The Trouble with Stories: A Critical Reading of Ferguson’s Official Narrative

My credentials for writing an analysis of what happened in Ferguson, Missouri are nonexistent. I am not an expert on politics, law, or crime forensics. I hold an MA in Literature. The only thing that I have to offer is a well-developed eye for problem areas in plot development. It is possible that any assumption that this skill is relevant to the conflict is the most vulgar kind of vanity. However, given that questions of crime and punishment often pivot on which party has the most plausible narrative, it is also possible that there is something to be gained from examining law enforcement’s version of Michael Brown’s shooting as a stand-alone story.

That is what I propose to do in the next few paragraphs. For this exercise, we will pretend that it is all fiction. We will suspend disbelief as far as possible, giving Wilson the protagonist’s role and casting Brown as the antagonist. In fact, we’ll even take it one step further and remove race from the tale altogether, as so many people in St. Louis and around the nation would like to do. In this experiment, our two adversaries will be men of the same race. Whether they are black or white is left for the reader to decide.

The first thing that we need for our deconstruction is a summary of the police narrative. I have read numerous versions, but my primary source here is Pema Levy’s Newsweek article, “How Strong is the Legal Case Against Darren Wilson?” (8/19/2014) I selected it because it is the most measured and comprehensive that I have seen to date. This is Wilson’s story as I understand it:

Just after lunchtime on a warm Saturday in early August, Officer Darren Wilson stops two young men for jaywalking. Although Wilson is not aware of it at the time, Michael Brown, the larger of the two, has committed a petty theft only minutes before. Now confronted, the boy shoves his way into the police cruiser, where he attempts to take Wilson’s gun. Though a good deal smaller than Brown, Wilson manages to thwart the boy’s efforts, and at some point also becomes aware of the theft allegations. In the confusion, Brown makes a break for it, almost gets away, then inexplicably turns back for more. As the young man charges, a frightened Wilson starts shooting seriously, almost from muscle memory, and soon kills his attacker. His legal defense, if one becomes necessary, will be grounded in his fear that Brown was armed.

Now, if this were a novel or short story, the author would have to account for two big plot-holes and some very tricky motivational lapses. In a writer’s workshop, the following questions would almost certainly be brought up.

Plot-hole #1: if the antagonist has his own gun, why does he try to grab the protagonist’s weapon? A writer could argue that his villain is trying to disarm his hero, but that motivation is problematic. In a routine jaywalking stop, a police officer’s gun would be holstered. A suggestion that the antagonist attacks because he believes that he is about to be arrested for the earlier crime is similarly troubled. Yes, that motivation is indeed possible, but it rings false, if only because it contradicts everyday experience. (Anyone who has ever been stopped for a traffic violation after having one drink too many knows that this is the moment when a guilty person tries to behave as innocently as possible: “If I’m calm and polite, maybe I’ll get by with this.”) Meanwhile, if the protagonist’s gun is already drawn, our make-believe story-writer will have a hard time continuing to present him as the good guy. At the very least, explaining a drawn weapon for an ordinary jaywalking citation will require a good deal of additional exposition and back-story.

Plot-hole #2: in a believable fiction, the failed tussle over the gun would suggest that the antagonist remains unarmed, particularly after he doubles back for a second go at the protagonist (yet does not draw or shoot). Thus far, the author of this tale has not adequately accounted for what motivated the original fight in the cruiser. He has definitely not explained why a character who might have gotten away would turn back for another confrontation, nor has he accounted for why an armed man would fail to come at the cop with guns blazing. A non-critical reader could assume that the antagonist is unhinged, but close readers would note that lunacy has not been a part of the story. The author will either have to return to character development and convince us that his antagonist is deranged or allow us to conclude that his protagonist has killed an unarmed boy.

At the beginning of this exercise, and for the sake of argument, I pulled race out of the plot. As we have seen, in the absence of this critical element, we have a story that lacks motivation or coherence. What is fascinating to consider is that restoration of racism to the narrative has the potential to salvage the story’s realism and its humanity. How would this all feel if, instead of a broadly-drawn cop protagonist, we were presented with a white police officer who harbors an unreasonable but deeply-rooted fear of black people? What insights would we gain from knowing that this man’s prejudices were so completely ingrained that he, himself, did not fully comprehend their danger? Conversely, what would we think if the officer’s victim were more delicately drawn as a decent kid who had, through experience, become suspicious, frightened, and somewhat defensive in his encounters the police? How much better would we understand the story if we made a space in which this young man could try to fight back and try to surrender? Such a nuanced tale would not end happily. The cop would have to go to prison; the young man’s family would have to mourn its loss, yet this more subtle telling might leave us believing that justice and redemption are possible.

I know. This is a real-life tragedy, and flesh-and-bones reality has a way of trumping anything that emerges from a fiction writer’s imagination. More urgently, this is not a discussion of characters, but of people. Even as I write, I shudder at the conceit of using literary deconstruction to examine events that have been–and still are–ripping lives to bits. But here’s the thing: we do inhabit a world that is more than willing to allow the best story to pass as the greatest truth. This is one of our shared realities and because it is so, I propose that it is our job to sift through the details of real life and real death with at least the same attention that we give to novels and films.

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