Darren Wilson was not indicted for shooting Michael Brown. Many people question whether justice was done.
by Jake Halpern, The New Yorker
August 10, 2015 Issue
Darren Wilson, the former police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old African-American, in Ferguson, Missouri, has been living for several months on a nondescript dead-end street on the outskirts of St. Louis. Most of the nearby houses are clad in vinyl siding; there are no sidewalks, and few cars around. Wilson, who is twenty-nine, started receiving death threats not long after the incident, in which Brown was killed in the street shortly after robbing a convenience store. Although Wilson recently bought the house, his name is not on the deed, and only a few friends know where he lives. He and his wife, Barb, who is thirty-seven, and also a former Ferguson cop, rarely linger in the front yard. Because of such precautions, Wilson has been leading a very quiet life. During the past year, a series of police killings of African-Americans across the country has inspired grief, outrage, protest, and acrimonious debate. For many Americans, this discussion, though painful, has been essential. Wilson has tried, with some success, to block it out.
This March, I spent several days at his home. The first time I pulled up to the curb, Wilson, who is six feet four and weighs two hundred and fifteen pounds, immediately stepped outside, wearing a hat and sunglasses. He had seen me arriving on security cameras that are synched to his phone.
Wilson has twice been exonerated of criminal wrongdoing. In November, after a grand jury chose not to indict him, the prosecutor, Robert P. McCulloch, was widely accused of having been soft on him, in part because McCulloch’s father was a police officer who had been killed in a shootout with a black suspect. In March, the US Department of Justice issued two official reports on Ferguson. One was a painstaking analysis of the shooting that weighed physical, ballistic, forensic, and crime-scene evidence, and statements from purported eyewitnesses. The report cleared Wilson of willfully violating Brown’s civil rights, and concluded that his use of force was defensible. It also contradicted many details that the media had reported about the incident, including that Brown had raised his hands in surrender and had been shot in the back. The evidence supported Wilson’s contention that Brown had been advancing toward him.
The Justice Department also released a broader assessment of the police and the courts in Ferguson, and it was scathing. The town, it concluded, was characterized by deep-seated racism. Local authorities targeted black residents, arresting them disproportionately and fining them excessively. Together, the two reports frustrated attempts to arrive at a clean moral conclusion. Wilson had violated no protocol in his deadly interaction with Brown, yet he was part of a corrupt and racist system.
The federal government’s findings did little to soothe the raw emotions stirred by Brown’s death. Many Americans believe that Wilson need not have killed Brown in order to protect himself, and might not have resorted to lethal force had Brown been white. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his new book, Between the World and Me, writing of the psychological impact of incidents like the Brown shooting, says, “It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding.” Coates also notes, “There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country.”
Many police officers have defended Wilson, pointing out that cops patrolling violent neighborhoods risk their lives. Some right-wing publications have lionized him. In The American Thinker, David Whitley wrote that Wilson “should be thanked and treated as a hero!” Supporters raised nearly half a million dollars on behalf of the Wilsons, allowing them to move, buy the new house, and pay their legal expenses. But, as Wilson knows, such support has only deepened the resentment of people who feel that he deserves punishment or, at the very least, reprimand.
During our conversations, Wilson typically sat in a recliner, holding his baby daughter, who was born in March. He said that, after Brown’s death, people “had made threats about doing something to my unborn child.” Wilson, a former Boy Scout with round cheeks and blue eyes, speaks with a muted drawl. When Barb went to the hospital to give birth, he said, “I made her check in anonymously.”
Wilson said that he had interviewed for a few police positions but had been told that he would be a liability. “It’s too hot an issue, so it makes me unemployable,” he said. He tried not to brood about it: “I bottle everything up.”
The baby has helped Wilson, who also has two stepsons, accept the constrictions of his current situation. It has also allowed him to maintain a pointed distance from the furor that the shooting helped to unleash. He told me that he had not read the Justice Department’s report on the systemic racism in Ferguson. “I don’t have any desire,” he said. “I’m not going to keep living in the past about what Ferguson did. It’s out of my control.”
Wilson, who is from Texas, is the son of a woman who repeatedly broke the law. His mother, Tonya Dean, stole money, largely by writing hot checks. After completing high school, she married Wilson’s father, John, who had been her English teacher. They soon had two children to support—Darren and his younger sister, Kara—but Dean spent wildly. She left John Wilson for another man, Tyler Harris, who ran a YMCA. They had a child, Jared, and Darren and Kara lived with them. “Tonya had me in debt—almost twenty thousand dollars—that first year,” Harris told me. Dean, it seems, often repaid debts to one person by stealing money from someone else.
The family eventually moved to St. Peters, west of St. Louis. When Wilson was thirteen, he stopped trusting his mother altogether, because she stole funds that she had helped raise for his Boy Scout troop. He worried that she would steal what little money he made working summer jobs, so he opened two bank accounts. The first, which had almost no money in it, was a decoy. He put his real earnings in the second, secret account. Wilson also tried to preëmpt his mother’s stealing. Once, he warned a friend’s parents not to let her inside their house, because she would surely find a way to steal their identities and max out their credit cards.
Dean was loving, Wilson said. “She never wanted to hurt us.” He added, “But when it came to money she was going to get it, one way or another.” Dean, who had been told by a psychiatrist that she was bipolar, began engaging in elaborate cons, at one point posing as an heiress poised to inherit millions of dollars.
Despite her compulsive thievery, Dean somehow avoided prison. Finally, a judge warned her that if she appeared in his court again she would be jailed. Shortly afterward, in 2002, she died unexpectedly. At the time, Wilson didn’t understand what had triggered her death, but he now thinks that it might have been suicide. (Harris suspects that she drank antifreeze.)
At the time, Wilson refused to talk about the tragedy, but his family knew that he was struggling: he started skipping school and hanging out with troublemakers. He graduated, though, and began doing construction work in the St. Louis area. He seemed directionless and unhappy. In 2008, the real-estate market crashed, and he could no longer find jobs. He applied to the Eastern Missouri Police Academy and was accepted. Being a police officer, he reasoned, was a recession-proof career.
Wilson found the classwork fascinating, especially when he and other cadets role-played at handling stressful situations. If they made a mistake, Wilson said, the instructors pounced: “They’re—bam!—in your face. Done. ‘You’re wrong.’ ‘It’s over.’ ‘That person just died.’ ” He welcomed the pressure.
