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The police are the issue in Ferguson, not Michael Brown's character

Scott Olson

In a searing post for Deadspin, Greg Howard wrote:

Brown's mother, Leslie McSpadden, said that he was funny and could make people laugh. He graduated from high school in the spring, and was headed to college to pursue a career in heating and cooling engineering. Monday would have been his first day.

Brown was One Of The Good Ones. But laying all this out, explaining all the ways in which he didn't deserve to die like a dog in the street, is in itself disgraceful. Arguing whether Brown was a good kid or not is functionally arguing over whether he specifically deserved to die, a way of acknowledging that some black men ought to be executed.

During Friday's press conference, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson tried to sow doubt that Brown really was One Of The Good Ones. He released stills from a "strong-arm robbery" showing someone who might be Brown grabbing a convenience-store clerk by his collar and throwing him backwards. The Good Ones don't rob convenience stores. The Good Ones don't assault clerks.

But this is a sick conversation. The Good Ones don't deserve to be shot when they're surrendering. But neither does anyone else.

It doesn't matter that Michael Brown was starting college on Monday. And it doesn't matter if he was involved in a robbery on Saturday. What matters is the precise circumstances in which Officer Darren Wilson shot Brown.

Constitutionally, there are two circumstances in which a cop is allowed to shoot: if he believes his life — or the life of another innocent party — is in danger, or if a violent felon is escaping.

At the core of the Brown investigation are two competing stories: Darren Wilson, the police officer, says Brown assaulted him in his car and tried to grab his gun.

Dorian Johnson, the eyewitness and Brown's friend, says that Wilson grabbed Brown, Brown fled, Wilson shot, and then — crucially — Brown stopped and put his hands in the air, but Wilson kept shooting.

If Brown assaulted Wilson and tried to grab his gun, and Wilson believed that his life or the life of others was threatened, then Wilson could have been legally justified in using deadly force at that moment. But Brown was shot multiple times, and the final shots, according to eyewitnesses, were fired after Brown surrendered with his hands up and told Wilson that he was unarmed. If Brown surrendered, the threat was neutralized, and Wilson shot him down anyway, then the shooting was illegal whether or not Brown had previously committed a violent crime.

This case is not about whether Michael Brown was One Of The Good Ones. It's not even about whether he robbed a convenience store. The penalty for stealing cigars from a convenience store is not death. This case is about whether Wilson was legally justified in shooting Michael Brown.

It is a powerful thing to give some men and women guns and charge them with protecting the peace. It is a powerful thing because it can so easily, and so quickly, become a dangerous thing. As a society, we strictly regulate when police officers can use deadly force. The question here is whether those rules were followed, not what kind of kid Michael Brown was.

Update: Later on Friday afternoon, the Ferguson Police Department clarified that Brown was stopped because he was jaywalking, not because he was thought to have been involved in a robbery. So, as far as we know, Darren Wilson had no reason to believe Brown was involved in any kind of violent crime at all. Which makes the Ferguson PD's decision to release the robbery photos today, absent this context, look even more like an attempt to sow doubts about Brown's character.