Blow by Blow

90 Seconds of Fury in Ferguson Are the Key to Making Peace in America

We need to understand what happened between Michael Brown and Darren Ferguson before we can begin to change how we police ourselves.


As Michael Brown and Police Officer Darren Wilson struggled furiously in the open window of the squad car, the teen’s friend could only wish for a peacemaker to appear.

“I almost feel like someone needs to come out here and say something to either one of them to calm somebody down,” Dorian Johnson later told the grand jury of those moments when he watched what seemed a tug of true war. “They are yelling and cussing. And neither one of them can calm down. They both have angry faces. They both were very upset and they couldn’t calm down.”

Johnson himself was too stunned to do or say anything.

“At the time I couldn’t open my mouth,” he testified. “I wanted to say, ‘Could someone calm down?’ I could not speak.”

Not 90 seconds later, Brown lay shot to death in broad daylight in the middle of a Missouri street. And now the whole country is wondering how we can make peace between the police and communities of color.

“The problem is not just a Ferguson problem,” President Obama said Tuesday. “It’s an American problem.”But in seeking solutions to what is indeed a national problem, we first must strive to understand as best we can what exactly transpired between Brown and Wilson—the same way a plane crash has to be investigated in its most specific details to determine how to prevent the same thing from happening again.

As the U.S. Justice Department investigates possible civil-rights violations in Ferguson and elsewhere, it would do well to begin with the methodologies of the National Transportation Safety Board before seeking more general findings.

And everybody should forget those pundits who speak of Brown and Wilson in no more specific terms than a black teen killed by a white cop. Such talk sounds good on TV and in Washington. D.C., but it is not likely to result in any concrete and meaningful action.

We also should forget those who seize Brown as a symbol yet honor him so little as a real human being that they ignore his father’s plea for peaceful protests joined by hard work for future progress.

As described by Johnson, the 18-year-old he called Big Mike was the last person he would have expected to mix it up with the cops. Johnson is himself a self-described street guy who has been shot in the past and has been to jail. Brown was different.

“I knew he wasn’t someone like me, I knew he didn’t grow up where I grew up from, where there was a bunch of violent gangs and violent stuff occurring all the time,” Johnson testified. “I knew that much about because I read from his demeanor he didn’t come up that way.”

Johnson went on: “He was a real comfortable guy. I didn’t feel a threat from him… I could let him around my family, my daughter, and my girlfriend, and let him into my home. I could trust that he wouldn’t bring harm to me and anybody around me.”

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Johnson was a relative newcomer to the neighborhood, and he reported having received repeated warnings from area residents about the Ferguson police.

“Every day I hear different stories about people’s different encounters with Ferguson police,” Johnson testified. “‘Be very mindful of the police around.’ Whenever you’re coming outside the door, people are always giving you a warning, ‘They are up the street now’ and ‘They are down the street,’ or something in that manner, basically keeping you aware of Ferguson police.”

But Brown had not been among those Johnson heard speak of the cops as foes.

“He never directly told me like, ‘Yeah, man, Ferguson, they really be on us like that,’” Johnson testified. “He never really said anything like that towards me or never really brought up incidents where he had encountered the Ferguson police.”

Johnson went on to note, “My other neighbors… those are the ones getting stopped and they had their complaints, but he really didn’t talk about Ferguson police.”

Johnson told the grand jurors that he had not the slightest inkling of what was soon to come as he walked with Brown to the nearby Ferguson Market on the morning of Aug. 9. Johnson had managed to rescue himself from the street and had gone to college. Now he had his own apartment and a live-in girlfriend. Brown sought his counsel as he prepared to start college and make a life of his own.

“Basically, our conversation was about the future,” Johnson told the grand jury. “The conversation leading up to the store was a general conversation I would have with anybody any other day. There was nothing strange about the conversation. He didn’t say any words that made me feel like you need to sit down or anything like that.”

Johnson recalled that Brown paused to chat with some construction workers.

“He knew a lot of people that stayed in Ferguson,” Johnson testified. “He was very popular, you know, with the kids, or people in the area.”

Johnson told the grand jury he was unaware that Brown’s pockets were empty when they entered the store.

“I never thought that he didn’t have any money,” Johnson said. “He dressed nice in Next Generation clothing, so it is kind of pricier, so I figure that he had money.”

Johnson reported that he was stunned when Brown just grabbed a box of cigarillos and then two handfuls of loose ones.

“I didn’t want any part of it,” the streetwise Johnson testified. “I knew there was cameras in the store.”

Brown just turned to leave. The clerk tried to stop him. Brown shoved the clerk away from the door and glowered.

“At the time all he said was, ‘Get back,’” Johnson would recall.

As they left, Johnson heard the clerk say something.

“I’m going to call the police.”