Wilson’s relatives had worried about how Dean’s tumultuous life and death might affect her kids. Wilson’s grandmother Susan Durso recalls asking herself, “Are they going to be completely scarred?” Darren Wilson, at least, had found a sense of purpose.
When Wilson applied for a police job, he focused on the northern portion of St. Louis County. The towns in what is called North County tend to be poorer, and to have a higher percentage of black residents, than other towns in the St. Louis area—such as St. Peters, the broadly middle-class, white town where Wilson grew up. North County also has more crime. Wilson felt that working in a tough area would propel his career. “If you go there and you do three to five years, get your experience, you can kind of write your own ticket,” he said.
There are almost fifty municipalities in North County. The officers in some of the towns are not just fighting crime; they also issue countless traffic tickets and ordinance-violation citations. The local governments often rely on the fines generated by tickets and violations to balance their budgets. (In 2013, the town of Edmundson, which comprises less than a square mile, issued nearly five thousand traffic tickets.) Police officers, meanwhile, can be paid as little as ten dollars an hour, according to Kevin Ahlbrand, the president of the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police. Ahlbrand says that the low pay can create “unprofessional police officers,” adding, “You get what you pay for.”
In 2009, Wilson got a job in Jennings, a town on Ferguson’s southeastern border, where ninety per cent of the residents are black and a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. “I’d never been in an area where there was that much poverty,” Wilson said. Interacting with residents, he felt intimidated and unprepared.
A field-training officer named Mike McCarthy, who had been a cop for ten years, displayed no such discomfort. McCarthy, a thirty-nine-year-old Irish-American with short brown hair and a square chin, is a third-generation policeman who grew up in North County. Most of his childhood friends were African-American. “If you just talk to him on the phone, you’d think you’re talking to a black guy,” Wilson said. “He was able to relate to everyone up there.”
Wilson said that he approached McCarthy for help: “Mike, I don’t know what I’m doing. This is a culture shock. Would you help me? Because you obviously have that connection, and you can relate to them. You may be white, but they still respect you. So why can they respect you and not me?”
McCarthy had never heard another officer make such an honest admission of his own limitations. At the same time, he sensed a fierce determination: “Darren was probably the best officer that I’ve ever trained—just by his willingness to learn.”
McCarthy wasn’t surprised that Wilson had difficulty interacting with residents. Police officers are rigorously trained in firing weapons and apprehending suspects but not in establishing common ground with people who have had different experiences. “If you go to an academy, how much is on that?” he asked me. “Basically, nothing.” A recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum revealed that cadets usually receive fifty-eight hours of training in firearms, forty-nine in defensive tactics, ten in communication skills, and eight in de-escalation tactics.
For several months, McCarthy taught Wilson how to walk the beat—coaching him to loosen up, joke, and curse occasionally. He should avoid “sounding like a Webster’s Dictionary,” never condescend, and never expect people to rat. At first, Wilson says, residents laughed at him, but he followed McCarthy’s advice to “just keep going.” By the end of the training, Wilson said, he “was more comfortable” on the streets. McCarthy told me, “There is so much distrust in the African-American community toward the police.” The only way to overcome it was by establishing bonds with people. McCarthy, who is gay, said that he understood what it meant to be marginalized. “In the United States, where everybody is supposed to be equal, I’m not. So that’s a major thing.”
McCarthy helped Wilson, in part, by letting him make mistakes. One night, they were patrolling a neighborhood where burglary was common. Wilson saw a car idling on the side of the street, and McCarthy didn’t object when Wilson pulled over and asked the driver to show I.D. Wilson ran a check on the man’s name; nothing came up, so he let him go. Later, McCarthy asked, “What would’ve happened if you’d found a gun?” Wilson said that he would have arrested the man. McCarthy asked him what his case for probable cause would have been, and Wilson couldn’t answer. “You’d be screwed,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy had spent two years working as a police officer at a predominantly black middle school in the city of Normandy. (Michael Brown attended the school, but not when McCarthy worked there.) McCarthy told me that police officers he knew often disliked working in North County schools, because many students had an “us versus them” attitude. But he loved talking with the kids and “investing in the community.” He recalled, “I would do the adopted-student program—take them to basketball games and things of that nature.” Many of the kids confided in him about the stress of having to be “man of the house” when a parent worked nights. McCarthy said that his openness made the students more respectful: “I wasn’t the police to them, because they knew me on a personal level, rather than what that badge stood for.” He said, “People are amazing, and you have no idea what’s going on behind that façade until you stop and try to know.” Too many cops, he went on, weren’t interested in understanding the “root causes” of crime; they preferred to “go on calls, handle the call, and leave.”
When Wilson became a police officer in Jennings, he was joining a department that had a reputation for racism. Wesley Bell, a newly elected member of the Ferguson City Council, told me that he used to avoid driving through Jennings “like the plague.” This feeling endures. The current mayor of Jennings, Yolonda Henderson, who is black, told me that African-Americans in nearby towns “still say, ‘No, no, no, I ain’t going over there.’ ”
Wilson recalls hearing “old-timers” talk about racism in Jennings’s past, but their stories didn’t make a vivid impression on him. McCarthy, however, said that in the seventies and eighties the Jennings police “did not play.” He added, “Basically, they’d beat you.” During that period, many blacks from St. Louis moved to North County. Numerous towns there went from being majority white to being majority black. The police forces remained almost completely white.
McCarthy showed me several police logs from those decades, and many entries documented bigotry on the part of Jennings authorities. In April, 1973, a lieutenant described a holdup that had occurred near the police station. The suspects were two black males. At the bottom of the entry, someone had written, “Men, you better leave your wallets at home. Niggers are going to come in the police station next and rob us.” An entry from December, 1979, described an eighteen-year-old black male who was believed to have been involved in the shooting of a police officer but was then released, “due to his lack of mental capacity.” Below this, someone had scrawled, “Kill the Fucker.”
McCarthy said that police officers resist discussing racism, past or present. “If an officer speaks out, they are ostracized,” he said. “They don’t want anything negative to be out there. But we’re humans—there’s gonna be negative. Be honest about it. If you acknowledge it, that’s the first step.”
Wilson strongly disagreed with McCarthy about this. He granted that, in North County, the overt racism of past decades affected “elders” who lived through that time. “People who experienced that, and were mistreated, have a legitimate claim,” he told me. “Other people don’t.” I asked him if he thought that young people in North County and elsewhere used this legacy as an excuse. “I think so,” he replied.
