Gateway journalism review - 2016

Making a myth

Protestors confront police during an impromptu rally, Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014 to protest the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. Police said Brown, who was unarmed, was fatally shot Saturday in a scuffle with an officer. (AP Photo/Sid Hastings)

Protestors confront police during an impromptu rally, Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014 to protest the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. Police said Brown, who was unarmed, was fatally shot Saturday in a scuffle with an officer. (AP Photo/Sid Hastings)

By William H. Freivogel

The first tweet about the death of Michael Brown was a minute or two after he collapsed on Canfield Dr., just past noon Aug. 9, 2014. Local rapper Emanuel Freeman (@ TheePharaoh) tweeted from inside his home a photo of Brown’s body face down in the street, an officer standing over him. 

12:03 p.m. “Just saw someone die OMFG.” 

12:03 p.m. “I’m about to hyperventilate.” 

12:04 p.m. “the police just shot someone dead in front of my crib yo.” 

And then a minute later, within five minutes of the shooting, the picture of an officer standing over Brown’s prone body. Twitter users identified the officer as Darren Wilson. 

Forty minutes later, at 12:48 p.m., a previously unknown young woman, La’Toya Cash, joined the conversation. She posted this tweet as @AyoMissDarkSkin: “Ferguson police just executed an unarmed 17-year-old boy that was walking to the store. Shot him 10 times smh.” 

The account of the “boy” “executed” walking on the street and shot 10 times established Mike Brown’s victimhood.  smh - Twitter speak for“shaking my head,” - drove home the point, as did a photo showing dozens of police cars in the street. 

The tweet was retweeted 3,500 times in the next few hours, researchers found, as word of the shooting passed through the community like an electrical charge. @AyoMissDarkSkin’s report received much more attention than the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s first report of the killing several hours later.

As Ben Lyons reports in his social media analysis, the narrative quickly emerging in social media was that Brown had his hands up, was executed or shot in the back. This was picked up in traditional media where references to hands up, shot in the back and executed appeared six times more often in the days after the killing than terms indicating a struggle with the officer.

But that narrative was wrong.  As the Justice Department’s investigation concluded seven months later, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” didn’t happen.  And Brown didn’t look like a “gentle giant” in the convenience store video police released. 

Few of the media accounts--  either social or traditional -- included the fact that Brown struggled with Officer Darren Wilson over Wilson’s gun -- a key factor in Wilson’s ultimate exoneration.

Hands Up, Don’t Shoot was a myth created in the hot media environment that came alive in the hours after Brown’s death.  “Eyewitness” accounts on Twitter, cable news and elsewhere turned out to have been based on what people who hadn’t seen the shooting had read on Twitter or heard from neighbors.  

Yet, even though Hands Up was a myth, it was a powerful myth that pointed to disturbing truths about American society and policing in the age of Obama.

Too many African-Americans are stopped for minor traffic violations as a result of the kind of unconstitutional and racist policing routine in Ferguson.  Too many unarmed African Americans are shot after minor stops.  And too few Americans have forthrightly faced up to the nation’s shameful racial history.

The afternoon of Aug. 9

While Brown lay dead on Canfield Drive, the story of how he died grew fast -- perhaps faster than any story of its kind.

After @AyoMissDarkSkin reported the “boy’s” “execution,” social media activists jumped in.  The leading posts were from Johnetta Elzie, a journalism graduate of Southeast Missouri State, who emerged as a leading activist; Tef Poe, a poet tweeting as War Machine III; and Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman who provided some of the most factual accounts of the community’s reaction to the death.

Five hours after the shooting, Poe called for outside help. “Basically martial law is taking place in Ferguson all perimeters blocked coming and going .... National and international friends Help!!!”  A few minutes later he added, “Through the power of social media this won't be swept under the rug we are all about to expose Ferguson police department we want answers.”

