An Illuminating Sat. Night with Key Witness to Ferguson Shooting (Autopsy Update)
Ferguson, Missouri has been on my mind all week, as it has for most people in the media. On Saturday night, I had just finished reading more articles about the killing and ensuing uproar, assigned followup content for AlterNet to publish, and went out to Barzini's in Manhattan, the local alternative to Whole Foods, to pick up some groceries and a pint of Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia.
While I was paying, a young, well-dressed women stuck her head into the store and asked if she could buy something there that would only be sold in a different kind of store. We all smiled, as this immediately flagged her as an out-of-towner. We sent her to Duane Reade, two blocks south. As we walked out together, I asked where she was from.
"St. Louis," she said. "This is the first time I've been in New York."
She said she just had dinner at Carmine's, across the street, and had two friends who were still inside finishing up. As we walked back from the drugstore to Carmine's, I asked why she was in New York. She said, "Have you ever heard of Ferguson, Missouri?"
I said, "Well, yes, as a matter of fact—I know an awful lot about Ferguson. Why do you ask?"
"I am one of the eyewitnesses to the killing of Michael Brown," she said. She was in New York to appear on CNN in the morning and probably Anderson Cooper as well.
What were the chances of the stars aligning like this?
Well, of course, I had a million questions for Piaget Crenshaw, which was her name. While friendly and open, she was a little cautious, since she was on CNN's dime. Only 19, she'd come to New York to tell the world her bird's-eye view to help solve the question that is vexing the entire country: How did Darren Wilson come to gun down Michael Brown in the middle of a quiet street in Ferguson?
From my vantage point, up until now, the media had almost exclusively spoke to Dorian Johnson, Michael Brown's friend. But now, with the police chief Thomas Jackson passing out screenshots of Michael Brown apparently grabbing some cigars from a convenience store, accompanied by Dorian Johnson, Johnson as the key witness might not be treated the same way. The appearance of other eyewitnesses is a crucial development over the past couple of days. Piaget Crenshaw's companion eyewitness is Tiffany Mitchell, Crenshaw's work supervisor, who was picking her up when the incident occurred. Both have views from different vantage points, and have appeared together on television interviews.
I started by asking Crenshaw the big question. Did her view of Brown's shooting differ in any way with what Dorian Johnson has said?
"Absolutely not," she responded. "I saw the cop shoot Brown several times in the face, even after he had turned around and had his hands raised. I can tell you the essentials, since I've been interviewed on local TV, by newspapers, and most of this information is already on the Internet, and I posted my video from immediately after the shooting to my Facebook page."
Crenshaw told the LA Times, "I witnessed the police chase after the guy, full force. He ran for his life. They shot him and he fell. He put his arms up to let them know that he was compliant and he was unarmed, and they shot him twice more and he fell to the ground and died. (Read her most in-depth interview here.)
The Big Question
There seems little doubt given videos of the shooting site, those taken by Crenshaw immediately after Brown went down, and the location of the police car vis a vis the body, that Brown was finally shot down in the street some 20 or 30 feet away from the car. Now the crucial question becomes what happened at the first stage with the cop car and Brown to cause the second stage. It is hard to imagine what could have happened in the initial moment of the confrontation that would require Darren Wilson to pursue and shoot Mike Brown several times, including in the head, while Brown was standing in the middle of the street.
Both Piaget Crenshaw and Tiffany Mitchell said they saw a kind of scuffle—or "tussle" as Crenshaw called it—when the cop grabbed Brown from inside the police car. Then apparently a shot—or two—was fired, since Crenshaw reported a wild shot hit a nearby house (and shortly after cops came to take the bullet away). Brown broke away from the struggle at the police car window, perhaps wounded, and started running, may have been hit by another shot, then turned around and raised his hands, according to all witnesses, and was shot several more times before going down. [Update: Dr. Michael Baden, former chief medical examiner in NYC reported Monday, according to the New York Times, that the unarmed Brown was shot at least six times, including twice in the head, and four times on the right side of his body. "One of the bullets entered the top of Brown's skull," likely the last bullet to hit him. Protests became violent again on Sunday night in Ferguson, moving Gov. Jay Nixon to call in the National Guard to help quell the disturbances.]
A local television station, in an interview with Crenshaw and Mitchell, kept returning to the statement made by the police chief that Brown was in the car when the struggle took place. But none of the witnesses saw Brown in the car, and given the quick dynamics of the moment, Brown being 6 '4" and close to 300 pounds, it seems unlikely that the police officer would have gotten Brown into the car.
Nevertheless, Chief Thomas Jackson has consistently claimed that Brown was in the car and grabbed for Darren Wilson's gun and a shot was fired. "Brown died in a dangerous struggle after trying to grab the officer’s weapon." But witnesses—including Crenshaw, Mitchell and Johnson—say it seemed a brazen act of aggression by the officer and that Brown was unarmed and not threatening.
Tensions still rile the community of Ferguson. Much of the tension has to do with the handling of the case by local police, who took more than five days to reveal the identity of the officer who shot Brown, and with the community's anger over the many conflicting stories. The release of photographs of the cigar theft at a convenience store only stoked the anger of the protestors. While Chief Jackson has said any number of contradictory things, parsing it all, it seems that Officer Darren Wilson had told Mike Brown and Dorian Johnson to get off the street, and was not aware of the potential cigar theft when the confrontation took place. Something happened that made Wilson shoot Brown at the door of the police car, and then run after him and shoot him several more times.
What's clear is that we do not yet know all the facts about what happened that night in Ferguson, Missouri.