“I am really simple in the way that I look at life,” Wilson said. “What happened to my great-grandfather is not happening to me. I can’t base my actions off what happened to him.” Wilson said that police officers didn’t have the luxury of dwelling on the past. “We can’t fix in thirty minutes what happened thirty years ago,” he said. “We have to fix what’s happening now. That’s my job as a police officer. I’m not going to delve into people’s life-long history and figure out why they’re feeling a certain way, in a certain moment.” He added, “I’m not a psychologist.”
Wilson said that, despite what he’d said about experiencing “culture shock,” race hadn’t affected the way he did police work: “I never looked at it like ‘I’m the only white guy here.’ I just looked at it as ‘This isn’t where I grew up.’ ” He said, “When a cop shows up, it’s, like, ‘The cops are here!’ There’s no ‘Oh, shit, the white cops are here!’ ” He added, “If you live in a high-crime area, with a lot of poverty, there’s going to be a large police presence. You’re going to piss people off. If police show up, it’s because it’s something bad, and whoever’s involved can’t figure out the problem for themselves.”
He continued, “Everyone is so quick to jump on race. It’s not a race issue.” There were two opposing views about policing, he said: “There are people who feel that police have too much power, and they don’t like it. There are people who feel police don’t have enough power, and they don’t like it.”
During Wilson’s tenure in Jennings, an angry debate arose about how much power the police should have. In January, 2011, a white officer stopped a vehicle with expired license plates. The driver got out, but a black woman who had been riding in the passenger seat drove off. There was a child in the back seat. The officer shot at the car’s tires. Though the car didn’t crash, the child could have been seriously hurt. (The officer resigned.) Not long afterward, it was discovered that a lieutenant in Jennings had stolen federal funds allocated for drunk-driving checks. In March, 2011, the Jennings City Council voted to shut down the police department and hire St. Louis County to take over. McCarthy secured a job at the local jail, which the town still ran, but most of the other officers were laid off, including Wilson.
“When I left Jennings, I didn’t want to work in a white area,” Wilson told me. “I liked the black community,” he went on. “I had fun there. . . . There’s people who will just crack you up.” He also liked the fact that there was more work for the police in a town like Jennings—more calls to answer, more people to meet. “I didn’t want to just sit around all day,” he said.
Wilson, who had recently married a college student named Ashley Brown, didn’t have to look far to find a new job. That October, he began policing in neighboring Ferguson, which was slightly more prosperous and about two-thirds black. He was mentored by another field-training officer: Barb Spradling, his future wife. Barb had been working in Ferguson for seven years, as one of three women on a force of roughly fifty officers. “I always thought it was easier to work with guys, because they’re not as catty,” she said.
The training went smoothly. “I made it easy on her, because all she really had to show me was the city limits and the paperwork,” Wilson told me. “I already knew the job.” They began confiding in each other, and Wilson revealed that his marriage was foundering. Wilson also told Barb stories about his mother. Barb was moved, and before long they became a couple. “I was, like, ‘Wow, this guy has been through a lot,’ ” she told me. “And it seemed like he handled it all pretty gracefully.”
In July, 2014, Wilson visited the home of Scottie Randolph, a sixty-seven-year-old African-American man, after Randolph reported hearing gunfire. Randolph says that shootings often occur in his neighborhood when “the teen-agers are out of school.” The frequency “depends on whether they’ve got a drug war or a gang war going on.” His neighborhood had fallen into disarray because of “the economic meltdown.” He added, “A lot of people lost what little they had.” Young people who couldn’t find work resorted to selling drugs. Randolph told me that he needs the police for protection, but—echoing the Justice Department’s findings—feels that they target blacks for fines: “I kind of resent the fact that they’re using minorities as a cash cow.”
Wilson said that he often handled calls like Randolph’s, and that such work was tough, because he could do little to help. I asked him if he agreed with Randolph that the neighborhood’s main problem was the absence of jobs. “There’s a lack of jobs everywhere,” he replied, brusquely. “But there’s also lack of initiative to get a job. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” He acknowledged that the jobs available in Ferguson often paid poorly, but added, “That’s how I started. You’ve got to start somewhere.”
Good values, Wilson insisted, needed to be learned at home. He spoke of a black single mother, in Ferguson, who was physically disabled and blind. She had several teen-age children, who “ran wild,” shooting guns, dealing drugs, and breaking into cars.
Several times, Wilson recalled, he responded to calls about gunfire in the woman’s neighborhood and saw “people running either from or to that house.” Wilson would give chase. “It’s midnight, and you’re running through back yards.” If he caught the kids, he checked them for weapons, then questioned them. He recounted a typical exchange: “ ‘Why you running?’ ‘Because I’m afraid of getting caught.’ ‘Well, what are you afraid of getting caught for?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Well, there’s a reason you ran, and there’s a reason you don’t want to get caught. What’s going on?’ ” Wilson said that he rarely got answers—and that any contraband had already been thrown away. Once, he arrested some of the woman’s kids, for damaging property, but usually he let them go. In his telling, there was no reaching the blind woman’s kids: “They ran all over the mom. They didn’t respect her, so why would they respect me?” He added, “They’re so wrapped up in a different culture than—what I’m trying to say is, the right culture, the better one to pick from.”
This sounded like racial code language. I pressed him: what did he mean by “a different culture”? Wilson struggled to respond. He said that he meant “pre-gang culture, where you are just running in the streets—not worried about working in the morning, just worried about your immediate gratification.” He added, “It is the same younger culture that is everywhere in the inner cities.”
Most of Wilson’s calls were routine—traffic stops, house alarms—but some were deeply distressing. At one crime scene, he discovered the mangled bodies of two dead women. A two-year-old, “covered in blood,” was crawling between them. I asked him if such incidents made it hard to sleep. “No,” he replied. “I’ve never brought my work home.” This was partly a matter of disposition, but Wilson noted that, while he and Barb were on the force, they lived twenty miles outside Ferguson. They needed “that buffer”—a “chance to get out of that element.”
Wilson’s home life wasn’t entirely peaceful, however. In May, 2013, Barb’s ex-boyfriend John—the father of her younger son, who was then four—assaulted her, and also attacked Wilson. According to court papers, Barb said that John drank, and had beaten her in the past. (Barb asked me to omit John’s surname, to protect her son’s identity.) Barb testified in court that John “pulled my hair,” “choked me,” and “punched me in the face.” The Wilsons declined to discuss the incident with me.