Michael Skolnik, the New York-based political director of the black-oriented entertainment website Global Grind, tweeted from afar, “They used soap to clean Mike Brown's blood from the street.”  A picture showed soap suds mixed with Brown’s blood. Elzie retweeted Skolnik.  

Tweets from activists overwhelmed those from mainstream media.  But one tweet from the Post-Dispatch immediately became controversial.  At 4:48 p.m., the Post-Dispatch tweet read, “Fatal shooting by Ferguson police prompts mob reaction.”

Fifteen minutes later French responded, "Mob"? You could also use the word ‘community’.”

Another Twitter user from the Midwest, @lolitasaywhat, followed up with this tweet: ‘PAY ATTENTION as “teen” becomes “man,” “community” becomes “mob”, and “murder” becomes “alleged shooting”. #Ferguson #medialiteracy’

The Post-Dispatch quickly backed off the “mob” headline. At 6:24 p.m. it tweeted, “Headline has been edited: Fatal shooting by Ferguson police draws angry crowd.  We're still trying to confirm information.”

Sarah J. Jackson and Brooke Foucault Welles, communication professors at Northeastern University, found in a recent study that @AyoMissDarkSkin’s tweet had much more influence that the Post-Dispatch tweet, illustrating the power of the social media.

“These two tweets illustrate the difference between discourses of crisis that arise from members of marginalized publics and those that follow the ideological and professional logics of elite institutions,” they wrote.  “@stltoday's tweet not only lacks the affective response to the killing of an unarmed teen seen in @AyoMissDarkSkin's discourse, its structure and word choice construct the ‘mob reaction’ rather than Brown's shooting as the source of conflict. Notably, @AyoMissDarkSkin's tweet was retweeted or mentioned three and a half times more on this first day than @stltoday's tweet, demonstrating a clear preference by the networked public initially engaging with the story for a form of citizen journalism that acknowledged the problem of police violence and humanized its victims.”

Jackson and Welles said their study of the 5 million tweets during the week following Brown’s death showed Internet spaces “offer citizens most invisible in mainstream politics radical new potentials for identity negotiation, visibility, and influence…Unlike traditional modes of news reporting and information sharing…Twitter can provide a continuous stream of information from the perspective of those closest to crisis events.”

Meanwhile, reporters for traditional media were using Twitter in new ways.  “There were reporters both locally and nationally who never used Twitter before in their lives or used it sparingly,” recalled Kelsey Proud, who curated a live blog on St. Louis Public Radio.  Reporters quickly “learned that by the time they were done reporting their story the way they are used to reporting it, it was already three or four hours old and they had to delete their entire piece.

“Certain reporters made their name during this time on Twitter….Wesley Lowery (Washington Post) and Ryan Reilly (Huffington Post.)…..There were a bunch of folks who made a name for themselves on Twitter and they became important journalistic voices of that time period because they were prolific in those spaces and because they were here doing good journalism.”  Lowery and Reilly were the two reporters arrested at a McDonald’s during the first week of protests when they failed to leave as quickly as police commanded.


Black Twitter

Overall, the academic analyses of the impact of social media on the Ferguson story celebrate the success of “Black Twitter” in countering what many communications scholars see as the corporate, anti-protest, pro-government slant of the mainstream media.

One thing missing in many of the upbeat academic appraisals is that the social media accounts often were wrong, and that the inaccurate information made it into the mainstream media and sometimes dominated the national narrative.

For example, Anonymous, the group of Internet hackers and anarchists, tweeted the wrong name of the officer who did the shooting and then the names of officers in the wrong police department - Florissant instead of Ferguson.

At the end of August, Nick Bilton, a technology reporter for the New York Times wrote that he felt trapped in a Twitter loop of inaccuracies.  He wrote, “At the height of the chaos, I sat in my living room with a collection of six video live streams on my computer and two Twitter streams: one on an iPad hooked to my television and another on my iPhone. You would think that with all this information at my fingertips I would have known exactly what was happening on the ground….Nope. Not even close. What I ‘saw’ were thousands of one-sided accounts, many of which were grossly inaccurate.”

