ActivismRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Kari, Grant, Tori… and Mike Brown

Thursday night, I was surprised by a tweet from Mythbusters’ Kari Byron:

What did that mean? Mythbusters is a show that I watch with my boys, and we love the mix of science and fun from the show. Was the show over?

Eventually, subsequent tweets and a race through the latest episode on the DVR showed that Kari, Grant, and Tori were leaving the show, and that the show would revert to its original lineup of Adam and Jamie.

But why? Did Kari, Grant, and Tori ask for a raise that the Discovery Channel rejected? Did Adam and Jamie want to change the show? Were Kari, Grant, and Tori tired of being second-fiddle in the show and wanted to make their own show? Was it something else?

I couldn’t find an answer to this question – the involved individuals were tight-lipped as far as I could see from articles and tweets online. Of course, online commenters were speculating that the Discovery Channel was too cheap, or that Kari, Grant, and Tori were getting bored or greedy, etc. In other words, in the absence of solid information, people were making assumptions.

I’ve been seeing that a lot this week, in a case that is significantly more important than the casting changes on a science education show: the death of Michael Brown at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson.

Protest/block party
Protest/block party

I live in the St. Louis area, about 20 miles from Ferguson. I’ve been in the vicinity of Ferguson a lot over the years (I took classes at a community college on the edge of city limits, and my mother-in-law lives a couple miles from Ferguson in the house in which my wife grew up), but I don’t remember ever being in the epicenter of the action. I probably have never driven past the QuikTrip, McDonald’s, BBQ restaurants, and markets that have been the sites of protests, looting, arrests, and community action this past week, and I definitely have never been on the residential street upon which Mike Brown was killed.

So, though I live nearby, I don’t have any special insight or knowledge about what’s going on. I have followed the Twitter streams and Facebook posts of journalists, politicians, and friends on the scene, but that’s nothing that anyone in Gaza couldn’t have done (and Gazans have been more directly useful than I have, by giving advice on how to handle tear gas).

As I mentioned, though, I have friends who have been active on the ground in Ferguson. I know a white couple who grew up in a neighboring community and who distrust the police of North St. Louis County because of their experiences growing up there:

They have been participating in the protests more days than not in the past two weeks. They have done this while being prohibited by the police from stopping to rest during the protest despite recovering from a surgery and suffering sun poisoning.

I have another friend who lives in a small town adjacent to Ferguson. He and his wife and kids have also experienced harassment from the police over the years, and he can tell much more than I can about being on the disadvantaged side of the racial divide in America. And he’s glad the last few nights have been calmer, because the police helicopters haven’t kept his kids up all night.

In contrast, I have another friend who has been one of the leaders of the movement to support Officer Darren Wilson. She is convinced that Officer Wilson’s actions were completely understandable and completely devoid of racial motivations, and that she would have done the exact same thing in his place.

Community coming together for mutual aid
Community coming together for mutual aid

Perhaps she is right, but I can’t help but notice what seem like assumptions to me. She hears from unspecified sources that Officer Wilson received massive facial injuries in a fight before the shooting, which would justify his actions due to his fear of death – but then those stories are denied by other reports. She hears some witnesses say that Brown was charging Wilson before the shooting and other witnesses say that Brown was surrendering when killed, and she says that the first set prove the second set are liars. But how does she know that the disproof doesn’t go in the other direction? She is certain that racism wasn’t a motive for Officer Wilson, but how can she know that?

I don’t know what happened in those fateful few minutes between Officer Wilson ordering Mike Brown and his friend to the sidewalk and the Mike Brown’s death a few minutes later. I’ve seen some people on each side crow about photos, videos, or rumors that seem to vindicate their position, but not reflect on their assumptions when that evidence disappears.

I don’t know what happened in those fateful few minutes, but I can imagine a scenario in which Wilson and Brown had fought, leading to Wilson’s lethal actions being simultaneously an understandable reaction born in fear, morally unjustified because other options were available, and legally in the clear. Unfortunately for those hoping for Officer Wilson being indicted and convicted, the law doesn’t really care about the conclusions that one might reach by being empathetic for either the shooter or the deceased; Missouri law will make a conviction nearly impossible when the shooter is a cop.

