Earlier today, I wrote that Officer Darren Wilson’s newly released account of his altercation with Michael Brown was unbelievable. Which isn’t to say it was wrong. It was just hard to believe that events played out exactly as Wilson described. But the story Wilson tells makes much more sense if you also read it alongside Dorian Johnson’s testimony — and use the two accounts to balance each other out.
Johnson presents a more nuanced picture of provocations on both sides
Johnson, remember, was Brown’s friend. He was there when Brown robbed the convenience store. He was there when Wilson first saw Brown. And he was there when Brown was shot and killed. The story he tells confirms some key aspects in Wilson’s account. But it contradicts others. Wilson presents Michael Brown as a rage-filled lunatic attempting to commit suicide by cop. Johnson presents a more nuanced picture of provocations on both sides, followed by escalation, followed by a fight in which both men grew enraged — and in which one man had a gun. But let’s start at the beginning.
The convenience store robbery
A man stands in front of the Ferguson Market & Liquor which remains boarded up but open for business after being looted during unrest following the death of teenager Michael Brown. Scott Olsen/Getty
Johnson calls Brown, exclusively, “Big Mike.” And he says he only knew him for a few months before the shooting. But though he liked Brown, Johnson’s portrayal of him isn’t flattering. In fact, his story begins on the morning of the shooting, when Big Mike commits a brazen, bizarre crime that puts Johnson in considerable danger. Johnson says he ran into Brown on his way to buy some cigarillos from the convenience store. The two men decided to smoke weed together later, so Brown goes with Johnson to get some cigarillos of his own. Only Brown doesn’t buy any cigarillos. He steals them — in fact, he steals a lot of them — and then shoves his way past the clerk. In Johnson’s telling, he’s shocked. And he’s terrified. Brown, he says, “is basically laughing it off, be cool, be calm… but in my head I’m like, I can’t be calm, I can’t be cool, because I know what just happened and we were on camera.” Johnson has a daughter. He has a girlfriend. And now he’s Brown’s accomplice in a robbery — a robbery that was probably caught on a security camera. His friend has put him and his family in danger. if you do believe Johnson was innocent, what happens next is weird Or so he says. Johnson has some incentive to portray himself as an innocent bystander in this robbery. But if you do believe Johnson was innocent, what happens next is weird. Rather than abandon Brown so he’s far, far away if the cops come to pick up his friend, Johnson walks home with Brown to smoke. Johnson professes to be stunned at what Brown did in the convenience store, but he doesn’t act stunned, or angry, and in any case, he drops it pretty quickly.
“Get the F on the sidewalk!”
It’s a Saturday morning, and the streets are empty. A few blocks from home, Brown and Johnson are walking in the middle of the road. This is when Officer Darren Wilson pulls up — and when Johnson and Wilson’s accounts begin to both converge and diverge. As Wilson tells the story, he was extremely, unfailingly polite — more befuddled than anything else by these two young black men who seem to have forgotten to use the sidewalk. “Hey guys, why don’t you walk on the sidewalk,” he remembers saying. That’s not how Johnson tells it. “He said ‘Get the F on the sidewalk!'” Johnson tells the grand jury. Either way, on this next point, Johnson and Wilson agree. It’s Johnson who replies and says they’re just a minute from their homes, and they’ll be off the street shortly. This is the break point in the story. This is the moment when, even though you know how it ends, you’re hoping against hope that things play out differently, because it so clearly could have gone a different way. But here is when Wilson and Johnson begin telling stories that only barely converge. This is the moment when, even though you know how it ends, you’re hoping against hope that things play out differently As Wilson tells it, he then asks, “what’s wrong with the sidewalk?”, and Brown’s response, as reported by Wilson, is “fuck what you have to say.” As Johnson tells it, Wilson never says “what’s wrong with the sidewalk,” and Brown never says “fuck what you have to say.” Rather, both Johnson and Brown think Wilson is satisfied with Johnson’s answer and is driving off. “We continued to walk and have our conversation,” Johnson tells the grand jury, “but almost a split second [later], we heard the tires screech, and the officer, he pulled back in the truck very fast at an angle [where] if we didn’t hear his tires screech, the back of his cruiser would have struck one of us.”
The story Johnson tells from this point is straightforward: a cop feels disrespected by two young men, he reasserts his power, and then things spin a bit out of control. Wilson, having almost hit them with his truck, delivers the classic line of authority: “What did you say?” But Johnson is adamant that Brown hadn’t said anything. Maybe he mouthed something silently. Maybe he stared Wilson down. Maybe he did something else that Johnson couldn’t hear. But Johnson was right next to Brown, and Brown didn’t say anything. But if he didn’t speak earlier, Brown starts now. Wilson had almost hit him with a truck. Brown is pissed. And so is Wilson. Brown says something and then Wilson hits him with the door of his cruiser. “He thrust his door open real hard,” says Johnson. “We was so close to the door that it hit mostly Big Mike, but it hit me on my left side and closed back on him, like real fast. Just the same speed, boom, boom, that fast.” Compare this moment to Wilson’s rendering: I go to open my door, say, “Hey, come here.” He said, “What the fuck you gonna do?” And he shut my door on me. The door was only open maybe a foot. I didn’t have a chance to get my leg out. I shut the door and he came up and approached the door. I opened the door again, trying to push him back, tell him to get back. Um, he said something. I’m not sure exactly what it was and then started swinging and punching at me from outside the vehicle. At this point, Johnson and Wilson’s accounts become mirror images of each other. Wilson says Brown slammed the door into him and then reached into the car and began throwing punches. Johnson says Wilson slammed the door into Brown and then “his arm came out the window, and that’s the first initial contact that they had. The officer grabbed, he grabbed ahold of Big Mike’s shirt around the neck area.” The narratives continue to split. Wilson describes a scuffle deep inside the car, with Brown as the aggressor trying to beat the hell out of Wilson who is trapped in his cruiser. Johnson described a tug-of-war, where Brown has “one hand on top of the cruiser and the other hand more right up under the window, the side mirror. He’s trying to pull off the officer’s grip.” Wilson is trying to pull Brown in, Brown is trying to escape.
