The phrase “hands up, don’ t shoot” still matters even after the Department of Justice decided not to bring federal charges against Darren Wilson. That’s because the words were never about the single event of Michael Brown’s death. “Hands up, don’t shoot” was a collective scream for justice articulated the form of a physical gesture.
The Department of Justice Reports
The Department of Justice independently examined and re-examined all the evidence in the death of unarmed, African American teenager, Mike Brown, at the hands of police officer, Darren Wilson. They concluded, “There is no evidence upon which prosecutors can rely on to disprove Wilson’s stated subjective belief that he feared for his safety” (pg. 12). The study further stated that testimony regarding Mike Brown putting his hands up in a gesture of surrender, “are inaccurate because they are inconsistent with the physical and forensic evidence.”
Those who insisted that Darren Wilson and other law enforcement officials were lying have to accept the study’s findings. Those who presumed Officer Wilson’s innocence and proper handling of the situation from the start may feel vindication. It would have been and still is unwise for anyone to assert certainty in the facts of this case. Eyewitness accounts differ. Darren Wilson’s story must be accepted at face value because he is the only other living person closest to the situation. Mike Brown’s voice in the matter will never be heard.
The Symbol of a Pervasive, Persistent Pattern
Even after the Department of Justice determined not to charge Darren Wilson, “hands up, don’t shoot” still matters. Many outside of the African American community wondered why this particular case sparked such outrage. Why the protests? Why the marches? Why the endless stream of blog posts and op-ed articles? it’s because Mike Brown, and Ferguson in general, came to symbolize the pervasive and persistent misuse of law enforcement against black people in America.
Unfortunately, Mike Brown’s death is not an isolated or rare incident. Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Rodney King. The list is much, much longer and extends centuries into the past. “Hands up don’t shoot” represents the intangible but real sense that criminal justice means that blacks are almost automatically criminals and justice is weighed on very imbalanced scales.
Mike Brown’s Words
The words of both Mike Brown and Eric Garner, both cases that ended in the deaths of African American males and decisions not to indict the officers involved, are telling. According to Darren Wilson’s testimony, when he first encountered Brown, the young man said, ““F*** what you have to say.” Who says that to a police officer? Why? Isn’t this just another sign of Mike Brown’s culpability and escalating of events? If this is indeed what happened then, “Yes.” Mike Brown was in the wrong for responding the way he did to a person in authority. But there’s more to it.
The Department of Justice published a separate report that found, “The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans, and there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race” (pg. 4). And contrary to the most common objection that African Americans commit the most crimes, the report also stated, “this disproportionate burden on African Americans cannot be explained by any difference in the rate at which people of different races violate the law” (pg. 5).
So what does all this mean?
Imagine you are Mike Brown. You aren’t a squeaky clean kid, but you’re loyal to your friends and family and you’re still learning what wisdom means because you’re a teenager. Yet you live in a context in which 95% of tickets for “manner of walking in roadway” (jaywalking) and 94% of all “failure to comply” charges are given to black people. Imagine that in your town 88% of cases in which Ferguson police documented the use of force it was against African Americans, and In all 14 canine bite incidents in which the suspect’s race is known, the person bitten was African American. What if you lived in this reality day after day for 18 years? How might you respond to a police officer who told you to stop walking in the street?
Eric Garners Words
What about Eric Garner’s words? Most people have focused on the unforgettable and chilling phrase, “I can’t breathe.” Words that Mr. Garner repeated 11 times as he was being choked by a law enforcement officer in an illegal hold that aggravated the conditions that led to his death. Just before Eric Garner got put into the chokehold he said other words. “Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. This stops today!” (full video). Garner’s impassioned objection speaks of repeated encounters with the police that he perceived as unfair. Eric Garner was fed up with being singled out by the police.
Why “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” Still Matters
More stories could be told. Ask nearly any African American male about encounters with the police and he will have a painful, humiliating story to tell. In just four words, “hands up, don’t shoot” tells another story. It tells the story of a people who feel the image of God rising up within them and protesting against sub-human treatment. It tells the story of a nation lacerated with wounds of racial injustice that haven’t fully healed. “Hands up don’t shoot” tells the story of a people united against injustice, however unintended, and willing to take action to end it.
“Hands up don’t shoot” has universal significance to any person or group who has felt the pressing weight of discrimination thrust upon their shoulders. For people who often feel powerless, “hands up don’t shoot” is a way of affirming their significance as human beings and their worthiness to receive just treatment. “Hands up don’t shoot” still matters and will always matter as long as injustice persists.