I don’t know what happened in those fateful few minutes, but I hope that the local, state, and Federal investigations into that interaction can piece together what actually happened. I know that many in the community do not trust their government to be impartial, and given what I’ve seen, I cannot blame them. I hope that the investigators, prosecutors, and politicians involved accept the challenge of being worthy of trust.

Communal BBQ at the QT during a protest/block party
Communal BBQ at the QT during a protest/block party

I don’t know what happened in those fateful few minutes, but it seems to me that the actions of the local police before and after the shooting justify the community’s distrust. From the reporting I’ve seen, it appears that the police didn’t try to administer CPR for Brown, Officer Wilson didn’t report the incident, the police didn’t interview key witnesses for days, and Mike Brown’s body was treated with disrespect by letting it lay exposed for hours in the street. Then, when Brown’s community was upset about this treatment, the local police suited up in riot gear and had a sniper on top of an armored vehicle point a rifle at peaceful daylight protesters.

I think there may have been a point after Brown’s death at which the chaos, looting, and international attention might have been avoided if the local police had taken different tactics. If they had responded to the shooting with transparency and more apparent respect for his body, and if they had engaged with the community instead of against the community, perhaps the situation would not have gotten out of hand. Before locally-based Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol took over to defuse the situation, I think the police response was perpetuating the protests. Pointing a rifle at peaceful protesters responding to the lethal shooting for an unarmed man is boneheaded at best. Was there no one in the St. Louis County or Ferguson Police Departments who had a sense that threatening and arresting reporters, bringing a SWAT team to a peaceful protest, tear-gassing people in their own yards, and taking over a whole town with military gear was not a way to ease concerns about police overreach and brutality?

Of course, I need to be humble about my claims. In the last couple paragraphs, I mentioned what I heard about the treatment of Brown’s body and the initial police reaction, but I neither know for sure that the stories I heard are correct nor that the practices I heard about really violate proper policy. I have guesses about what might have worked better for the police once the protests and even riots started, but I’m judging with the benefit of hindsight and without the benefit of expertise. And for all my skepticism about my friend’s unnamed sources, it’s possible that her sources are legit and correct – my skepticism doesn’t disprove anything.

Communal kitchen at the QT during a protest/block party
Communal kitchen at the QT during a protest/block party

Mike Brown’s death and the reaction to it have brought up plenty of important issues for American society: long-standing racial issues in the St. Louis area and nationwide, the status of First Amendment rights for the press, the status of First Amendment rights of churches, the contrast of how white men with guns are treated with how black men without guns are treated, the increased military hardware of local police departments, the responsiveness of local elected officials to their community, how police respond to citizen protests, the number of unarmed black men that are killed by police, etc.

There are plenty of reasons for Humanists to be involved in these fights for justice for Mike Brown, his family, the Ferguson community, the African-American community and our nation as a whole. I think we need to be careful, though, to be skeptical of claims, even when they confirm our preconceptions – whether you think that Officer Darren Wilson killed Mike Brown out of malice, indifference, or self defense, jumping on uncorroborated rumors doesn’t help anyone.

Getting back to the Mythbusters, even though I don’t know why the cast will be different next year, I can still appreciate the show for what it has taught my family and for how much fun I’ve had watching it over the years. I can withhold judgement on one question for which I don’t have complete understanding but still have an emotional and intellectual reaction to what I do know.

Similarly, even if we don’t have enough information to really know what happened between Brown and Wilson, there’s more than enough other information about what happened before and since the confrontation that we can be prompted to activism. We don’t need to “Wait for evidence” about the confrontation to know that there are problems our country needs to address. We don’t have to have proof that racism directly killed Mike Brown to know that racism poisons our society.

And finally, remember my friend who supports Officer Wilson? In response to her leadership in supporting him, she and her family have received death threats. No matter how much her advocacy for Officer Wilson might offend someone, she and her family do not deserve that – no one does. Disagree, argue, and dispute, but please don’t threaten.

All photos by David and Alaina Bell and used with permission


Lance is the father of two boys, a software developer, and an occasional world traveler. Now an active member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, he grew up in an Evangelical Lutheran home in which he took Christianity very seriously. Fortunately, going to college helped him break through to see that he believed because he thought he was supposed to, not because it makes sense. Now he's glad to be more than just a SIWOTI skeptic. @LMFinney

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