Wilson says that he liked working in Ferguson, but after a year or so he discerned problems within the department. One day, he received a call about a woman screaming in the street. When he arrived on the scene, a rookie officer had already forced her onto the ground, arrested her, and handcuffed her. But the woman, the rookie had realized, hadn’t deserved this treatment: she was having some kind of anxiety attack. “Now what?” he asked Wilson.
“You don’t even know why you arrested somebody?” Wilson said. Then he recalled who the rookie’s field-training officer had been. Wilson summed up that officer’s approach as “Arrest them and figure it out later.”
Wilson blamed the rookie’s meagre training for his mistake. “He didn’t learn how to talk,” Wilson said. There isn’t much in the way of a reliable record about Wilson’s own mode of communicating, except for a fifteen-second video that shows him arresting a twenty-nine-year-old white man named Michael Arman. That day, in October, 2013, Wilson was visiting Arman’s house to deliver a court summons. Arman had several broken-down vehicles parked on his property, in violation of city rules. In his police report, Wilson says that Arman refused to take the summons, and so he arrested him for “failure to comply.”
In the video, Wilson approaches the front porch of the house and notices that he is being videotaped. “If you want to take a picture of me one more time, I’m going to lock your ass up,” he says, in an almost bored tone.
“Sir, I’m not taking a picture, I’m recording this incident,” Arman says. “Do I not have the right—”
“No, you don’t,” Wilson says, inaccurately. The video ends. The encounter apparently did not escalate, but it is hardly a testament to Wilson’s communication skills.
Arman was fined for his violation. According to NBC News, in 2013 Ferguson filed more than twelve thousand cases charging ordinance violations—everything from loitering to petty larceny. And there were more than eleven thousand cases charging traffic violations.
The Justice Department report on the city of Ferguson notes that police officers were punished when they didn’t write enough tickets, and often issued multiple citations for a single stop. Wilson told me that he knew of an officer who had once issued sixteen. “What the hell is the point?” he asked me. He believed that such fines could create a “vicious cycle,” in which people could not pay what they owed, then were fined further for missing payments. “That’s almost abusive of power,” he told me. I asked Wilson if he had issued multiple tickets. He said that he “usually” never wrote more than three.
Three tickets, of course, could have ruinous consequences for a resident who was poor. I met a man from St. Louis named Sean Bailey, who had been stopped by the Ferguson police in 2005. He had parked his mother’s car outside a Chinese restaurant, left a friend in the car, and run in to get take-out food. The police issued three violations, charging Bailey a hundred and two dollars for parking in a fire lane, and citing him for failure to register his car and driving without a valid license. Bailey, who was unemployed, couldn’t afford to pay, and when he missed deadlines he was charged additional fines. He has since been arrested half a dozen times for having outstanding fines, and has spent three weeks in jail. He says that, cumulatively, he has paid hundreds of dollars, but the city says that he still owes another hundred and fifty-eight. He has little hope of paying the debt, because he and his four-year-old daughter are homeless.
Though Ferguson police officers routinely arrested people for “failure to comply,” Wilson’s arrest of Arman was unusual in one respect: Arman is white. The Justice Department report concludes that Ferguson’s officers disproportionately charged black citizens with such violations. Wilson insists that he didn’t perceive this bias. But the inequity was extreme: between 2011 and 2013, the Justice Department reported, ninety-four per cent of the people arrested in Ferguson for “failure to comply” were black. The Justice Department also reported that the Ferguson police routinely performed “pedestrian checks,” in which residents were stopped on the street, often without proper legal justification.
In police records, I found four well-documented instances in which Wilson was involved in “ped checks.” On February 27, 2014, he stopped a twenty-three-year-old black man named Aaron Simmons, outside a minimart. In the police report, Wilson remarks that the minimart was known as a place where drugs were sold. He also mentions that it was cold outside, and that while patrolling he had seen Simmons four times “in this area.” Wilson reports that, for his own safety, he told Simmons to remove his hands from his pockets. Simmons objected: it was freezing, and his pockets were empty. Wilson forcibly removed Simmons’s “hands from his pants, during which Simmons actively resisted my control.” Wilson then requested Simmons to place his hands against the police car, so that he could be searched for weapons. When Simmons refused, Wilson arrested him for failure to comply. The report does not say that Simmons possessed anything illegal. During the arrest process, Wilson notes, he and Simmons had several physical confrontations, including one, at the police station, in which “Simmons was pushed against the wall.”
I showed the four reports to Erin Murphy, an NYU law professor who studies Fourth Amendment issues. Murphy said that, in the case of Simmons, there was no legitimate reason for detaining him. The other ped checks were less dramatic, but also reflected “questionable constitutional behavior.” These reports, she noted, painted “a familiar picture of contemporary law enforcement.” Police officers, she added, are not entirely to blame—often, they are trying to “enforce vague standards for detaining people that they don’t really understand.” (Wilson conceded that the failure-to-comply ordinance was exploited as an “easy way to arrest someone.” True violations, he said, involved more resistance than “you telling someone to come here, and them saying, ‘No, screw you.’ ” But when I asked him to explain the ordinance further, he said, “I’d have to read it again.”)
The Justice Department found other examples of systemic racial bias in Ferguson. From 2012 to 2014, the Ferguson police issued four or more tickets to blacks on seventy-three occasions, and to whites only twice. Black drivers were more than twice as likely as others to be searched during vehicle stops, even though they were found to possess contraband twenty-six per cent less often. Some charges, like “manner of walking in roadway,” were brought against blacks almost exclusively.
Wilson told me that Ferguson’s force had a few bigoted members, but he denied that racism was institutional. The Justice Department’s numbers were “skewed,” he said. “You can make those numbers fit whatever agenda you want.”
Within the city government, however, there appears to have been a disturbing level of cynicism about race and crime. In 2011, an e-mail circulated by police supervisors and court staff joked that a black woman who had an abortion was practicing good crime control. While Justice Department officials were investigating Ferguson, city officials repeatedly told them that the arrest statistics simply reflected the fact that black residents lacked “personal responsibility.” Indeed, before August 9, 2014—the day of Brown’s death—there seems to have been almost no sense that the city needed to change. When I asked Wilson if he felt that Ferguson might boil over, he said, “There’s always going to be a little bit simmering in a high-crime, poverty area. In that area, police usually aren’t coming over to have dinner.”