One example he gave was the Twitter handle #mythicalmolotov that accused Post-Dispatch photographer David Carson of lying about the presence of a Molotov cocktail, even though the photo plainly showed that it, and other Post-Dispatch photos, showed protesters trying to light one.

Live streaming was an important new media tool for reporting on Ferguson.  Live streams on Vine and Periscope broadcast one person’s live perspective, although the comments of the person holding the camera often slanted the presentation.

Bassem Masri, a pro-Palestinian live streamer who was one of the most prominent social media personalities, slanted his video and incited the crowd. 

On Oct. 8, after the shooting death of Vonderett Myers Jr. by an off-duty St. Louis officer, Masri live-streamed the protest adding his profane monologue.  Holding a cell phone he yells at the police, “What the f*** you doing here bro, get the f*** out a here with your coward ass boys. Coward straight pig out here bitch! You gotta go. Your life is in danger homie.

“What happens when we take your gun?” Then, pointing at the officers, he yells, “I`m praying for your death.”

A few months later, while live streaming a meeting of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen during consideration of a citizens’ review board, there is a voice yelling invective at Jeff Roorda, a white police union official.  It was Masri who is yelling:

“You’re a piece of shit Roorda…St. Louis’ finest, KKK, how many children have you killed today,” Masri chants.      

Masri did not respond to requests for an interview.

When St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch finished his investigation of Brown’s shooting, he sharply criticized the impact of social media.  At the Nov. 24 press conference announcing the grand jury decision not to indict Wilson, he said:  “Within minutes, various accounts of the incident began appearing on social media. The town was filled with speculation and little if any solid accurate information…The most significant challenge encountered in this investigation has been the 24-hour news cycle and the sensational appetite for something to talk about.  Following closely behind were the rumors on social media.”

McCulloch was widely criticized for indicting the social media rather than Wilson.  But once the Justice Department released its investigation on March, 2015, the prosecutor’s criticism of social media and the 24-hour news cycle turned out to accurate.


The rumor spreads

The Justice Department’s report describes how social, traditional and cable media spread false accounts from “eyewitnesses,” many of whom were regurgitating what they had seen on Twitter or TV rather than in person.

The report tells how Dorian Johnson -- Brown’s companion designated as Witness 101 -- “made multiple statements to the media immediately following the incident that spawned the popular narrative that Wilson shot Brown execution-style as he held up his hands in surrender.”

After the shooting, Dorian Johnson yelled “He just killed my friend” and ran home and changed his shirt so he would not be recognizable to police. Then he went to Brown’s grandmother’s home to tell her what had happened.

“With the encouragement of Brown’s family, Witness 101 went back out onto the street and gave an interview to the media,” the DOJ report recounts.  Johnson’s account was at odds with much of the physical and forensic evidence.  He claimed Brown never reached into the car, even though his blood was found inside.

Johnson later told the state grand jury that he had seen a female friend, Piaget Crenshaw, Witness 118, standing on her balcony during the shooting.  Crenshaw became one of the most interviewed witnesses on TV in the days after the shooting, often adding new details to her previous accounts in interviews with cable personalities such as Anderson Cooper.  The FBI found her accounts to be conflicting and at odds with physical and forensic evidence. 

It turned out that Johnson and Crenshaw had socialized weekly in the weeks before the shooting.  During his testimony, Johnson acknowledged discussing the shooting with Crenshaw, but Crenshaw denied talking to him.

At first Crenshaw said she missed the beginning of the encounter, but she later maintained she saw “the whole scenario play out” in front of her. She added new details about the confrontation at the car and said she saw Wilson shoot Brown repeatedly in the back, which didn’t happen.


Jefferson County contractors

One of the biggest Ferguson news stories broke in early September with the widespread coverage of two white contractors from Jefferson County who seemed to validate the “hands up” mantra. They are Witnesses 122 and 130. 

