

If you had your way, this would be the issue. But years later, you just keep hearing the same thing.

I was listening to two black men, who were transit workers. This was in 2016, after the Department of Justice report had come out. One of them was saying, “If anybody wants to say there is no more racism, well, Mike Brown. That’s it right there.” And the other one said, “Yep.” They were representative. They knew the first version of the story, and for them, there’s that legend in the community at this point. And I certainly was not going to be the one to say, “Well, actually, if you read the report … ” because that wouldn’t have helped, and they wouldn’t have wanted to hear that. It’s taken on a totemic status, and I don’t think that’s an optimal state of affairs.

What are the consequences? Why do you worry about it?

What bothers me about it is that it being untrue leaves black people who are concerned with where we are on race open to a charge of lying. There are so many cases where the facts are quite clear. And then there is a case that people will bring all the time, that there will be movies and plays about, which is based on a lie. And the lie is easy to find today with the internet.

The most prominent case of a cop murdering a black man is one where we happen not to have been told the truth. Where you can always say, “Actually, that didn’t happen.” It’s not healthy because it’s going to stand in the way of constructive debate. It’ll leave many people wondering whether we were lied to about a lot of the other cases.

If it were up to me, we would focus on the other cases. I don’t want to say “useful,” but I think Eric Garner is a much more useful case in that it’s quite clear what happened. It’s quite clear what happened with Tamir Rice. It’s quite clear what happened with Sam DuBose, with John Crawford, with all of the people we see year after year.

For the iconic case to be a lie is highly inconvenient. It makes black activism look sloppy. It makes black activism look manipulative, and I’d rather it not be that way.

But I think a lot of things grew out of that terrible summer that started a conversation that people needed to be having. Ferguson drew attention to the militarization of police and sparked a really important movement of people pushing back on that. And yes, it was called “Black Lives Matter,” but it’s probably had a powerful impact for more than just black people.

I would go with you on that: If all of America is more aware of the problem of black men and the cops, the problem with the militarization of the police, then we’re further on than we were 10 years ago. And you have to decide what your priorities are.

Twenty-five years ago, I remember an intelligent, educated, white woman of about 21, just asking me casually, “Well, black people can go wherever they want to go. Here we are at this school, and there are plenty of black people here. Everything seems to be so different from the way it was back in the ’60s and before that, so what’s the problem now?” And she really wanted to know, and she wasn’t saying it in a disrespectful way, but she wanted to know. I think that her child now would not ask that question. I think her child now would know what the problem was. And a lot of it is because her child probably knows who Mike Brown was or would know where Ferguson, Missouri, is. I can’t say that that is a bad thing.

This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Listen to Part 1, or read an excerpt. To listen to the full episode for Part 2, click the player below or subscribe here.