Mark Byrne, who has been a councilman in Ferguson since 2010, told me that there were things he had missed: “I didn’t know, on August 9th, that we only had four African-American police officers on a force of fifty-three.” In 2014, the city spent four times as much money on police uniforms as it did on police training. Byrne said, “I could have done a better job.”
Just before noon on August 9, 2014, Darren Wilson was heading for a lunch date with Barb when his radio announced that there was a “stealing in progress” at the nearby Ferguson Market and Liquor. The dispatcher offered a description of the two suspects. Wilson radioed back: “Do you guys need me?” The dispatcher replied that the suspects had “disappeared.”
Wilson, who had just assisted a mother whose infant was having difficulty breathing, decided that if the robbery trail was cold he would continue on to lunch. Moments later, he encountered Michael Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson, walking down the middle of Canfield Drive.
Brown was at a precarious juncture in his life. When he was twelve, his parents had split up. At first, he had lived with his mother, Lesley McSpadden, but by the age of sixteen he had moved in with his father, Michael Brown, Sr. “He wasn’t doing so good over there,” Brown, Sr., told me. “She was working—wasn’t nobody there to kind of help him out—so he came back my way, and he was staying back and forth with me and my mother.” Last summer, Brown was living with his maternal grandmother.
Brown had struggled academically, and had switched schools several times. He was six feet five and weighed nearly three hundred pounds, and, because of his size, people often thought he was older than he was. Brown, Sr., recalls worrying that his son’s physical stature might make him a target for the police. “We had a conversation about just following orders,” he said. “After you thought that you were being disrespected, get a name and a badge number, so your parent can reach out to the police department and file a complaint.” Most important was a simple directive: “Obey.”
Brown had just graduated from Normandy High School, where he had participated in an alternative-education program. He was planning to study heating and cooling at a technical school, but hadn’t yet started. Now summer was ending, and he had decisions to make.
Each spring, Duane Foster, a music teacher at Normandy, who knew Brown in passing, tells his seniors, “Since you’ve been a child, you have known every year, from August to June, that you’re going to go to school. . . . For the first time in your life, you won’t have anything set in stone. And that should make you scared.”
For many of the students at Normandy, Foster said, attending college is not a possibility. At home, these students are often told that, once school ends, they must earn their keep. Some of these young people have very few options, he said, then asked, “How do I compete with somebody struggling with poverty? How do I come into a classroom and say that you don’t need to be selling drugs or participating in gang-like activity?”
Foster grew up near Ferguson, in Velda Village Hills. When his family moved there, in 1969, it was among the first black families in town. By the mid-seventies, the neighborhood was almost entirely black. Back then, there were jobs and two-parent families, and this created stability. “We had General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford,” he told me. “So many factories.” Those jobs are now gone, as are many fathers, he says.
According to a recent analysis by the Times of American communities with at least ten thousand black residents, the city with the largest proportion of black men who are “missing”—in jail or prematurely dead—is Ferguson. Foster said, “There’s no real design for a middle class, or even a lower-middle class, in this area.”
Michael Brown’s father played an active role in his life, but this isn’t always the case for Normandy students. A third of Foster’s students have a father in jail. Many of them believe, rightly or wrongly, that their father is innocent, and this inevitably shapes how young people in Ferguson view the police. This context, Foster says, helps provide a clearer picture of where Brown came from, and who his peers were.
The image of Brown that many people have was shaped by the surveillance video from Ferguson Market and Liquor. In that footage, we see Brown take several packages of cigarillos, then head toward the door. A clerk tries to stop him, but Brown easily shoves him aside. Store employees later told federal investigators that Brown looked “crazy,” used profane language, and asked the clerk, menacingly, “What are you gonna do about it?”
Dorian Johnson told me that, before entering the market, he and Brown “never talked about stealing things.” Johnson claimed that they were instead immersed in a discussion “about the Bible and God—how you’re supposed to be as a human going through life.” After Brown stole the cigarillos and they left the store, they resumed this conversation. Johnson also claimed that he didn’t even acknowledge that the theft had taken place, because he didn’t want to rub Brown “the wrong way.” He told me, “I was being a real good friend and staying with him, even though I know he committed a crime,” and added, “It wasn’t like he robbed the store—like he held it at gunpoint or anything—so I didn’t think the guy was really gonna call the police.”
The most thorough account of what happened next comes from the Justice Department’s report on the incident, which is eighty-six pages long.
Wilson was heading west on Canfield Drive, his window open, in his department-issued Chevrolet Tahoe. He spotted Brown and Johnson, and called out to them to use the sidewalk. According to Wilson, Brown replied, “Fuck what you have to say.” (Johnson denies that Brown said this, and claims that Wilson told them, “Get the fuck on the sidewalk.”) Wilson surmised that Brown and Johnson were the robbery suspects, based on the descriptions offered on the radio and the cigarillos in Brown’s hands. After calling for backup, Wilson parked his vehicle at an angle, barricading the roadway.
According to Kevin Ahlbrand, the president of the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police, parking a police car in this manner is a common maneuver—a car in the street offers a cop protection in the event of a gunfight.
Jonathan Fenderson, who is a professor of African-American studies at Washington University, in St. Louis, told me that young black men are inclined to see the police as an “occupying force.” Intentionally or not, Wilson’s decision to blockade the street sent a message: You will defer to the power that I exhibit, or I am going to force you back into place.
After stopping his car, Wilson tried to open his door, but Brown blocked his way. It is impossible to know what Brown and Wilson then said to each other—or why the situation escalated so quickly. I asked Wilson repeatedly to discuss this moment with me, but he declined, noting that Brown’s parents are pursuing a civil lawsuit, and that he didn’t need details “in print that they’re going to try and spin.”
According to Wilson and several witnesses deemed credible by the Justice Department, Brown reached into the Tahoe’s open window, grabbed Wilson, and punched him. This narrative, the report says, is supported by bruising on Wilson’s jaw and samples of Brown’s DNA found on Wilson’s collar, shirt, and pants. It’s not known why Brown did this, and many have speculated that Wilson provoked Brown somehow.