A much replayed CNN “exclusive” showed one of the contractors throwing up his hands as if repeating what he had just seen Brown do with his hands.

Chris Hayes, of MSNBC, one of the national reporters most doggedly pursuing the Hands Up story, replayed the video.

However, the video was not captured “during the moments just after the shooting.” Clearly visible in the background is a police officer extending yellow tape around the scene of the shooting – showing the video was shot some time after the killing.

The video depicts another person yelling, “He wasn’t no threat at all,” as Witness 122 puts his hands up and says, “He had his fucking hands in the air.” 

But the FBI found Witness 122’s account to be inaccurate.  He claimed three police officers were present during the shooting and that Brown was shot by the “heavyset” one.  Wilson is not heavy-set and he was the only officer present.

The FBI also discredited other key elements of Witness 122’s account.  It reported both contractors “claimed to have witnessed bullets go through Brown and exit his back, as evidenced by his shirt ‘popping back’ and ‘stuff coming through.’ However, in his interview with federal prosecutors, Witness 122 explained that he thought that Brown was shot in the back and stumbled until he saw media reports about the autopsy commissioned by Brown’s family.  After learning about that autopsy, he realized that Brown was not shot in the back and admittedly changed his account."

Both contractors eventually recanted part of their stories, the FBI said, acknowledging they hadn’t seen Brown fall because a corner of a building obstructed their view. 

Even though the FBI report discredited the public statements of Crenshaw and the two Jefferson County contractors, Anderson Cooper’s interview with Crenshaw and the breathless “exclusive” about the contractors remain on CNN’s website with no indication their accounts were false.  Hayes follow-up on the contractors also remains on MSNBC’s site.


The iPad

The person recording the video of the contractors had started recording after the gunshots stopped, putting his iPad in a ground-level window of his basement apartment. The audio he captured show the rumors spreading.  The DOJ report said:

“During those conversations, bystanders discussed what transpired, although none of what was recorded was consistent with the physical evidence or credible accounts from other witnesses.

“For example, one woman stated that the officer shot at Brown from inside his vehicle while the SUV was still moving and then the ‘officer stood over [Brown] and pow-pow-pow.’ Because none of these individuals actually witnessed the shooting incident and admitted so to law enforcement, federal prosecutors did not consider their inaccurate postings, tweets, media interviews, and the like when making a prosecutive decision.”

The report described the major role social media played in spreading the impression that many people had witnessed Brown with his hands in the air.  Agents tracked down the people who claimed on social media or TV that they had witnessed the shooting. 

“For example, one individual publicly posted a description of the shooting during a Facebook chat, explaining that Brown ‘threw his hands up in the air’ as Wilson shot him dead."  A Twitter user took a screenshot of the description and ‘tweeted’ it throughout the social media site.

“When theSLCPD and the FBI interviewed the individual who made the initial post, he explained that he ‘gave a brief description of what [he] was hearing from the people that were outside’ on Canfield Drive, but he did not witness the incident. Similarly, another individual publicly ‘tweeted’ about the shooting as though he had just witnessed it, even though he had not.

“Likewise, another individual appeared on a television program and discussed the shooting as if he had seen it firsthand. When law-enforcement interviewed him, he explained that it was ‘misconception’ that he witnessed the shooting.  He spoke to the host of the show because he was asked if he wanted to talk about the shooting. In so doing, he was inaccurately portrayed as a witness.”


To be part of something

All told, 22 people had said Brown’s hands were up.  The FBI discounted all of their statements. 

When confronted with the ways in which their accounts differed from evidence, many witnesses acknowledged they had made up details they had not witnessed.

Eight of the 22 eventually admitted they had lied about all or part of what they had claimed to see. One person admitted to be sitting in a flowerbed away from the shooting. Another acknowledged she hadn’t seen anything because she was smoking behind a dumpster. Two of those who admitted lying said they just wanted “to be part” of something.

