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Ferguson: Michael Brown’s Reality vs. Darren Wilson’s Reality

Maya Bohnhoff | Dec 19, 2014

PART 1 IN SERIES Hulk Hogan and a 5 Year Old

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Maya Bohnhoff | Dec 19, 2014

PART 1 IN SERIES Hulk Hogan and a 5 Year Old

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

“I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.”

This descriptive passage comes from Officer Darren Wilson’s account of his shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. It puts a sharp mental image into the mind of the listener: a small child trying to restrain a massive celebrity wrestler. It tells us nothing about Michael Brown, but only conveys what Darren Wilson felt about himself in comparison.

Ex-officer Wilson’s subjective description, like everything subjective, is “based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.” Some synonyms include: personal, individual, emotional, instinctive, intuitive.

Subjective descriptions do not convey knowledge about reality. So let’s look at the truth, the reality, what we can actually know about what happened when a white police officer shot an unarmed 18-year-old African American teenager and sparked a huge outcry over race and injustice.

In reality, Mike Brown and Darren Wilson both stood about the same height—6 foot, 4 inches. An 82 pound weight difference separated the two men (Wilson’s 210 to Mike Brown’s 292). One man was an armed, trained law enforcement professional; the other was unarmed and much younger—a teenager who just graduated from high school.

These important facts convey objective knowledge about reality–even though they’re not nearly as dramatic and emotionally engaging as that image of a five-year-old confronting Hulk Hogan. They fail to stick in the mind the way that simple picture does of a small, defenseless child trying to control a powerful foe.

In further testimony, Officer Wilson commented that: “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. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.”

Again, this is subjective, not factual. “It looked like” Brown meant to run through the shots. “It looked like” being shot at was making Brown mad rather than scared. Wilson had the impression that Brown was “looking straight through” him. These subjective descriptions tell us nothing about what Mike Brown actually did—something that witnesses do not agree on.

Finally, Officer Wilson offers a vivid description of Michael Brown as something less–or maybe more–than human. He remarks on the “intense aggressive” face Brown made at him. He tells the Assistant District Attorney, “The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” Later, in response to a question, he would say, “I just felt the immense power that he had.”

Introducing police body cameras could solve the problem of perspective and subjectivity in cases like this

Introducing police body cameras could solve the problem of perspective and subjectivity in cases like this

Was Michael Brown “a demon” in possession of “immense power”? Of course not, and the fact that Darren Wilson’s bullets killed him proves it. But the impression hangs in the air like a hologram overlaying and blurring the reality—in truth, Michael Brown was a large young man whose battle prowess didn’t even run to martial arts training and who, at the point Wilson fired the lethal shot, was falling to the ground from loss of blood.

In the writing workshops I teach, I often advise aspiring writers not to pen descriptions like this for the simple reason that no one knows what a demon looks like or what a demonic expression entails. Writers use these kinds of subjective descriptions not to convey facts about the characters or to allow the reader to visualize settings and events, but to evoke emotions; to overlay or coat reality with emotion. The emotional component doesn’t tell the reader what actually happened, but only how the writer feels about it. Moreover, it tells the reader how to feel about it.

Demons are creatures of our imaginations; personifications of our fears. This evocative word calls upon a deep-seated primal terror of beings so powerful they cannot be stopped by mere mortals—not even with bullets. The problem? That word doesn’t tell us about the actual expression on Mike Brown’s face–it only tells us how Darren Wilson responded emotionally to seeing it.

What would a factual description of Michael Brown look like? It would answer questions like these: Were his brows furrowed? Had he bared his teeth? Were his eyes wide or narrowed? Were his arms close to his body or held out or up in front of him? Was he sweating? Crying? Swearing? Only Michael Brown ultimately knew whether his grimace was one of rage, as Wilson suggests, or whether it was a grimace of fear and pain, or a grimace of blind, reactive panic. How can anyone tell the difference from 100 feet?

We hear Officer Wilson’s words and form impressions of Mike Brown based on how they make us feel. I think most of us have had a friend or acquaintance tell us they interpreted our facial expressions or body language in ways that surprised us. In college a close friend told me that when she first met me she thought I was aloof and snobby, until she got to know me and realized I was merely painfully shy.

When these terrible incidents occur, we naturally want to know the truth. We want to see the objective reality, not someone’s subjective impressions. We hunger for what’s real, for the facts:

Never can reality and the mere semblance of reality be one, and wide is the difference between fancy and fact, between truth and the phantom thereof. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 177.

Please follow along with this short series of essays, as we try to look beyond the fancy and the phantoms surrounding Michael Brown’s tragic death.

