Posted on March 6, 2015

Ferguson Report Puts ‘Hands Up’ to Reality Test

Jack Healy et al., New York Times, March 5, 2015

They were four words that became the national rallying cry of a new civil rights movement: “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

Protesters chanted it, arms raised, in cities across the country in solidarity for Michael Brown, the black teenager who some witnesses said was surrendering when he was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

The slogan was embraced by members of Congress, recording artists and football players with the St. Louis Rams.

It inspired posters and songs, T-shirts and new advocacy groups, a powerful distillation of simmering anger over police violence and racial injustice in Ferguson and beyond.

But in its final report this week clearing the police officer, Darren Wilson, of civil rights violations in Mr. Brown’s death, the Justice Department said it may not have happened that way. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. cast doubt on the “hands up” account even as he described Ferguson as having a racially biased police department and justice system.

“It remains not only valid–but essential–to question how such a strong alternative version of events was able to take hold so swiftly, and be accepted so readily,” Mr. Holder said Wednesday.


But protest leaders who marched through streets around the country with their arms raised and founded groups such as Hands Up United or the Don’t Shoot Coalition said the report did not undercut their efforts to push for police reforms and advocate for victims of law enforcement violence.


“While there is an issue as to whether his hands were up, the bigger question is whether we as a nation are going to step up to try to bridge this gap of distrust between police and those who they are sworn to protect and serve,” said Representative Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat of Maryland, who appeared on the steps of the Capitol with other black members of Congress, all posing with their hands up.

Others rejected the Justice Department’s conclusions entirely, and said they still believed Mr. Brown was trying to surrender when he was killed.


“To me, he had his hands up,” said Michael T. McPhearson, co-chairman of the Don’t Shoot Coalition in St. Louis. “It doesn’t change it for me.”

Protest organizers said that no matter what Mr. Brown had been doing with his hands when he was shot–balling them, holding them out or pulling up his pants, according to various witness accounts outlined by the Justice Department–he had still been shot at least six times, and his body had been allowed to lie in the street for hours.

They said that “hands up, don’t shoot” had taken on a power of its own that arced beyond Ferguson, becoming a broader evocation of anger and injustice that now stood with earlier protest calls like “si, se puede,” “we shall overcome” or “I can’t breathe,” one of the last things said by Eric Garner, a black man who was killed in a chokehold by a white New York police officer on Staten Island.