What Does It Mean When ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ Doesn’t Hold Up?

What Does It Mean When ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ Doesn’t Hold Up?

What Does It Mean When ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ Doesn’t Hold Up?

Jonathan Capehart dares to ask, and too many on the left don’t want to hear about it.


When the Department of Justice released two reports on Ferguson, Missouri, I, like many on the right and the left, pretty much ignored one and devoured the other. I minimized in my own mind the report showing that the DOJ not only didn’t have a case against Officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, but that Brown’s hands were not in the hands-up surrender position. Instead, I focused on the second report that excoriated the Ferguson police department and courts for long-held abusive, racist practices. After all, I figured, Fox and the entire right would exploit the Wilson report and ignore the one on Ferguson. It hurts to type these words, but I was like Fox.

Earlier this week, however, in a piece called “’Hands up, don’t shoot’ was built on a lie,” The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart essentially called out the left, and himself. It was, he says, “the hardest piece I ever had to write.”

First, he nods to the “good” report, on Ferguson:

Years of mistreatment by the police, the courts and the municipal government, including evidence that all three balanced their books on the backs of the people of Ferguson, were laid bare in 102 damning pages. The overwhelming data from DOJ provided background and much-needed context for why a small St. Louis suburb most had never heard of exploded the moment Brown was killed. His death gave voice to many who suffered in silence.

But the report on the shooting, Capehart writes, “forced me to deal with two uncomfortable truths: Brown never surrendered with his hands up, and Wilson was justified in shooting Brown.”

As Capehart recounts, Eric Holder’s DOJ found that

Although there are several individuals who have stated that Brown held his hands up in an unambiguous sign of surrender prior to Wilson shooting him dead, their accounts do not support a prosecution of Wilson. As detailed throughout this report, some of those accounts are inaccurate because they are inconsistent with the physical and forensic evidence; some of those accounts are materially inconsistent with that witness’s own prior statements with no explanation, credible [or] otherwise, as to why those accounts changed over time. Certain other witnesses who originally stated Brown had his hands up in surrender recanted their original accounts, admitting that they did not witness the shooting or parts of it, despite what they initially reported…

Capehart calls hands up a “lie” (it was sparked by Brown’s companion in the incident, Dorian Johnson), but keeps it in context.

Yet this does not diminish the importance of the real issues unearthed in Ferguson by Brown’s death. Nor does it discredit what has become the larger ‘Black Lives Matter.’ In fact, the false Ferguson narrative stuck because of concern over a distressing pattern of other police killings of unarmed African American men and boys around the time of Brown’s death.

For this, social media went off on Capehart, calling him a “house negro,” accusing of him of mere click-baiting, and worse. The headline of a Salon piece by Brittney Cooper said he’s “poisoning the race debate” and likens Capehart to Bill Cosby and his “respectability politics.”

Capehart has had some defenders. Donna Brazile, for instance, tweeted: “Agree. Hands up, don’t shoot’ was built on a lie http://wpo.st/hn490. Error admitted and let’s start the healing process.”

And in a heated panel discussion on CNN, The New York Times’s Charles Blow said of the two DOJ reports, “You can’t take one and say I believe this one and I completely discard the other. Because the other one provides context for the first. If you’re truly in pursuit of honesty, the truth will never hurt you.”

It is telling that this heated discussion wasn’t on MSNBC, which, except for Joe Scarborough’s Morning Joe, had been firmly wedded to the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative (as have most of us at The Nation). Even Capehart seems to avoid the controversy when on MSNBC. Sub-hosting on Hardball last night, he referred to the flak he got for the piece, but didn’t quite address the actual lie at the center of the flak.

Others have noticed the suddenly mum MSNBC. The Daily Howler went after Chris Hayes in particular for “trying to muddy the water” about the DOJ report. “Are we liberals really ignoring the Justice report about the shooting of Brown?” the Howler asked. “Yes we are, and so are major mainstream orgs. When we aren’t ignoring that report, we’re often miscasting what it said.”

I still gulp saying this, but, yep, the “hands up” slogan was a lie. It’s when Capehart calls Brown an “inappropriate symbol” for the movement, however, that I lean toward Cooper’s critique. “Brown doesn’t have to be a perfect victim to be deserving of a place in movement history,” she writes. “The Department of Justice would never have investigated the Ferguson Police without Brown being killed and the people rising up in protest.”

And of course the movement is larger than the question of whether Brown’s hands were up, down or fisted, whether he charged at or tried to surrender to Wilson. So when those Rams players put their hands up in solidarity with the Ferguson protesters, a gesture that so infuriated Joe Scarborough, that was no lie. The slogan “Black Lives Matter” goes to a truth, shown again and again, that millions of whites in the United States believe that black lives are expendable. Many indeed see blacks as target practice, like this gun seller at a South Dakota gun show, selling this atrocity.

But just as Michael Brown doesn’t have to be “the perfect victim” to trigger righteous protests, so Jonathan Capehart doesn’t have to write the perfect, left-pleasing piece without being called a sell-out to his race. What he did is a necessary and healthy corrective.

And, lo, similar winds are drifting in from the right. One day before Capehart’s piece came out, conservative blogger Leon Wolf wrote in RedState.com:

No conservative on earth should feel comfortable with the way the Ferguson PD has been operating for years, even according to their own documents….

Anyone who can read the actual report itself and be comfortable with the fact that citizens of an American city live under such a regime is frankly not someone who is ideologically aligned with me in any meaningful way…

Wolf is getting both trolled and applauded from his side, too.

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