Before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there was Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. Brown’s death inspired the fledgling Black Lives Matter movement, and “Hands Up. Don’t Shoot,” a line derived from accounts of Brown’s final words, has been a rallying cry at protests against police violence ever since.
But Michael Brown probably never spoke those words. An exhaustive Department of Justice report later concluded that the claim that “Brown held his hands up in clear surrender” came from sources who later “acknowledged that they didn’t actually witness the shooting, but rather repeated what others told them.” And that account was “inconsistent with the physical evidence,” which instead corroborated Officer Darren Wilson’s claim that Brown attacked him and tried to grab his gun.
In contrast to other police killings that have energized Black Lives Matter and nationwide protests—including that of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot while wielding a plastic gun; of Eric Garner, who died while an officer held him in a chokehold; and of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—there’s no reason to believe that by shooting Brown, Wilson was acting unreasonably, concluded Barack Obama’s Justice Department, because he was under attack.
Writer and filmmaker Shelby Steele went to Ferguson to investigate the meaning of Brown’s death and the reaction that it inspired. His new documentary, a collaboration with his son Eli, is called What Killed Michael Brown?
Born in Chicago in 1946, Steele, a former college professor who specialized in Russian literature, is the son of a truck driver and the grandson of a slave. His views on how to correct America’s racial injustices were deeply influenced by his experiences in the late 1960s and early ’70s working in a poverty program in East St. Louis. Steele believes—provocatively—that what killed Michael Brown is the “liberalism that put him in public housing, that expanded welfare payments so that his family broke up, the fatherless home, the terrible education, terrible schools, terrible public housing, uh, the destructive school busing.” In place of today’s increasing focus on identity politics, Steele believes we need to emphasize citizenship and the experiences we have in common if we are to deliver fully on America’s promise as a land of opportunity.