THE BLOG
12/05/2014 01:00 am ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

How Bloggers and Comedians Are Telling Us More Than the Mainstream Media About the Ferguson, Garner Deaths

Now it's happened again, this time in Phoenix -- a white cop has shot down an unarmed black man, supposedly mistaking a pill bottle for a gun. Don't expect any criminal prosecution or a legitimate grand jury investigation of this officer, either.

There are outrage and protests mounting over the grand juries' failures to indict cops in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, fueled by the slaying this week of Rumain Brisbon. But it turns out that mainstream news outlets are less likely to give us smart, useful analysis and commentary about the facts on the ground than bloggers and their new "explainer" websites such as Vox.com and FiveThirtyEight , or even topically-oriented comedians such as Alonzo Bodden and Jimmy Dore. (Of course, left-leaning shows hosted by broadcasters such as Rachel Maddow and Amy Goodman have also been sharply critical of these shooting incidents and grand jury findings, but the detail-oriented bloggers and comedians are adding to our insights and awareness in fresh ways.)

In a review of grand jury trends after the Ferguson controversy, Nate Silver's Five Thirty Eight website aggregated the most useful information and provided analysis largely missing from mainstream media news on the topic:

Former New York state Chief Judge Sol Wachtler famously remarked that a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to "indict a ham sandwich." The data suggests he was barely exaggerating: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.

Wilson's case was heard in state court, not federal, so the numbers aren't directly comparable. Unlike in federal court, most states, including Missouri, allow prosecutors to bring charges via a preliminary hearing in front of a judge instead of through a grand jury indictment. That means many routine cases never go before a grand jury. Still, legal experts agree that, at any level, it is extremely rare for prosecutors to fail to win an indictment.

"If the prosecutor wants an indictment and doesn't get one, something has gone horribly wrong," said Andrew D. Leipold, a University of Illinois law professor who has written critically about grand juries. "It just doesn't happen."

Cases involving police shootings, however, appear to be an exception. As my colleague Reuben Fischer-Baum has written, we don't have good data on officer-involved killings. But newspaper accounts suggest, grand juries frequently decline to indict law-enforcement officials. A recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that "police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings" in Houston and other large cities in recent years. In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven't indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment. Separate research by Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson has found that officers are rarely charged in on-duty killings, although it didn't look at grand jury indictments specifically.

The mainstream news coverage of Ferguson has been driven by a "balanced approach" that's so balanced -- the cop said this happened, some African-American eyewitnesses disagreed and contradicted each other -- so we can never learn anything about what really happened. This is embodied by a New York Times article that looks at the doubts of a grand jury, and emphasizes ambiguities and contradictions in eyewitness accounts. We can only ponder these unfortunate and puzzling mysteries, the article contends:

But if the law has spoken, the questions surrounding Mr. Brown's final moments -- Were his hands raised? Why did he abruptly stop fleeing Officer Wilson and start moving toward him? Was he walking, staggering, running or charging at the officer when he was shot dead? -- remain murky and unresolved.

Those questions may never be answered.

In contrast, Ezra Klein in Vox, and other bloggers and commentators, have picked through the details of the grand jury testimony to demonstrate the sheer improbability of the events provided by the policeman who shot Michael Brown, the story that comedian Alonzo Bodden has described as the canard of the demon-like "Super Negro" who must be put down with a hail of bullets. He made these points in his own "Who's Paying Attention" podcast and a podcast interview I did with before a recent hilarious Washington, D.C. area nightclub appearance at the Arlington Cinema Drafthouse.

Similarly, Klein explained several ways that Officer Darren Wilson's apparent fabrications are literally "unvelievable":

We got to read, for the first time, Wilson's full, immediate account of his altercation with Brown.

And it is unbelievable.

I mean that in the literal sense of the term: "difficult or impossible to believe." But I want to be clear here. I'm not saying Wilson is lying. I'm not saying his testimony is false. I am saying that the events, as he describes them, are simply bizarre. His story is difficult to believe...

Wilson next recounts his thought process as he reached for a weapon. He considered using his mace, but at such close range, the mace might get in his eyes, too. He doesn't carry a taser with a fireable cartridge, but even if he did, "it probably wouldn't have hit [Brown] anywhere". Wilson couldn't reach his baton or his flashlight. So he went for his gun.

Brown sees him go for the gun. And he replies: "You're too much of a fucking pussy to shoot me."

Again, stop for a moment and think about that. Brown is punching Wilson, sees the terrified cop reaching for his gun, and says "You're too much of a fucking pussy to shoot me." He dares him to shoot....

But the larger question is, in a sense, simpler: Why?

Why did Michael Brown, an 18-year-old kid headed to college, refuse to move from the middle of the street to the sidewalk? Why would he curse out a police officer? Why would he attack a police officer? Why would he dare a police officer to shoot him? Why would he charge a police officer holding a gun? Why would he put his hand in his waistband while charging, even though he was unarmed?...

But the point of a trial would have been to try to answer these questions. We would have either found out if everything we thought we knew about Brown was wrong, or if Wilson's story was flawed in important ways. But now we're not going to get that chance. We're just left with Wilson's unbelievable story.

