Police Abuse

Shelby Steele on the Implications of Michael Brown's Tragic Death

In a new documentary, Steele argues that the "story of victimization" was an attempt to "win power."

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Before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there was Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man who a white police officer shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Brown's death helped fuel the fledgling Black Lives Matter movement, a response to the too often ignored problem of police violence in black communities.

In contrast to other police killings that have energized Black Lives Matter and nationwide protests—including that of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot while wielding a plastic gun; of Eric Garner, who died while an officer held him in a chokehold for selling loose cigarettes; and of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—Barack Obama's Justice Department concluded that there's no reason to believe that by shooting Brown, Wilson was acting unreasonably, because Wilson was under attack.

"Hands Up. Don't Shoot," a line derived from accounts of Brown's final words, has been a rallying cry at protests against police violence. But Michael Brown is unlikely to have spoken those words. An exhaustive Department of Justice report concluded that the claim that "Brown held his hands up in clear surrender" came from sources who later "acknowledged that they didn't actually witness the shooting, but rather repeated what others told them." And that account was "inconsistent with the physical evidence," which instead corroborated Officer Darren Wilson's claim that Brown attacked him and tried to grab his gun. As Reason's Jacob Sullum concluded in 2015, "Wilson's use of deadly force probably was legally justified."

Writer and filmmaker Shelby Steele went to Ferguson to investigate the meaning of Brown's death and the reaction that it inspired. His new documentary, a collaboration with his son Eli, is called What Killed Michael Brown?

Born in Chicago in 1946, Steele, a former college professor who specialized in Russian literature, is the son of a truck driver and the grandson of a slave. His views on how to correct America's racial injustices were deeply influenced by his experiences in the late 1960s and early '70s working in a poverty program in East St. Louis. Steele believes, provocatively, that what killed Michael Brown is the "liberalism that put him in public housing, that expanded welfare payments so that his family broke up, the fatherless home, the terrible education, terrible schools, terrible public housing, uh, the destructive school busing." In place of today's increasing focus on identity politics, Steele believes we need to emphasize citizenship and the experiences we have in common if we are to deliver fully on America's promise as a land of opportunity.

Listen to the full podcast interview here.

Narrated by Nick Gillespie. Edited by John Osterhoudt. Additional graphics by Isaac Reese.

Music: "Calling (Instrumental)," by Dexter Britain is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 International License

Photos: Everett Collection/Newscom; Emilee Mcgovern/ZUMA Press/Newscom; John Rudoff/Polaris/Newscom; Javier Galeano/Polaris/Newscom; Imagespace/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Seth Herald/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Stephanie Keith/Polaris/Newscom; Brian Branch Price/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Michael Nigro/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Imagespace/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Circa Images/Newscom; Joe Brusky/Flickr/Creative Commons; Elvert Barnes/Flickr/Creative Commons; Tim Dennell/Flickr/Creatives Commons; Joe Brusky/Flickr/Creative Commons; Fibonacci Blue/Flickr/Creative Commons; GPA Photo Archive/Flickr/Creative Commons

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  1. Prepare for angry drive-by commenters, with that tame suggestion that ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ is complete horseshit.

    1. does the author’s paragraph on the subject count?

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  2. OMG the DOJ does not determine if a state level homocide 8s justified or not it only investigates civil rights violations. From where Brown turned back towards Wilson he made it 21 feet. The audio of the shooting lasts 3.5 seconds. That means Brown was moving at 4 mph or walking pace not charging full speed as Wilson testilied. Wilson was not under attack. Even if he had been he was outside with plenty of room to maneuver and was armed against and unarmed man. Also Wilson had chased Brown 175 feet from his SUV. Chasing a person down and shooting them as they walk towards you and in the top of the head as they fall is completely unreasonable.

    1. That didn’t take long.

      1. When did everyone on Reason become a bootlicker?

        1. When they started filling the columns and comments with leftists.

          But your logic is off. You can’t assume a constant rate of acceleration for Brown as he’s being shot.
          The wound pattern is consistent, as are the witness stories.

          1. How do wounds indicate speed? 21 feet is about 8 steps how fast do you think a 290 pound guy who just ran 175 feet after getting shot in the hand can accelerate in 8 steps?