In addition to the eight who admitted lying, one woman admitted blacking out, a man admitted he may have hallucinated details and another woman broke into hysterics and was unable to give a cogent account.

Another witness had bad eyesight, another memory loss and psychiatric problems, another was fiddling with a cell phone camera and yet another was a regular protester who waited seven months before reporting anything and then admitted she was upset “Darren Wilson got away.” 

Most of the rest of the 22 witnesses who said Brown’s hands were up gave accounts that were so at odds with physical evidence that they were not credible.  Several swore Wilson shot Brown in the back, even though there were no wounds in the back.  Several people said Brown was kneeling and Wilson killed him execution style.  Other witnesses claimed to see multiple police officers at the scene and multiple police cars.

None of that was true.

The DOJ summarized its conclusions: “Witness accounts suggesting that Brown was standing still with his hands raised in an unambiguous signal of surrender when Wilson shot Brown are inconsistent with the physical evidence, are otherwise not credible because of internal inconsistencies, or are not credible because of inconsistencies with other credible evidence.”


Unconstitutional policing

The same day the DOJ concluded that Hands Up, Don’t Shoot didn’t happen, it described in devastating detail the racist and unconstitutional practices in Ferguson that did happen.   In more than 105 pages, the Justice Department accused the city of violation of the First Amendment’s right of free speech, the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unjustified stops and searches and the 14th Amendment’s promise of fair and equal justice.

It concluded:

- - Ferguson police often arrested citizens who questioned police actions or tried to record them with cell phones.  Police also arrested protesters without cause, all in violation of the First Amendment.

--  Police stopped pedestrians and motorists without cause and then tried to write as many tickets as they could out of each stop. This violates the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

- - The city operated its municipal court system to maximize revenue over public safety, with city officials constantly urging police to maximize fines and productivity.  This violates the 14th Amendment promise of due process and equal protection of law.

-- The brunt of police and court misconduct fell on African-Americans. All of the police-dog bites occurred during arrests of African-Americans. Ninety-six percent of those arrested for not appearing in court were black.  Eighty-eight percent of all cases involving use of force were against black suspects.  And blacks were far more likely to be searched than whites even though whites were more likely to be found with contraband.

For example, in September 2012, an officer stopped a 20-year-old African-American man for dancing in the middle of a residential street. The officer checked the man for warrants and told him he could go. The man responded with profanities and ended up arrested for “Manner of Walking in Roadway.”

In June 2014 a black couple ended up in jail after allowing their child to urinate in the bushes near a playground.  An officer threatened to cite them for allowing their children to expose themselves. The mother then began recording the officer on her cellphone and he became irate, declaring, “you don’t videotape me!”  Both the mother and father ended up getting arrested. The same officer, in another incident, arrested the driver of a truck who didn’t respond quickly enough to a command that he put his cellphone on the dashboard because it was a threat.  The charge was failure to comply.


Looking back

Attorney General Holder, in presenting both the report on unconstitutional policing and report clearing Darren Wilson, speculated that the depth of racist policing in Ferguson may have been one reason protesters were ready to believe Hands Up Don’t Shoot.

And neither social media nor cable TV separated fact from rumor. 

Social media sent out distorted, unsubstantiated accounts of what happened; cable TV interviewed eyewitnesses who “saw” things they couldn’t have seen; traditional media were slow to challenge Hands Up, Don’t Shoot account.

The deeply racist and unconstitutional policing that infected the fabric of the Ferguson police department and municipal court was disclosed by the Justice Department, not the media.

Thomas Harvey, whose ArchCity Defenders had been trying to expose petty municipal corruption for years, says part of the problem was getting people to pay attention to the big impact that minor fines, small town municipal courts and abusive police traffic stops could have on people’s lives. 

It took the death of Michael Brown to finally attract the nation’s attention to this racist injustice that had been hidden in plain sight.

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