Brown gave no sign of concern, as if he had suddenly suffered some psychic disconnect from consequences. Johnson found it both uncharacteristic and inexplicable.

“I looked at him for a while and stared at him because the times when I did meet him before that day, he didn’t strike me as a person who would do anything like that,” Johnson testified. “He never talked about any crimes or anything like that. And prior to that day, it shocked me a lot, it shocked me a lot. So I was asking him, I was like, ‘You know, hey, I don’t do stuff like that. What’s going on?’”

Johnson recalled that Brown treated it like a joke. Johnson remembered, “[Brown] was basically laughing it off, ‘Be cool, be calm,’ stuff like that, laughing it off, but in my head I’m like, ‘I can’t be calm, I can’t be cool’ because I know what just happened and we were on camera.’”

Johnson told the grand jury that he saw a police car approach.

“I was just, ‘Wow, we’re going to get locked up, this is going to happen,’” Johnson recalled.

But the police car just rolled on by. Brown continued sauntering along, still holding a fistful of cigarillos on each hand.

“Not running, not hiding, we are in plain sight,” Johnson testified.

Another police car appeared, but that one also just continued on. They initially saw no traffic at all as they came to Canfield Drive, and they wandered into the middle of the street.

“About 30 seconds and traffic started going, but no one blew their horns,” Johnson told the grand jury. “No one made irregular turns to get around us like we were in the way and no one yelled out their windows, ‘You guys are in the way, get out of the street,’ anything like that.”

As they neared the apartment complex where they both were living, yet another police car approached. This one stopped. Police Officer Darren Wilson rolled down the driver’s side window.

“He said, ‘Get on the sidewalk,’ but it wasn’t in a polite manner, it was very rudely… ‘Get the fuck on the sidewalk,’” Johnson testified.

Wilson would later tell the grand jury that he had been only polite and Brown had responded with the F word. Johnson testified that he was the only one to reply, telling the cop that they were almost to where they were going.

“I didn’t feel like I was rude,” he recalled.

Johnson in fact felt relieved.

“When I saw him, I thought he’s coming to get us for the store, but once he told us just ‘Get on the sidewalk,’ in my mind I’m like, ‘Well, I guess [the store clerk] didn’t call the police,’” Johnson remembered.

Johnson testified that he and Brown might have obeyed Wilson’s command if it had been phrased differently.

“It was more like a chastisement than ‘You are breaking law’ or ‘You are committing a crime’ or ‘You might bring harm to yourself,’” Johnson told the grand jury. “If those were represented in the way he came off to us when he first said it, then maybe, OK, you know what, we’ll get on the sidewalk.”

Wilson would tell the grand jury that he considered the neighborhood “a hostile environment” and “an antipolice area for sure,” plagued by guns and gangs and drugs.

“It is just not a very well-liked community,” Wilson testified. “That community doesn’t like the police.”

Wilson told the grand jury that he was beginning to proceed on his way when he suddenly realized Brown and Johnson matched the description of the two who had grabbed cigarillos from the store. Wilson suddenly reversed and stopped at an angle to block their way, so close that the driver’s side door banged into Brown when Wilson sought to open it.

The streetwise Johnson seems to have offered no resistance, but that was not Brown, and he had seems to have still been suffering that psychic break from his usual self.

Wilson, for his part, appears to have assumed that he was dealing with a thug cop hater and seems to have taken no steps to calm the situation.

A cop who was a member of this “hostile” community might have recognized—as Johnson did—that Brown was not a real person of the street. Such a cop might then have sought to act accordingly.

But that was not Wilson.

There then came that moment when Wilson and Brown were struggling at the open car window and Johnson wished for some kind of peacemaker to appear.

“I’m still standing there, more shocked than ever because I see it is escalating,” Johnson testified.

Johnson could not summon a single word when he saw that Wilson had drawn his gun.

“I’ve been shot before,” Johnson testified. “It is the worse pain I can ever imagine, it does not feel good. Because I saw the barrel, I went into a deeper shock.”

Johnson would tell the grand jury that he never saw Brown stick his hand inside the car and grab the gun. But Brown’s DNA would be found on the weapon.

Both Johnson and Wilson testified that they saw anger rather than fear in Brown’s face in his final instants.

Blood spatters on the pavement seem to confirm that he was moving toward Wilson when the instantly fatal shot was fired.

Only then did his fury end.

And that fury would now be a good place to begin a more comprehensive examination of this tragedy than was attempted by the grand jury, which was only considering whether there was probable cause as it applies to the Missouri penal code.

The goal should be to determine probable cause for change in how we police ourselves everywhere.

After the federal investigation that is already under way and the regional convocations that Obama just announced, it will all likely come down to this:

The peacemaker should be the person with the badge.