Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Things I Find Troubling About the Brown Shooting

The St. Louis County prosecutor released an interview with Darren Wilson recently, in which Officer Wilson recounts his version of his encounter with Michael Brown.  As I expect anybody reading this knows, the grand jury returned no indictment of the man, and naturally, I accept that as a matter of state law that's the end of it.  But I nevertheless find myself troubled by the story recounted.  There are, of course, questions of systemic justice that the case raises or at least has made people think about, but this is not a post about those.  Even among those who see this as an exemplar of systemic injustice, I expect that many people who are fascinated by this sort of thing are at least in part fascinated by the question of what they would have done had they been in the defendant's position, and I admit that a goodly portion of my own fascination is inspired by just that line of thinking.  In short: what do I think about Wilson's story, and how does that better help me understand myself?

According to Wilson, here is what happened:
Wilson encountered Brown and his friend walking down the middle of the street, heading towards his car.  He drew up to them in his patrol car and asked, "Hey guys, why don't you walk on the sidewalk?"  One of the two demurred.  Wilson repeated his request, and the second told him, "Fuck what you have to say," and the two continued to walk past Wilson's vehicle.  Wilson backed up, I suppose to keep pace with them, began to open his door, and said, "Hey, come here."  One of the two (Brown, the interview seems to imply), said, "What the fuck are you gonna do?" and shut the door on Wilson before he could even get his leg out of the vehicle.  Wilson tried to push Brown back with his door, Brown said something that Wilson doesn't recall, and then began punching Wilson through the window, pressing the door shut with his body.
Brown bent down to enter the vehicle with his upper body while continuing to do something with his arms ("tryin' to get his arms out of my face and him from grabbin' me and everything else," in Wilson's words).  Brown paused his attack to hand his companion a pack of stolen cigarillos with his left hand, saying, "Here, take these," which afforded Wilson the opportunity to grab hold of Brown's right arm.  Brown then rounded on Wilson with a full punch from his left hand.  Wilson continued to hold Brown's arm with his left hand while attempting to use his right to draw something to defend himself with.  He didn't have a taser, couldn't reach his mace on his utility belt (and didn't want to use it at such close proximity anyway for fear that it would incapacitate him too), couldn't reach his flashlight in the bag on the passenger seat without leaning away from Brown and rooting through the bag, and so decided on his gun.  He drew his firearm, pointed it at Brown, and ordered him to stop or be shot.  Brown informed Wilson that he was "too much of a fuckin' pussy to shoot me," grabbed it over the top with one or two hands (Wilson doesn't recall), and twisted it around to point at Wilson's pelvic area, with his hand around Wilson's trigger finger, which was inside the trigger guard.
Wilson let go of Brown's arm with his left hand and used it to lever the gun back around towards Brown.  He tried to fire twice, but the gun didn't fire, presumably because Brown's hand was still on the slide.  He tried to fire again and the weapon discharged through the door, sending glass from his rolled-down window flying along with blood.  Brown rocked back and then forced his upper body into the car again, swinging and grabbing wildly at Wilson.  Wilson defended himself with his left hand and tried to fire through the door again.  The weapon clicked, so Wilson racked the slide and as he did so the weapon "just came up and shot again."  Brown fled, and Wilson exited the vehicle and shouted at him to stop and get on the ground.
Brown stopped, and with "the most intense aggressive face I've ever seen on a person" charged Wilson at the run, putting his hand under his shirt into his waistband.  Wilson ordered him to stop and get on the ground again, but Brown kept running towards him.  Wilson began to backpedal, fired "multiple" shots and repeated the order, and Brown continued to run, "hands" still in his waistband.  Wilson fired multiple shots again, at least one of which hit Brown in the face and caused him to pitch forward onto the ground a few feet from Wilson.  Brown had "made contact" with Wilson "multiple" times, and landed "at least two" "solid blows," resulting in a swollen right cheek and jaw and scratches on his back, neck, and shoulders.
 Now, I have to admit that this story does not strike me as especially credible.  But let's suppose that everything happened exactly as described.  What are we to make of this?

My ethics of violence boil down to two aphorisms:

  1. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.  To he who strikes you on the [side of the] jaw, offer to him also the other (Jesus); and
  2. Someone ever tries to kill you, you try to kill them right back (Malcolm Reynolds).
The difference in verbs is important to me, and dictates what I believe to be the morally appropriate response.  The first (socking you on the jaw) is, in Natalian parlance, merely violence.  The second (trying to kill you) is a threat.

To unpack that a bit - as a Christian, I think that killing is bad.  This is not to say that it is always the wrong thing to do; I think that killing can be the right thing to do, despite being a bad thing to occur - and I think it remains a bad thing, even when it is the right thing to do.  Because killing is always bad (even when it is the right thing to do), it seems to me that the onus is on the prospective killer to decide whether it is warranted.