Equally as useful for fully understanding Ferguson, Klein also drills into the eyewitness testimony from the friend, Dorian Johnson, who saw Brown steal the cigarillos from the store and was in the street next to him when he was shot. As Klein explains it, Dorian's version, even if it may shade the truth about his own role in the theft and who threw the first punch, creates a far more plausible alternative narrative:

"He said 'Get the F*** on the sidewalk!'" Johnson tells the grand jury. Either way, on this next point, Johnson and Wilson agree. It's Johnson who replies and says they're just a minute from their homes, and they'll be off the street shortly.

This is the break point in the story. This is the moment when, even though you know how it ends, you're hoping against hope that things play out differently, because it so clearly could have gone a different way. But here is when Wilson and Johnson begin telling stories that only barely converge...

As Wilson tells it, he then asks, "what's wrong with the sidewalk?", and Brown's response, as reported by Wilson, is "fuck what you have to say."

As Johnson tells it, Wilson never says "what's wrong with the sidewalk," and Brown never says "fuck what you have to say." Rather, both Johnson and Brown think Wilson is satisfied with Johnson's answer and is driving off.

"We continued to walk and have our conversation," Johnson tells the grand jury, "but almost a split second [later], we heard the tires screech, and the officer, he pulled back in the truck very fast at an angle [where] if we didn't hear his tires screech, the back of his cruiser would have struck one of us."

The story Johnson tells from this point is straightforward: a cop feels disrespected by two young men, he reasserts his power, and then things spin out of control.

Wilson, having almost hit them with his truck, delivers the classic line of authority: "What did you say?" But Johnson is adamant that Brown hadn't said anything. Maybe he mouthed something silently. Maybe he stared Wilson down. Maybe he did something else that Johnson couldn't hear. But Johnson was right next to Brown, and Brown didn't say anything.

But if he didn't speak earlier, Brown starts now. Wilson had almost hit him with a truck. Brown is pissed. And so is Wilson. Brown says something and then Wilson hits him with the door of his cruiser. "He thrust his door open real hard," says Johnson. "We was so close to the door that it hit mostly Big Mike, but it hit me on my left side and closed back on him, like real fast. Just the same speed, boom, boom, that fast."

Compare this moment to Wilson's rendering:

I go to open my door, say, "Hey, come here." He said, "What the fuck you gonna do?" And he shut my door on me. The door was only open maybe a foot. I didn't have a chance to get my leg out. I shut the door and he came up and approached the door...

Klein's second story quotes liberally from the eyewitness near Brown from the moment of theft to shooting death. Klein points out how the cop nearly ran them both over as they walked away and then hit Brown with the car door after summoning him to him. The broad sequence of events seems far more plausible than Wilson's, about provocation by the cop leading to escalating encounters - -and all of it is consistent with the available blood and DNA evidence and bullet fragments, etc. But of course, because of the police failure to gather all evidence and the responding officers allowing Wilson to handle the gun after shooting it and permitting him to wash blood off his hand, there's no blood /DNA on Wilson's hands or gun or car exterior that can be used to verify his improbable claims.

The Washington Post explored all the ways the police and medical examiner failed to secure and inspect the crime scene and evidence, under a bland headline about "unorthodox police procedures."

It's hard to believe the prosecutor/Officer Wilson story is credible after you read through the scope of the grand jury evidence, and the multiples failures of Wilson's police pals in gathering evidence. There were no photos of the crime scene because a battery failed as they left Brown on the ground for four hours [apparently they hadn't thought of using their own cell phones or getting a battery]; the cop suspect in the deadly force incident, Wilson, was free to wash blood off his own hands and then take a shower; there was no independent evidence-gathering to determine if Wilson's car had banged Brown first, spurring the violent encounter; Wilson was allowed to handle his own deadly shooting gun throughout the investigation and deposit it himself in the evidence bag; no one took notes in their interview with Wilson in first hours of incident -- very convenient if he decided to alter his timeline of events. Just to make sure no one could determine the actual facts of the slaying, the crime scene investigator didn't even bother to measure or photograph the position of the dead body, car, tire tracks, or any other evidence on the ground to see how it stacks up to the differing version of events. Why? "IT was all self-explanatory," the CSI tech said. The Washington Post quotes criminal justice experts and police officials from around the country deriding it as blatant disregard of standard police practices.

A recent scathing broadcast by political comedian Jimmy Dore and his comic friends put it all together brilliantly, with the laughable samples from the prosecutor's late-night, pre-riot news conference completely skewered here. As Dore explains: "We break down the blatant lies of the completely and transparently corrupt prosecutor in the MIchael Brown case."

Sometimes the news is so horrible you just have to laugh at it -- and comics and bloggers help raise awareness of what's wrong in a system that sorely needs changing.

One starting point for reform could be requiring the use of independent "special prosecutors" with no ties to the local police department to examine in a public hearing whether a police officer who shoots a civilian should be prosecuted.

In the meantime, it's worth looking to comics, bloggers and independent news sites to keep up on what's actually happening.