At this point, Wilson told investigators, his training kicked in and he reviewed his options. He did not carry a Taser, so the weapons at his disposal were mace, a retractable baton, and his gun. The only one readily accessible, Wilson said, was the gun. When he unholstered it, he told investigators, Brown reached for it. He told the grand jury that Brown said to him, “You are too much of a pussy to shoot me.” In the ensuing struggle, Wilson shot Brown in the hand. This sequence of events has factual support. Brown’s DNA was detected on the inside of the driver’s-side door, and soot from the gun’s muzzle was found in Brown’s wound, indicating that his hand was within inches of the weapon when it fired. It was the first time that Wilson had used his gun in the line of duty.
Wilson told the grand jury that Brown, upon being shot, had “the most intense, aggressive face,” and looked “like a demon.” Brown retreated, running east. Wilson chased him. Brown ran at least a hundred and eighty feet down Canfield Drive—his blood was found in the roadway—and then headed back toward Wilson. According to the Justice Department, eyewitnesses claiming that Brown raised his hands in surrender proved unreliable. (One of these witnesses, Dorian Johnson, continues to insist that Brown’s hands were raised.) Witnesses deemed credible offered varying accounts of Brown’s movement—“charging,” “slow motion,” “running”—but concurred that he was approaching Wilson. According to Wilson, he repeatedly ordered Brown to stop and get on the ground. Brown, who was unarmed, kept moving. At one point, Wilson told investigators, Brown put his right hand into his waistband, as if reaching for a weapon.
Sometime after the chase began, Wilson shot ten bullets at Brown. A few missed him, but he was hit in the chest, the forehead, and the arm. Autopsy reports indicate that, contrary to initial media reports, no bullets hit Brown in the back. It is possible that Wilson fired some of the errant bullets before Brown turned around, and the Justice Department report says that “the autopsy results alone do not indicate the direction Brown was facing when he received two wounds to his right arm.” Yet the report repeatedly underscores that eyewitness accounts describing Brown being shot from behind were unreliable.
Academics have studied whether cops exhibit racial bias when deciding whether to pull the trigger. Joshua Correll, at the University of Colorado Boulder, has done more than twenty studies on this topic. In 2000, Correll created a video game in which participants view images of armed and unarmed men—some black, some white. Participants must make rapid decisions about whether to shoot. Initially, Correll tested civilians—college students, mainly—and found that they were quicker to shoot black suspects than white suspects. They also were more likely to shoot unarmed suspects when those suspects were black. When Correll had police officers do the test, the results were more ambiguous. Officers, like civilians, were significantly quicker to shoot black suspects than white suspects; but cops showed no bias when shooting unarmed suspects by mistake. Correll believes that this is a result of the training that cops receive.
Wilson told the grand jury that when Brown was hit by the bullets he “looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.” This testimony has inspired much debate. In November, Melissa Harris-Perry, the commentator on MSNBC, noted that Wilson’s use of language—much like his use of the word “demon”—was dehumanizing, and conformed to the “myth of the black brute incapable of pain himself bent on inflicting pain on others.” She added, “Americans long have had difficulty in understanding, acknowledging, and having empathy for the pain of black men.”
Brown collapsed after being shot. At 12:05 pm, an ambulance—carrying the infant Wilson had assisted—came across the scene, and a paramedic pronounced Brown dead. The body remained on the hot asphalt for four hours. Hundreds of angry residents gathered, some shouting, “Let’s kill the police!” Ferguson officials say that this volatility slowed down the processing of Brown’s body, but the delay struck many onlookers as deeply insulting. As one local told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “You’ll never make anyone black believe that a white kid would have laid in the street for four hours.”
Sabrina Webb, one of Brown’s cousins, lived on Canfield Drive, across from the scene of the shooting. She was at work when the shooting occurred. Her roommate called to report that someone had just been shot dead. Webb rushed home. She couldn’t get down Canfield Drive in her car, so she parked on a nearby street and ran the rest of the way. She pushed through onlookers and discovered that the victim was her cousin. Brown was three years younger than she was, and they had seen each other the previous week. “We were just happy,” she says. “Like normal kids.” Now his dead body was lying on the street. “That’s going to always stay on my mind,” she told me. “Always. It’s nothing you can get rid of.”
At the Ferguson police station, Barb Wilson wondered why her husband hadn’t showed up for lunch. Then, she told me, “he just walked in and was, like, ‘I just killed somebody.’ ” Barb noticed that Wilson’s “face was flushed and red—it didn’t look right.” She decided that he needed space and, not knowing what else to do, took care of some paperwork. Wilson went to the hospital with his superiors, and debriefed them while he was examined for injuries. He returned to the station, and he and Barb headed home.
“Neither one of us knew what the reaction was going to be the next day,” Wilson said. “You know, a typical police shooting is: you get about a week to a week and a half off, you see a shrink, you go through your Internal Affairs interviews. And then you come back.” Barb told me, “I didn’t think it would be a big weight on his shoulders. This is kind of what we signed up for.”
Later that night, however, they turned on the television and watched live coverage of unrest in Ferguson. Barb recalled, “We stayed up all night watching, like, ‘Oh, my God—what’s going on? What are they doing?’ ”
Barb’s younger son, who was then six, asked why there were images on television of Ferguson burning. Wilson told me, “I said, ‘Well, I had to shoot somebody.’ And he goes, ‘Well, why did you shoot him? Was he a bad guy?’ I said, ‘Yeah, he was a bad guy.’ ”
Soon after the shooting, Wilson called Mike McCarthy and gave him an account of what had happened. “I never questioned it,” McCarthy told me. Around the same time, he was involved in a shootout with an armed suspect, and he knew that such experiences were chaotic. McCarthy, who was moonlighting as a policeman in a North County town, answered a call about a domestic disturbance. He showed me a video of the incident.
When McCarthy arrived on the scene, a black man in his twenties opened fire on him and another officer. The other cop was hit. The shooter sped off in his car. McCarthy got back into his car, letting out a strange, adrenaline-filled whoop. “After I got shot at, I had one thing on my mind, and that was getting that son of a bitch,” McCarthy told me. He pursued the shooter. “Then it hit me—‘I have to go back.’ ” He returned to his colleague. Fortunately, the officer was unhurt; the bullet had been stopped by the Taser on his utility belt.
McCarthy’s story made clear that even a seasoned veteran could forget protocol while under duress. He said of Wilson’s troubles, “It just tore me up, because here you had a young kid who was doing nothing more than his job—and was doing a job that I encouraged him and taught him how to do.” McCarthy sympathized with some of the underlying rage that fuelled the protests—and the riots—but he was adamant that the shooting had nothing to do with race.
