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7 Cynical Ways Police and Media Have Smeared Michael Brown and the Black People of Ferguson

Adding insult to fatality.

Since Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, local law enforcement and much of the mainstream media have been playing by an old script, in which the local police use the press to smear Brown’s character and distract from what really happened.

Meanwhile, a lot of people on social media aren’t buying it. They have noted these police propaganda tactics are tragically predictable, and that too many reporters aren’t asking questions, but playing along as police megaphones.

“We need journalism to kick in and start reporting the story,” actor Jesse Williams  told CNN last Sunday. “This is about finding justice for a kid that was shot. An 18-year-old that was shot. Period. And this idea that because he stole a handful of cheap cigars, that were what, five bucks from a convenient store?”

Williams, who was assailed by rightwingers for wearing a hoodie on the air—then cut to the heart of the matter. He  said there is a double standard where police and mainstream media all too often turn police brutality victims into people who somehow deserved what they got:

“This idea that every time a black person does something, they automatically become a ‘thug worthy of their own death?’ We don’t own drug crimes. We’re not the only ones that sell and do drugs all the time, we’re not the only ones who steal, we’re not the only ones who talk crazy to cops. There’s a complete double standard and a complete different experience that a certain element of this country has the privilege of being treated as human beings. And the rest of us are not being treated like human beings. Period. And that needs to be discussed, that is the story…we’re not making this up.”

According to the most recently available federal crime statistics reported by USA Today, a white police officer killed a black person at least twice a week in the U.S from 2005 through 2012. “The shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, MO., last Saturday was not an isolated event in American policing. Eighteen percent of the blacks killed during those seven years were under age 21, compared to 8.7 percent of whites.” 

Let’s look at what we know about seven key moments or factors that unfolded in the wake of Brown’s death that show how police demonization and media character assassination works. While the full details of what actually happened are not known—that is what the FBI will try to determine—what’s clear is how disinformation from police, spread by an uncritical media, recycles the worst stereotypes.

1. Ferguson Police Quickly Blame The Dead. What happened before Brown was shot six times by Officer Darren Wilson is not fully known. Eyewitness Dorian Johnson told MSNBC that Brown was walking down the street when police drove up and demanded that Brown get into the vehicle and he ignored the order. St. Louis County Police Chief Joe Belmar said Brown fought Wilson and reached for his gun, justifying the shooting. The police did not initially name the officer, although that detail came out a few days later.

Johnson told MSNBC a very different story. He said Wilson drove up in a police truck and aggressively went after the pair. He first demanded that they get on the sidewalk. When they kept on walking, Johnson said that Wilson nearly hit them with his truck, and then yelled and used the truck door to knock Brown down. Wilson then jumped out and grabbed Brown, who resisted being choked, Johnson said. When the pair started to flee, Wilson shot at Brown, who stopped and yelled he didn’t have a gun. Johnson said he saw Brown shot, while facing Wilson, and then collapsing onto the street.