To his friends, Michael Brown was a “gentle giant”—a “quiet person with a wicked sense of humor.”
That’s a far cry from the man described by officer Darren Wilson in his grand jury testimony in the shooting of Brown. To Wilson, who stopped and scuffled with the 18-year-old on the morning of Aug. 9, 2014, Brown was a “demon,” a monster with terrible resilience and incredible strength.
“When I grabbed him the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” said the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Wilson of the 6-foot-5, 290-pound Brown. “Hulk Hogan, that’s how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.”
In Wilson’s story Brown was mouthy, aggressive, and eager to fight. Wilson said he asked Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, why they couldn’t walk on the sidewalk instead of the street. “Fuck what you have to say,” Brown supposedly said. When Wilson tried to open the door to his police car, he says Brown shut the door and began to strike the officer in the face, handing his stolen cigarillos to Johnson to better attack Wilson.
In Wilson’s account, Brown punched like Balrog, with enough force to kill him outright. “I felt another one of those punches in my face could knock me out or worse. I mean, it was, he’s obviously bigger than I was and stronger and the, I’ve already taken two to the face and I didn’t think I would, the third one could be fatal if he hit me right.”
At this point, Wilson says, he drew his gun. “Get back or I’m going to shoot you.” Brown—Wilson said—grabbed his gun and replied, “You are too much of a pussy to shoot me.” Wilson fired, shooting through the glass panel, and prompting Brown to back away. Brown, according to Wilson, “had the most aggressive face. That’s the only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”
Brown approached again and hit Wilson, who fired another bullet. At that point, Brown ran away, with Wilson following on foot. He fired more shots—striking Brown at least once—and stopped. But Brown wasn’t down. Instead—like a villain, or perhaps, an evil mutant—he appeared stronger than before. Wilson fired again. “At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him,” Wilson said. “And that face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.”
Wilson describes an almost animalistic Brown, who—like Wolverine—had gone into a kind of berserker rage. He made “a grunting, like aggravated sound,” Wilson said. “I’ve never seen anybody look that, for lack of a better word, crazy,” he explained. “I’ve never seen that. I mean, it was very aggravated … aggressive, hostile … You could tell he was looking through you. There was nothing he was seeing.”
Eventually, after 12 total shots, Wilson hit Brown in the head, killing him and ending the confrontation.
This account, given one month after the shooting, fits the facts of the case. It’s consistent with forensic evidence and eyewitness testimony, and it was credible enough for a grand jury to defer to police discretion and decline charges. But the fact that it’s possible doesn’t make it believable, and looking at the story, I think it’s ludicrous.
Take Wilson’s account of Brown’s actions and language. He describes a vicious, combative Brown, quick with a quip and eager to fight with police. Based on what we know from his family and friends, this sounds out of character. But more than that, it’s weird behavior. Brown and Johnson were just at a convenience store, where they stole a box of Swisher Sweets. Most people who steal want to get away from the police, not charge in their direction. And while it’s possible Brown was itching to fight a cop, it just doesn’t ring true to who Brown was and how he understood himself.
More troubling is Wilson’s physical description of Brown, which sits flush with a century of stereotypes and a bundle of recent research on implicit bias and racial perceptions of pain. In so many words, Wilson describes the “black brute,” a stock figure of white supremacist rhetoric in the lynching era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The southern press was rife with articles attacking the “Negro Beast” and the “Big Black Brute,” notes Philip Dray in At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. To the white public, the “black brute” was a menacing, powerful creature who could withstand the worst punishment. Likewise, in northern papers, it was easy to find stories of “giant negroes” who “spread terror” and rampaged through urban centers. That image never went away; it lingers in crack-era stories of superpowered addicts and teenaged superpredators, as well as rhetoric around other victims of police brutality. “Jurors in the Rodney King beating trial were warned early on that the black motorist was not on trial,” notes a March 29, 1993 wire story on jury deliberations, “Yet they have heard King compared to a ‘monster,’ a ‘Tasmanian devil’ and a man with ‘hulk-like strength.’ ”
The idea that Brown could resist bullets is also familiar. In a recent paper, researchers found that whites are more likely to attribute superhuman abilities—like enhanced strength and endurance—to blacks than any other group. That, the authors assert, might explain some of the white tolerance for police brutality. “Perhaps people assume that Blacks possess extra (i.e., superhuman) strength which enables them to endure violence more easily than other humans.” Add to this what we know about implicit bias—that most people perceive blacks as more violent and dangerous than other groups—and you have a Darren Wilson narrative that reads like a textbook case of racial projection.
Indeed, it’s worth noting the extent to which Wilson’s story echoes George Zimmerman’s account of his confrontation with Trayvon Martin. Like Brown, Martin is aggressive; he approaches Zimmerman’s SUV, circles it, and threatens him. When he tried to escape, Zimmerman said, Martin punched him in the face, knocked him down, and began beating him on the sidewalk. Like Brown, Martin threatens Zimmerman—“You’re gonna die now”—and like Wilson, Zimmerman shoots him, fearing for his life.
It’s the fear that’s most striking. Wilson was trained, armed, and empowered with the force of law. At almost any point in his confrontation with Brown, he could have called for backup and won control of the situation. But, he says, he was too gripped with terror to do anything but shoot. The same was true for Zimmerman, and the same was true for Michael Dunn, the man who killed Jordan Davis in a Jacksonville, Florida parking lot.
Maybe Wilson is telling the truth. Maybe—like Zimmerman and Dunn and all the others—he faced a powerful black “demon” who wouldn’t stop and had to be killed. But this would be an incredible coincidence, or more likely, evidence of some terrible, criminal pathology among young black men. Which is to say, I doubt it’s true.
Instead, consider this: Maybe Wilson was an ordinary police officer with all the baggage it carries. Maybe, like many of his peers on the Ferguson police force, he was hard on black teenagers. Maybe, like many Americans, he was a little afraid of them. And maybe all of this—his fear, his bias, and his training—met Michael Brown and combined to create tragedy.
If so, the lesson of Wilson is that he isn’t unique. That his fear is common. And that the same forces that drove Wilson and Brown to confrontation can—and will—drive another Wilson and another Brown to another confrontation with the same deadly results.