A few days after the shooting, the Wilsons, worried that their address was about to be leaked online, fled to the house of a relative: “We ran through the house, grabbed all our guns, and put some bags together.” Wilson contemplated leaving St. Louis for good, then reconsidered. He told me, “At least here I’d know where I’m welcome and not welcome.”
On August 9th, as events unfolded in Ferguson, Rasheen Aldridge was working at an Alamo rental-car office at the St. Louis Airport. From the parking lot, he had a clear view of Interstate 70. “I saw, like, forty police cars heading toward Ferguson,” he recalled. On the Internet, he found an image of Brown’s body in the street.
Aldridge, who was twenty at the time, had grown up in the impoverished Fifth Ward of St. Louis, but he was a homebody and spent little time on the streets. In kindergarten, Aldridge had entered the county’s desegregation program, and attended school in an affluent suburb. Many of his friends were white and Jewish. His childhood was quite different from Michael Brown’s, and perhaps for this reason he was drawn to Ferguson. On August 11th, he drove there with a friend.
Aldridge talked with residents, gathering firsthand accounts of what had happened. A few days later, he returned and watched, horrified, as looters ransacked a store. He and several others formed a raggedy line of defense. Some looters walked away, Aldridge says; others didn’t. “Some called us house niggers,” he said, his voice cracking.
In subsequent weeks, Aldridge returned often to Ferguson, participating in protests that he hoped would peacefully bring change. Initially, he gave the police the benefit of the doubt. Then officers started firing tear gas into the crowds and, occasionally, calling protesters “niggers.”
Aldridge heard the media reports that Brown’s hands had been raised and that Wilson had shot him in the back. It was Dorian Johnson who had first made these allegations, and they helped inspire the now famous rallying cry “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” Although Johnson’s story proved to be at odds with the Justice Department’s findings, the narrative had taken hold—and, for many Americans, it has endured. In part, this is because Johnson’s story was eminently plausible. Within the past year alone, the media has highlighted many examples of police brutality in which the facts strongly resemble the type of story that Johnson told—from the fatal choking of Eric Garner, on Staten Island, to the fatal shootings of Walter Scott, in North Charleston, South Carolina, and Samuel Dubose, in Cincinnati.
Aldridge told me that, based on what he had heard and read, he believed that Brown was in “surrender mode” when Wilson shot him. When we spoke, he admitted that he had not yet read the Justice Department’s report on the shooting. It was hard not to notice a parallel: both Aldridge and Wilson had turned to the report that buttressed their own world view. It was as if the two Justice Department reports had come to present opposing realities.
Legitimate questions linger about the shooting. If Brown was unprovoked, why did he reach into the police car and punch Wilson in the face? Why did Wilson fire ten shots? A young activist in Ferguson, Clifton Kinnie, said, “The story doesn’t make sense. Black youth don’t fight police—we run.”
Kinnie recounted a story of walking toward a park, with his younger brother. A police officer pulled up in his car and told them to get on the ground. Kinnie complied and told his brother to do the same. The officer was apparently searching for some suspects. Kinnie still recalls how aggressive the officer was, “coming at us as if we were grown men.” This was in 2005, when Kinnie was eight years old.
Kinnie’s cynical view of the police was bolstered by the Justice Department’s conclusions about the city of Ferguson. If the police generally acted in a racist and abusive manner, why give Wilson the benefit of the doubt?
In May, I posed this question to Brittany Ferrell and Alexis Templeton—a charismatic black couple who are two of the most visible activists in Ferguson. Templeton said that the two Justice Department reports “pretty much contradict one another,” adding, “You have to say, Damn, if the Ferguson Police Department is racist, and Wilson works in the Ferguson Police Department, that means he might be racist, too.” She said, “They need to open up and relook at this case.” Ferrell said, “The system is going to do whatever it has to do to protect itself. And if that means protecting Darren Wilson, the officer who represents that system, they’re going to do that.”
One afternoon this spring, Ferrell and Templeton joined a protest in Ferguson. At the time, people were marching in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray, and the mood in Ferguson was tense. About a hundred protesters gathered outside a church, then proceeded onto the street. They chanted, “Indict! Convict! Send that killer cop to jail! The whole damn system is guilty as hell!”
The plan was to shut down the intersection of West Florissant and Chambers Road for four minutes, in symbolic homage to the four hours that Brown’s body lay in the street. When the protesters reached the intersection, they marched in front of oncoming cars. Horns honked, and an irate motorist yelled, “Get out of the street so people can get to work!” One car drove onto the elevated median and made a reckless U-turn. Another driver tried to force his way through the protesters, at considerable speed, and nearly hit one of them.
The police never showed up. Several squad cars remained parked just down the street, in an empty lot. Some locals told me that the Ferguson police often decided not to engage these days. Weeks later, one white resident told me, bitterly, that the cops had their “hands tied” and couldn’t police “the way they should.” On one occasion, he said, he called the police about a possible break-in at a neighbor’s house, and an officer advised him to arm himself. Mike McCarthy also lamented the situation: “I don’t think the cops in Ferguson can do a whole lot of policing these days.” The Justice Department’s exposé may have had a constraining effect, but it’s also true that the city’s leadership is in flux. A week after the report came out, the police chief, the city manager, and the municipal judge all resigned. (The city recently named Andre Anderson, who is black, its interim police chief. His first goal, he announced, was “simply to build trust.”)
Late in the evening on April 28th, violence broke out in Ferguson, and a store was looted. That night, I met up with McCarthy, in Jennings. On his police scanner, there were multiple reports of gunshots. “They are getting ready to switch over to Code 2000,” McCarthy told me. “A riot code.” A voice on the scanner then announced, “I have the air unit en route to your location.”
The problems in Ferguson, McCarthy told me, were rooted in a vast historical legacy of injustice: “No matter what we do, we cannot right our wrongs to the African-American community.” But police had to do their job—and he, for one, couldn’t see himself leaving North County. “I don’t think I’d be effective,” he said. “It’s not what I know.”
I asked him if, by the same logic, a man with the background of Darren Wilson would be inherently less effective in North County. McCarthy bristled. “Watch what you’re using for the definition of ‘effective,’ ” he said. “I can do my job down there, but you’re not getting the maximum use of my resources.” What would be lost? The ability to communicate easily, he replied.
I reminded him that he considered communication to be the most important skill in law enforcement. Wasn’t Wilson’s confrontation with Brown, on some level, about communication? Would an encounter with Brown really have played out in the same manner for McCarthy?