            1. This has been litigated to death, by pretty much everyone for ears. Also, you are bizarrely ness see with them state shall not initiate force’. So your extreme bias is showing here.

              The shoot was justified. Maybe you should find another hill to die on. P,empty of better choices out there.

              1. Are you 9n drugs because your comment is nearly unintelligible gibberish. An unarmed person walking towards you is justification to shoot them?

      2. At least he’s not disputing the “hands up” narrative.

        Maybe Michael Brown’s biggest problem was reaching into a police car and wrestling for an officer’s weapon? It seems that people who don’t want to be shot to death shouldn’t initiate violence with armed people.

        1. Except Brown was shot 175 feet from the car. If someone pulled a gun and tried to shoot you in the face wouldn’t you grab at it?

          1. Brown’s DNA was inside the car. There were powder burns directly on his hand. The first shot penetrated through interior of the car door, grazing Brown’s hand at close range. This forensic evidence is completely consistent with the testimony that Brown reached inside the car and there was tussle, ending when Wilson’s weapon fired and grazed Brown’s hand.

            Brown was the initiator of force. He did that before Wilson had left his vehicle. After the round went off, Brown turned around and fled from the vehicle.

            At that point, the police officer decided that it wasn’t a good idea to just let a criminal get a free walk after attacking an armed man and trying to steal his gun. So he left the vehicle to pursue Brown because arresting violent criminals is generally considered a good thing to do. He didn’t shoot Brown in the back, but Brown then turned around and started back toward him, which was Wilson opened fire again. All of the bullet wounds were front entry wounds.

            There’s a lot of problematic police shootings in this country. I still don’t know how Tamir Rice’s executioners got a free walk. But Michael Brown really did a lot of work to get himself killed.

            1. No one but Wilson really knows how the fight started in the car. Did Wilson grab Brown? We do know it was Wilson who pulled out his gun and pointed it at Brown because he admitted it. Wouldn’t you grab at it? Brown weighed 290 pounds how far did Wilson think he was going to run? How hard was it going to be to find him? Backup was on the way. Wilson is a pretty big guy too. You think it’s reasonable for an armed man who is not cornered to shoot another man who is merely walking towards him? Wilson could have just backed up. It was an execution.

              1. You’re just sad.

                1. You’re a bootlicker.

    2. A guy that size going 4mph is a jog

      1. That makes no sense. 4 mph is 4 mph no matter how big the object is.

      2. That’s a 15 minute mile, which is the standard for a US infantryman to walk with a 65 lbs load.

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  3. Well this guy is gonna get canceled by the woke crowd on Twitter.

    1. Shelby Steele has been around a while, but once this hits the now ubiquitous social media their reaction to Jordan Peterson will be nothing compared how they will deal with a black man who blames all of those liberal good intentions for their problems. Uncle, token, oh the back stabbers.

        1. Smokey wouldn’t like that.

  4. Of course it was to win power. As has been suggested by many people, BLM and other like-minded organizations specifically pick divisive cases. That’s done by design. As one lawyer who has fought and won many egregious civil rights cases for black clients– BLM was never around for those cases, because the violations were clear and reforms were obvious. Contentious cases don’t get press attention, and they don’t drive donations.

  5. Lead poisoning, duh!

  6. Steele is awesome.

  7. The problem with policing is statism not racism, but fighting statism would reduce not increase the power that Steele notes that these people seek. When both the pro-police and “anti-police” side are really only fighting for which gets to wield even more state power, ultimately via even more police power, liberty loving Americans are in danger.

    “Government is a parasite—a cancer that by nature tries to spread deeper into society. Those who want to run others’ lives won’t give up and start minding their own business.”
    ~ Harry Browne

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  9. “…Barack Obama’s Justice Department concluded that there’s no reason to believe that by shooting Brown, Wilson was acting unreasonably, because Wilson was under attack…”

    It takes inference to identify Wilson as the cop; sloppy writing.

  10. Shelby Steele has been telling the truth about racial issues for decades, which is why left wing media outlets and Democrats have gone to great lengths to prevent more Americans (especially blacks) from hearing from or even about Steele.

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