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Comments

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  • Dec 21, 2014
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    Once we look at the facts objectively we can see the higher truth. Michael Brown and the officer were each playing out a script that society has given us regarding the "realities" of black men and white cops. We can see then that education is needed all the way around. Especially education of many white people in positions of authority. I don't doubt that officer Wilson was scared but as a cop does he have the luxury of acting on that fear? "To serve and protect" not to be served and protected. I'm looking forward to this series even if ...I don't agree with everything contained in it.
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  • Dec 21, 2014
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    The physical evidence provides more than enough objective information about what happened. It also discredits many of the so called "eyewitness" accounts. However, it seems there are people out there who prefer to ignore the evidence and pursue other agendas. Are we as Bahai's going to stand up for the truth, or whatever is politically correct so not to offend anyone?
  • Dec 21, 2014
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    Wait. A writer is the observer. The officer was a participant. The two are not the same. The officer provided a subjective viewpoint because he was a participant, not an observer. How else are we to respond to our experiences except to provide our subjective experience of them? The jury is responsible for extracting the objective information since Michael could not provide his viewpoint. In the end, "I was afraid for my life" was the statement that the jury needed to confirm regardless of whether or not it was an accurate reflection of what really happened. They found that whatever ...really did happen that the officer truly believed his life was in danger and it is legal for him to make that call. The best writing does not tell the reader what to think. The article, ironically, is telling the reader exactly what to think.
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    • Dec 26, 2014
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      Maya K. Bohnhoff , thank you for your very thoughtful and thorough response. I think I understand where you are coming from. I was looking at this from a reporting type of perspective rather that what writers do and do not do when creating characters. However, let me state, I personally am appalled that any officer would use deadly force on an unarmed person. It is happening too often and the law needs to come down hard on these cases. The allowable standard here needs to be much more strident. The burden of proof should be on the officer to ...show there was no alternative whatsoever but to use deadly force. If he was afraid for his life, why did he get out of his vehicle instead of running after the victim? The law should state the alternatives he should have used first rather than deadly force. Officers should be better trained to know how to respond in a manner that holds all life as sacred and upholds the rights of the citizen he is pursuing. It is an indictment of the entire culture, isn't it, where life is so often treated as expendable and you can shoot someone dead because they have a scary face? Law enforcement is the only time that would ever be considered allowable. My personal opinion is that the law is flawed which caused what happened in the courtroom. The officer should have not gotten out of his vehicle to begin with or pursued the victim. He called for backup and he should have waited for backup. If he had done that he would not have been in the position he was in and the young man might still be alive. So, at the very least, I feel he should have been indicted for manslaughter but the law did not allow it. I believe officers should be punished for use of deadly force on unarmed persons whenever it occurs. That should be a given but it is not. The system fails here. It has nothing to do, in my mind, with the language that is used because, to me, the language is a necessary part of obtaining information not only of the facts of the case but of state of mind. The system, itself, allows and depends on the emotional impact of the statements made by the parties involved. In public cases, such as this, emotional impact to the victim and family, and the response by the perpetrator, plays a role in the indictment and sentencing. In civil cases the emotional impact plays a part in the punitive damages, which can be enormous, that must be paid. So, I think I just look at it differently - not from the point of view of what should be said and how but as what the law says a person in that position is obligated to do and what the jury is instructed to do with the information they hear and see - instructions that are based upon the law. I see it as the way our system of justice operates. The law, itself, has failed both men - the officer and the victim - by favoring the officer and not the victim. The law is unjust, not the language of the officer's testimony. The jury found there was no reason to believe he was lying about his state of mind and the law allows it. Justice is not in the language, it is in the law. The laws need to change to be more just so that the civil rights of the dead victim can not be overridden by the officer's state of mind. The law should be just so that justice can be exercised, regardless of language used by those testifying.
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    • Dec 26, 2014
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      First of all, a writer is more than an observer. As a writer, one attempts to empathize with a character in a situation and both relay the factual circumstances of the situation to the reader and then to try to get the reader to empathize as well by relaying what the character feels. The reader is often in the position of seeing both the fact and the reaction to it and determining whether the character is responding rationally or emotionally to it. My comment about not using emotionally charged descriptions (he was a demon, he was a devil, he was ...looking right through me) to impart FACTS about a situation had to with the confusion is causes the reader or listener who is trying to picture the scene in their minds. If the physical situation is unclear the listener has little choice but to fall back on the emotions he or she has been made to feel.
      It's an odd thing, but most writers I know even dissect the horrific things that happen to them personally—accidents, visits to the emergency room, even the loss of a loved one. To paraphrase something I heard someone say of acting, writers are explorers of other people's souls.
      And yes, the jury IS responsible for extracting the factual information from all of the hyperbole and emotionally charged descriptions. And because we are very susceptible to emotions, that can be difficult. Ultimately, they ask themselves, "If I felt like that, what would I do?"