He insisted that he would have acted just as Wilson had. I then asked him to consider the initial moment of contact, when Wilson and Brown were still talking. “It might not have escalated to that point,” McCarthy conceded, uneasily. Later, he added, “There is likelihood that it could’ve avoided that confrontation—the escalation of that confrontation.” But he felt that such speculation was pointless.
Reverend Starsky Wilson is the co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, whose members have been asked by Missouri’s governor, Jay Nixon, to study what factors might have contributed to the rioting. In Reverend Wilson’s view, the moment when Darren Wilson first spoke with Michael Brown was enormously consequential. “It frames the engagement and it sets a tone for the relationship,” he told me. But this moment couldn’t be isolated from all the mistakes that came before it. In places like Ferguson, police officers needed to spend more time in the schools, getting to know disadvantaged students, and they had to treat more residents as allies. He urged me to consider what might have happened if Wilson had known Brown, or Brown’s grandmother, and was able to say, “Does Miss Jenny know you’re out here?” Such a question, Reverend Wilson said, has a more potent moral authority. One afternoon this spring, I accompanied Darren and Barb Wilson to a park near their house, where they watched Barb’s younger son practice baseball. Darren wore shades and a baseball cap, and we stayed in the Wilsons’ S.U.V.
Wilson says that, after the grand jury cleared him, he wanted to rejoin Ferguson’s police force. But he was told that his presence would put other officers at risk. “They put that on me,” Wilson said. He worked for two weeks at a boot store, stocking inventory, but quit when reporters started calling the store. “No matter what I do, they try to get a story off of it,” he told me.
After the shooting, Barb was reluctant to return to the streets of Ferguson, for fear of being identified as Wilson’s wife. The department recently offered her a job as a dispatcher—with a substantial pay cut. Barb decided to retire early. In the car, she turned to Darren and said, “I just want that lottery ticket we bought in Piedmont to be a winner.”
I asked Wilson what he would do if the Ferguson police force offered him his job back. He seemed startled. “I would—um—”
“I would not allow him,” Barb said.
“I would want to do it for a day,” Darren said, finally, to show people that he was not “defeated.”
In our many discussions, Wilson rarely spoke of Michael Brown. Twice, I asked him if he had reflected on what kind of person Brown was. The first time I asked, it was early May, and Brown’s parents had just filed their civil lawsuit against him. “You do realize that his parents are suing me?” he said. “So I have to think about him.” He went on, “Do I think about who he was as a person? Not really, because it doesn’t matter at this point. Do I think he had the best upbringing? No. Not at all.” His tone was striking, given Wilson’s own turbulent childhood.
Six weeks later, Wilson told me that he had never really had a chance to contemplate who Brown was, because he had been preoccupied by the maelstrom that followed the shooting. I asked him if he thought Brown was truly a “bad guy,” or just a kid who had got himself into a bad situation. “I only knew him for those forty-five seconds in which he was trying to kill me, so I don’t know,” Wilson said.
Barb also said that she rarely thought about Brown. But she thought about a woman named Stephanie Edwards, whom she knew well. Edwards was the mother of Louis Head, Brown’s stepfather. Before becoming a cop, Barb had worked with Edwards at a grocery store. Barb says that they talked every day for roughly ten years, learning minute details of each other’s lives, but they didn’t keep in touch when Barb became a cop.
After the shooting, Edwards joined the protests, appearing at a rally wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Brown’s face. “We are tired of police brutality,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I came out for justice.” Barb wonders what would happen if she and Edwards crossed paths again. Barb assumes that much of the world assumes that she is a racist, but clings to the idea that Edwards knows better: “I know that she knows, in her heart, that I am not like that.” (Edwards could not be reached for comment.)
One recent afternoon, I met with Sabrina Webb, Michael Brown’s cousin, on Canfield Drive, at the spot where Brown was killed. A makeshift memorial was in place: a pile of wilted flowers and sun-scorched Teddy bears. She recalled that, when she left her apartment the day after the shooting, “you could still see brain matter on the street.” She moved out soon afterward.
Webb was still angry that Wilson had offered condolences only after the grand jury gave its decision. Wilson was interviewed by George Stephanopoulos, of ABC, and he said of Brown’s parents, “I’m sorry that their son lost his life. It wasn’t the intention of that day. It’s what occurred that day, and there’s nothing you can say that’s going to make a parent feel better.” Wilson also reaffirmed, “I did my job that day.” I asked Webb how she felt about Wilson. “Anger and hatred,” she said. “There’s no forgiveness.”
Michael Brown, Sr., also feels “resentment” toward Wilson, and feels that nothing, not even Wilson’s going to jail, can rectify what happened. When we spoke of the day of the shooting, I asked him what he believed had happened at Ferguson Market and Liquor. “That’s just out of character,” he said. He also insisted that the video didn’t “show all the facts,” though he wouldn’t elaborate. His son, he said, “was an average kid that did teen-age things and had fun and tried to live his life.” Brown, Sr., said that two images of his son never leave his consciousness. One is from the last time he saw him smiling. It was on August 1st, the day that Brown graduated. They went out to eat. “He had on a nice tie,” Brown, Sr., recalled, quietly. The other memory is of his son lying on the ground, dead.
Since the shooting, gun sales in Ferguson have spiked, and there is little sense of reconciliation. The sixteen members of the Ferguson Commission have been charged with proposing policy reforms. Rasheen Aldridge, the activist, who is a member of the commission, told me that last August he believed that Wilson deserved the death penalty. Since then, his views have softened: “I can’t hold hatred in me for too long.” He still can’t decide what kind of punishment Wilson deserves. “I want to be, like, ‘He needs to go to jail.’ But then there’s also that other side of me that understands everything. He is probably in prison, in a way.”
At one point, I asked Wilson if he missed walking outside and going to restaurants. He told me that he still ate out, but only at certain places. “We try to go somewhere—how do I say this correctly?—with like-minded individuals,” he said. “You know. Where it’s not a mixing pot.”
Wilson has received several thousand letters from supporters, and he has written thank-you notes to almost all of his correspondents. Many of the letters are from police officers. Some are from kids. One card reads, “Thanks for protecting us!” Wilson proudly showed me a drawer, in his living room, which contained dozens of police-department patches from cops expressing their support. None of those cops, however, had offered him a job.
Jake Halpern is an author, journalist, and radio producer who contributes to The New Yorker.
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