Last week, in a Democratic presidential debate, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro read a list of black Americans killed by police violence. Alongside Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott, and Eric Garner, Castro named Michael Brown, who was shot dead five years ago in Ferguson, Missouri. Several of the current Democratic candidates have accused the officer who shot Brown of murder. Brown’s death was a tragedy, but it wasn’t a murder. When Democrats claim it was, and when they refuse to correct that mistake, they cast doubt on their commitment to truth. And they undermine the cause of criminal justice reform.
Brown became an icon of the Black Lives Matter movement for understandable reasons. He was unarmed, and the man who shot him, former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, is white. Racial bias in law enforcement was and is a pervasive problem. Ferguson’s police force has a history of discrimination. That history, the well-earned distrust it fostered in the black community, and the indignity of Brown’s body lying in the street for hours after the shooting ignited outrage. Ferguson became a flashpoint for protests and riots, and police responded with military gear and excessive force. The whole episode was a disaster. It awakened many white Americans to the mistreatment that black Americans had long felt at the hands of police.
But at the core of the story, there was a problem: The original account of Brown’s death, that he had been shot in the back or while raising his hands in surrender, was false. The shooting was thoroughly investigated, first by a grand jury and then by the Obama Justice Department. The investigations found that Brown assaulted Wilson, tried to grab his gun, and was shot dead while advancing toward Wilson again.
Despite these findings, three Democratic presidential candidates—Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, and billionaire Tom Steyer—said last month that Brown was murdered. These candidates haven’t backed down in the face of press queries and fact checks. Warren even dismissed a face-to-face question about the DOJ report that cleared Wilson.
The report thoroughly documents what happened to Brown. Surveillance video shows him stealing from a convenience store and shoving a clerk who tried to stop him. Police audio shows Wilson responding to the theft and pulling up, in his patrol car, in front of Brown. DNA on Wilson’s gun, on his collar and pants, and on the inside of his car door—along with soot on Brown’s thumb and injuries to Wilson’s jaw and neck—corroborates witness accounts that Brown reached into Wilson’s car, struck and wrestled with him, and tried to take his gun.
Three autopsies, including one by a private pathologist at the request of Brown’s family, found no entry wounds in Brown’s back. According to the report, the autopsies also found “no evidence to corroborate that Wilson choked, strangled, or tightly grasped Brown on or around his neck,” as some witnesses initially claimed. After the fight at the car, Brown ran away from Wilson, and Wilson exited the car to make the arrest. But bloodstains, crime-scene photos, and all credible witness testimony supported Wilson’s explanation that he fired because Brown—who had already tried to seize the officer’s gun—turned around, was charging toward him, and seemed to be reaching for something at Brown’s waist. In reality, Brown was unarmed, and, as my former colleague Jamelle Bouie has explained, that mistake—perceiving a weapon where there isn’t one—is an example of the ways in which prejudicial fear of black men can fatally affect police officers’ judgment.
But as to whether Brown had both hands up or had dropped a hand to his waistband, as Wilson alleged, the evidence backed up Wilson. In sum, says the report, “The evidence establishes that the shots fired by Wilson while he was seated in his SUV,” as well as “the shots fired by Wilson after Brown turned” and came back toward the officer, “were in self-defense.” Therefore, Wilson’s actions were not “objectively unreasonable” and did “not constitute prosecutable violations” of federal law.
The DOJ issued that report in 2015. The Washington Post published a long article about it. The New Yorker examined the DOJ report, interviewed Wilson, and investigated his background, finding a man far more complex than the caricatures of him. The DOJ report also scrutinized Wilson’s past. “Federal prosecutors were aware of and reviewed prior complaints against Wilson, as well as media reports, alleging Wilson engaged in misconduct,” said the report. “Such allegations were not substantiated.”
Four years later, Democratic candidates for president are reviving the myth. On Aug. 9, the fifth anniversary of the tragedy in Ferguson, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York framed the shooting as a reminder of “police violence and racism.” Harris, a career prosecutor and former state attorney general, called Brown’s death a murder. Warren, a former Harvard law professor, said Brown “was murdered by a white police officer,” and she urged activists to “continue the fight for justice for Michael.” Steyer tweeted that “the worst part of Michael Brown’s death” was that “his killer still walks free.” Steyer encouraged prosecutors in Missouri to file murder charges.
Despite subsequent fact checks by CNN, Vox, the Post, and FactCheck.org, not one of these candidates has corrected his or her statement about the shooting. “We repeatedly sought comment from the Harris and Warren campaigns but did not get a response,” the Post reported in an Aug. 13 article debunking the senators’ allegations. Vox, CNN, and FactCheck.org reported similar nonresponses from the Warren and Harris campaigns.
Warren didn’t just ignore these queries. On Aug. 14, at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, she rebuffed a direct question about her false accusation. ABC News reporter Cheyenne Haslett asked Warren “about your tweet about Michael Brown from Ferguson. You said that he was murdered by Darren Wilson, despite a DOJ report which did not find that.” Haslett noted that some law enforcement officers “find that disrespectful.” She asked Warren, “Can you offer your reaction to that?”
Video of the exchange shows Warren pausing to consider her answer. The senator could have begun by acknowledging that the DOJ report was correct and that she was mistaken in calling Brown’s death a murder. Then she could have proceeded to the rest of the story: that the Ferguson police had a pattern of “unlawful bias” against blacks—documented by the Justice Department in a separate report issued on the same day the department cleared Wilson—and that a number of cases, including the deaths of Scott, Garner, and McDonald, underscored the persistent problem of police violence against black men.
Instead, Warren conceded nothing. “What matters,” she told Haslett, “is that a man was shot, an unarmed man, in the middle of the street by police officers and left to die. And I think that’s where our focus should be.”
Warren’s answer compounded her initial falsehood by adding a second myth. As awful as it was that Brown’s body lay in the street for four hours—an affront that even Ferguson’s police chief acknowledged and regretted—it isn’t true that Brown was left to die. (According to the DOJ report on Brown’s death, Wilson’s final shot killed him “where he stood.”) But what’s most concerning is Warren’s failure to admit error, particularly when the error is an accusation of murder. Does she respect facts that don’t fit her narrative? If she becomes the Democratic nominee, will voters see her as a truth teller in the face of Donald Trump’s lies, or as an ideologue? If she becomes president, will she listen to information that complicates her plans? Or will she plow ahead?
Candidates should talk about police bias. They should honor the memory of those whose lives have been taken. There’s no need to rely on a false narrative to tell the truth that black lives matter.
Support our 2020 coverage
Slate is covering the election issues that matter to you. Support our work with a Slate Plus membership. You’ll also get a suite of great benefits.Join Slate Plus