      I find it interesting that you believe I told people what to think. I didn't. I did suggest that the factors that made Darren Wilson so afraid of a young, unarmed black man were not based in fact, but rather in assumptions that we, as a people—as a species, need to challenge. If we can challenge those assumptions and rid ourselves of our ingrained prejudices, then we all stand a much better chance of seeing reality and making better choices.
      Ironically, in several of the cases lately of young black men being killed or injured by police officers, we have video of the event. We can see the facts of the situation. Yet it still devolves on highly subjective input. The question is not what happened, but what did the officer believe had happened. I am not sure that question leads, in the end, to justice.
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  • Dec 21, 2014
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    I sincerely believe the readers of this website have been rendered a disservice by an article which relies upon multiple factual misstatements to make a point...whatever that point might be.
    The author posed the question, "What would a factual description of Michael Brown look like?" Had the article included the full quote from Officer Wilson's grand jury testimony, it would be quite apparent that the officer had provided exactly the factual description which the artticle fails to recognize.
    Officer Wilson's full and unabridged statement to the grand jury was...“And then after he did that, he looked up ...at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”
    The complete statement makes it abundantly clear that Officer Wilson was stating that Brown's expression was one of intense anger.
    Furthermore, the author strayed dangerously far from a factual retelling of the events by the inclusion of a rhetorical question which suggests Officer Wilson was viewing Brown's expression from a distance of 100 feet.
    In actuality, Officer Wilson was describing the face of an assailant who had shoved the officer back into his vehicle, slammed the door on him, struck him at least once in the face, and was engaged in a struggle for control of the officer's weapon. These are hardly events which can transpire at a distance off 100 feet as the author suggests, but actually occurred while the two were face to face and within arms reach of one another.
    It is also misleading to refer to Brown as being unarmed. Based upon what is known about Brown's physical assault of a store clerk during his involvement in a strong armed robbery at the Ferguson Market, as well as what is known by both witness testimony and forensic evidence at the scene of the shooting, Brown quite clearly used his size and weight as his weapon.
    I has hoped that a discussion of an inflammatory event such as the tragedy in Ferguson would be approached with a sincere dedication to approaching that discussion with a concern for truth and the facts of the event. This article demonstrates neither.
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    • Dec 26, 2014
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      I'd like to add that the key point of the blog is that all of us base our impressions of situations, things and people on often unacknowledged prejudices that we have. If you read the article carefully, then you'll note that Mr. Wilson made a point of his strong feelings about the neighborhood. It isn't "well-liked". That alone can prejudice or bias the feelings and expectations he had patrolling it. Likewise, his "read" of another person's face is going to be filtered through any expectations he had of them, experiences he had with people who he felt were like that ...person.
      I've had the experience of having someone tell me, "I didn't like SoandSo. They seemed arrogant." When I ask why they say that, I often get "They had an arrogant expression on their face." But what seemed an arrogant expression to them looked like a concerned expression or an interested expression to me. Often the difference was one of familiarity. I knew the person somewhat, the individual commenting on their arrogance had just met them.
      I never doubted that Officer Wilson was frightened or at least greatly concerned. My point was that his reasons for having such a strong reaction had less to do with reality than his perception of it.
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    • Dec 26, 2014
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      With all due respect, the only reason the entire quote from Mr. Wilson was not included was one of length, because the full quote still begs the question of what features or expression of Brown's face struck Officer Wilson as "the most intense aggressive face". That is a subjective description, not an objective one, and it requires interpretation on Wilson's part of what Mike Brown's grimace meant.
      Also, I was not referring to their encounter at the police car, but rather the situation Wilson was describing at that time: Brown had run away from his vehicle to a distance ...that I have repeatedly seen given as over 100 feet. In the panic of the moment, given that Brown was at this point moving back toward Wilson, it would be highly improbable that Wilson's sense of the situation and his reading of Brown's face were not filtered through fear and other highly charged emotions
      My point was that the most damning testimony given by Wilson—the testimony that cast Mike Brown as a superhuman demon in a rage so complete he was impervious to bullets—was not "factual". It was subjective and emotionally charged. The only person who knows what Michael Brown's intentions were in the moments before his death is Michael Brown and he is not here to tell us.
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  • Dec 19, 2014
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    To be fair, Officer Wilson was not writing an essay or science fiction. He was recounting to the best of his ability a set of very scary events that almost none of us have had to endure. I'm sure that these impressions are indelibly etched in his mind. If we could also get a statement from Michael Brown it would be preferable and probably very different (and just as terrifying) as that from Officer Wilson's account just as those of the eyewitnesses that testified. What does known, documented previous behavior of each of those involved say? Anyway, it's not ...always simple and justice (what's most important according to Baha'u'llah : "The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.") is very difficult to come to in the times we live in.
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    • Dec 26, 2014
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      My point was exactly what you say above: it's not simple. Not black and white, up or down, true or false. When we read these accounts, we are tremendously affected by the emotional cues we receive from the ones giving them. The most sensational part of Darren Wilson's testimony, both in the courtroom and in the media, was not "event" driven. It was highly emotionally charged descriptions of his impressions of Mike Brown from a completely subjective viewpoint.
      Justice is indeed the necessary virtue here, because it is too easy to be swayed by emotion and to make decisions—as ...consumers of information or as a member of a jury—based on empathy with the person telling the most vivid and emotionally evocative story.
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