Michael Brown did pass off his cigarillos
A burning cigarillo. Wikimedia.
But Johnson does semi-corroborate a key moment in Wilson’s account. I noted this incredible passage in Wilson’s telling earlier: I was doing the, just scrambling, trying to get his arms out of my face and him from grabbing me and everything else. He turned to his… if he’s at my vehicle, he turned to his left and handed the first subject. He said, “here, take these.” He was holding a pack of — several packs of cigarillos which was just, what was stolen from the Market Store was several packs of cigarillos. He said, “here, hold these” and when he did that I grabbed his right arm trying just to control something at that point. Um, as I was holding it, and he came around, he came around with his arm extended, fist made, and went like that straight at my face with his… a full swing from his left hand. The idea that Brown stopped punching Wilson just long enough to hand his contraband to his friend struck me, on first read, as beyond belief. But Johnson backs at least part of that account. So Johnson and Wilson agree: there is a moment when Brown turns to Johnson and hands over the stolen cigarillos. But Wilson tells it as Brown freeing his hands to more effectively pummel Wilson, and Johnson tells it as Brown freeing his hands to better escape Wilson.
Johnson’s whole memory of the fight is Wilson trying to pull Brown towards the vehicle
It goes on like this. Johnson, Wilson, and the ballistics report all agree that the first shot was fired from inside the car. But where Wilson says this shot came after Brown tells him, “You’re too much of a fucking pussy to shoot me,” and then lunged for the weapon, Johnson reacts with total confusion when the grand jury suggests Brown was trying to get at Johnson’s gun inside the car. “In order for Big Mike to have touched the gun, it is almost like his whole top half of his body had to be inside the vehicle and that never happened,” Johnson says. It’s a pretty specific objection: he doesn’t just say Brown never went for the gun, but that he was never so deeply embedded in the car that he could have gone for the gun. Johnson’s whole memory of the fight is Wilson trying to pull Brown towards the vehicle and Brown trying to get away. The shooting Pastor Charles Burton has his body outlined with chalk to replicate a crime scene as he and other demonstrators protest the shooting of Michael Brown. Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty The testimony where Johnson recounts Brown being shot dead is devastating. He says Brown had already been shot and was running away. He says Brown stopped running after the second shot. He says Brown turned and yelled, “I don’t have a gun,” and took a kind of half step towards Wilson. And then he began to say something else, and since this is the crucial, terrible moment in the testimony, I’ll let him tell it: The second statement he was starting to say I, you know, he couldn’t get the full sentence out before the rest of the shots hit his body. And I stood and watched face-to-face as every shot was fired and as his body went down and his body never — his body kind of just went down and fell, you know, like a step, you know what I’m saying? Like a step, his body just kind of collapsed down and he just fell. This is a sharp contrast to what Wilson says: When [Brown] stopped, he turned, looked at me, made like a grunting noise and had the most intense, aggressive face I’ve ever seen on a person. When he looked at me, he then did like the hop…you know, like people do to start running. And, he started running at me. During his first stride, he took his right hand put it under his shirt into his waistband. And I ordered him to stop and get on the ground again. He didn’t. I fired multiple shots. After I fired the multiple shots, I paused a second, yelled at him to get on the ground again, he was still in the same state. Still charging, hand still in his waistband, hadn’t slowed down. And then Johnson runs. He is hyperventilating, and vomiting, and running. It takes him only a minute or two to get to his apartment, he says, but “I’m still throwing up, I have been throwing up since I started running. I’ve been throwing up all the way along the run.” A more recognizable story As with Wilson, it’s impossible to know where Johnson is telling the truth, where he’s lying, and where his memory is simply faulty — eyewitness accounts are completely unreliable even under the best of circumstances, and these were not the best of circumstances. Johnson’s account is more recognizable And my hunch is Johnson is shading the truth in at least a few places — starting with the robbery, but potentially continuing up through the tussle. Johnson says he never saw Brown throw a punch but he’s not totally convincing on it, and Wilson did have injuries consistent with a more two-sided scuffle. But where Wilson’s account presents Brown as completely irrational and borderline suicidal, Johnson’s account is more recognizable. It isn’t a blameless, kindly beat cop who gets set upon by a rampaging Michael Brown. And nor is it a blameless, kindly Michael Brown who gets set upon my a monstrous cop. It’s a cop who feels provoked by these two young black men who won’t get out of the street, and who tries to teach them a lesson. His actions escalate the situation, and then the adrenaline floods, and then there’s a struggle, and the situation escalates, and escalates, and escalates, and then Michael Brown dies. All this happened in less than two minutes. The fight happened in even less than that. And so there’s also room for both accounts to be subjectively right. With the adrenaline pumping Wilson might really have grabbed Brown first, but then thought Brown was trying to grab his gun, or beat him to a pulp, even as he was really trying to get away. Brown might have sworn at the cop who almost clipped him with a truck and grabbed his shirt, but after that, he might have really been trying to simply survive the altercation. Indeed, we might never get to the truth of what happened in those two minutes on August. But the point of a trial would have been to get us closer. We would have found out if everything we thought we knew about Brown was wrong, or if Wilson’s story was flawed in important ways, or if key witnesses completely broke under pressure. We would have heard real cross-examination. We would have seen the strongest case that could be mounted by both the prosecution and the defense. But now we’re not going to get that chance. We’re just left with these Rashomon-like testimonies, a dead 18-year-old, and a shattered family.