Christians have of course struggled with when it is appropriate to kill someone since almost before there were Christians.  My personal resolution of the dilemma is bound up in the distinction between violence and a threat.  I do not believe that Jesus intended for us to suffer every attack without resistance, and God seems to be perfectly okay with killing human beings under many circumstances.  The moral question for me boils down to what is actually being threatened.  Mere injury, or loss of honor or authority, does not warrant resistance.  If something more important is threatened, such as a life or a psyche, then resistance is warranted.

I don't believe in threats, and I don't believe in going into any kind of fight that you aren't prepared to finish by any means necessary.  So if resistance is warranted, death is on the table.  If it isn't worth killing over (if the altercation should escalate to that level), it isn't worth punching over.

How does all this apply to the Brown shooting?  I find myself troubled by the fact that Wilson drew his gun.  At the moment he made that decision, he had suffered back-talk, a punch to the face, and attempted grabs.  This is certainly offensive, but does it warrant killing?  I hesitate to say that being punched and grabbed on the street rises to the level of a threat, let alone when the attacker is awkwardly wedged through a car window.  I cannot help but notice that in Wilson's account, Brown only went for the gun after Wilson drew it - and then did so in a way that one normally associates with preventing an automatic from firing, and in fact did prevent it from firing twice, even after Wilson had regained some control over his weapon.  Is that a threat?  To be honest, I find it ambiguous.

I find it less ambiguous - somewhat, I admit, but significantly less - as to whether a large, wounded, apparently berserk teenager charging one is a threat.  I do not believe in reciprocal force.  Once an actual threat has been offered, I believe in ending it as decisively as possible.  I can buy classifying as a threat being charged by a kid with murder in his eyes, even if he does have to hold up his pants while charging.

But how did it get to that moment in the first place?  It is difficult for me to escape the conclusion that the escalation to lethal force came from Officer Wilson, after being offered no more provocation than being punched and unsuccessfully grabbed - in short, after being attacked, but not threatened.

It would be disrespectful to say that I would have done differently.  If that is what happened, though, it is difficult for me to say that it was right.

I do understand that what I am classifying as the morally correct way to deploy force is not the tactically correct way to deploy force.  If a person is close enough to strike you, after all, they are in all probability close enough to kill you before you can effectively resist.  Not only that, but your chances of being able to effectively resist are significantly diminished if you have first been struck, even by blows that are in themselves not actually threatening.  At the end of the day, I think that following Jesus sometimes requires one to do the tactically unsound thing in order to do the morally sound thing.

It's worth observing, though, that civilized society requires the same.  Imagine a society in which you can be justifiably killed for punching someone in a bar.  We all know instinctively that being punched in a bar is highly unlikely to be a prelude to homicide.  It's almost certainly about establishing dominance, not about rending body from soul.  But of course that's an assumption, and after all, one has been attacked by a person at a very dangerous range.  It would be safer to incapacitate them than to ignore it, or walk away.  And there have been and are times and places when society was much closer to that norm.  It was not, I feel confident in saying, an improvement.

I should emphasize that it is not the escalation per se that troubles me.  As I said, I don't believe in reciprocal force.  In fact, I affirmatively believe in unreciprocal force, which is why it does not particularly bother me that Brown was, at the time of his death, unarmed.  What troubles me is why Wilson, according to his own account, chose to escalate.  His account does not make it sound like Brown intended to kill him, or indeed was in any reasonable danger of doing so inadvertently, and yet Wilson threatened to kill him.  That is what troubles me.

I have heard from various parties variations of the sentiment that Brown deserved what he got, because he assaulted a police officer.  To this I feel it should be sufficient reply to ask why, if assaulting a police officer is sufficient cause to warrant death without a trial, no legislature or court has seen fit to articulate that doctrine.  We will search the law in vain to find the proposition that a police officer may lawfully kill another prior to receiving an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury that an objectively reasonable person would interpret as such, even the laws of self-defense.  And we know, of course, that not all assaults do constitute, to an objectively reasonable person, imminent threat of death or serious physical injury.  In this case, Brown was allegedly attempting to punch and grab Wilson through the window of a patrol car.  It is difficult for me to see how he could have caused Wilson's death or serious physical injury in that position, and if he could not have done so or done so only through a very improbable series of events, then he could not present Wilson with an imminent threat.  So again ... what was it, other than Wilson's subjective fear, that justified his drawing his weapon?

I find myself troubled.

1 comment:

TMD said...

I actually think that one of the most troubling things (though certainly not the focus of your inquiry here) is Wilson's insistence that he feels no remorse for the act. You touch on this in saying that violence is sometimes justified but always awful; I am not comfortable giving the power to legally enact violence to someone who does not understand its gravity. I said it in a facebook post earlier, but the point of holding up the paragon archetype of heroic soldiers and cops only works if violence is still horrible--if it takes a psychological toll. I don't want remorseless soldiers and cops.