The Washington Post Fact Checker
Hands Up. Don’t Shoot!
–Protesters in the aftermath of the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
This phrase became a rallying cry for Ferguson residents, who took to the streets to protest the fatal shooting of a black 18-year-old by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. Witness accounts spread after the shooting that Brown had his hands raised in surrender, mouthing the words “Don’t shoot” as his last words before being shot execution-style. The gesture of raised hands became a symbol of outrage over mistreatment of unarmed black youth by police.
That narrative was called into question when a St. Louis County grand jury could not confirm those testimonies. And a recently released Department of Justice investigative report concluded the same.
Yet the gesture continues to be used today. So we wanted to set the record straight on the DOJ’s findings, especially after The Washington Post’s opinion writer Jonathan Capehart wrote that it was “built on a lie.” From time to time, we retroactively check statements as new information becomes available. In this case, the Justice Department has concluded that Wilson acted out of self-defense, and was justified in killing Brown.
Does “Hands up, don’t shoot” capture the facts of Brown’s shooting? What has it come to symbolize now?
“Hands up, don’t shoot” links directly to Brown’s death, and it went viral. After the shooting, St. Louis Rams players raised their hands as a symbolic gesture entering the field before a football game. Protesters chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot” during rallies after a grand jury in the state’s case against Wilson decided not to indict Wilson in Brown’s killing. The phrase and gesture were on signs, T-shirts, hashtags, memes and magazine covers. It even has its own Wikipedia page.
In November 2014, a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson after finding that witness reports did not match up with evidence. Other witnesses recanted their original accounts or changed them, calling their veracity into question. In particular, the grand jury could not confirm the “Hands up, don’t shoot” narrative the way it was told after the shooting. By then, however, the phrase had taken on a message of its own.
On Dec. 1, 2014, four members of the Congressional Black Caucus repeated the gesture while delivering speeches on the House Floor titled, “Black in America: What Ferguson Says About Where We Are and Where We Need to Go.” Each of the members held up their hands, and the image spread widely online.
Yet the Department of Justice’s March 4, 2015, investigative report on the shooting of Michael Brown found federal investigators could not confirm witness accounts that Brown signaled surrender before being killed execution-style. The department’s descriptions of about 40 witness testimonies show the original claims that Brown had his hands up were not accurate.
Some witnesses who claimed they saw Brown’s hands raised had testimonies that were inconsistent with physical and forensic evidence. Some admitted to federal investigators they felt pressured to retell the narrative that was being spread after Brown’s shooting. Others recanted their initial testimonies saying they had heard it through media reports or via social media. A few witnesses said Brown had his hands out to his side with his palms up, as if saying “What?” Others said Brown’s hands were not raised, as he was charging at Wilson. A few said Brown’s hands were “balled up.”
Investigators narrowed down the “hands up” claim to a witness – Witness 128 – who had told his family and neighbors his inaccurate version of events as crowds gathered minutes and hours after the shooting, the report says. Another witness could not confirm what she saw because of her poor vision, but she heard a man running around the apartments along the street where Wilson shot Brown. The man was saying something to the effect of, “The police shot my friend and his hands were up.” The witness said that “quickly became the narrative on the street, and to her frustration, people used it both as an excuse to riot and to create a ‘block party’ atmosphere.”
A key passage from the report:
Investigators tracked down several individuals who, via the aforementioned media, claimed to have witnessed Wilson shooting Brown as Brown held his hands up in clear surrender. All of these purported witnesses, upon being interviewed by law enforcement, acknowledged that they did not actually witness the shooting, but rather repeated what others told them in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. … Witness accounts suggesting that Brown was standing still with his hands raised in an unambiguous signal of surrender when Wilson shot Brown are inconsistent with the physical evidence, are otherwise not credible because of internal inconsistencies, or are not credible because of inconsistencies with other credible evidence. In contrast, Wilson’s account of Brown’s actions, if true, would establish that the shootings were not objectively unreasonable under the relevant Constitutional standards governing an officer’s use of deadly force.
In August 2014, after Brown’s death, members of the Congressional Black Caucus delivered speeches about law enforcement’s excessive use of force against black youth. In December 2014, members again spoke about Ferguson killing and those of three others killed by police between August and Dec. 1, 2014: Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Akai Gurley in Brooklyn and Eric Garner in Staten Island. Four members of Congress– New York Democrats Hakeem Jeffries and Yvette Clarke, and Texas Democrats Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green — raised their hands during their speeches in solidarity with the “Hands up, don’t shoot” movement. The grand jury had questioned this characterization by then.
We requested an interview with those members and other caucus leaders, to see if the DOJ report changed their responses to the Brown shooting. Jeffries responded to our request. He noted that during the December 2014 hearing, none of the members used “Hands up, don’t shoot” as a factual analysis of Brown’s shooting. A review of their comments while raising their hands confirms this:
- Clarke: “Hands up, don’t shoot. … I first want to once again offer my condolence to the family of Michael Brown, whose efforts to secure justice on behalf of their son were undermined by the decision of the grand jury. The killing of Michael Brown, and attacks by the Ferguson Police Department on protesters, demonstrate an assumption that young women and men who are African American are inherently suspicious — a false assumption with deadly consequences.”
- Green: “This has become the new symbol, a new statement — a statement wherein people around the country now are calling to the attention of those who don’t quite understand that this is a movement that will not dissipate. It will not evaporate. It’s a movement that is going to continue because young people — a new generation — has decided that they’re going to engage themselves in the liberation movement.”
- Jeffries: “‘Hands up, don’t shoot,’ is a rallying cry of people all across America who are fed up with police violence — in community, after community, after community, fed up with police violence in Ferguson, in Brooklyn, in Cleveland, in Oakland, in cities and counties and rural communities all across America.”
- Lee: “I also admire the young St. Louis Rams players who raised their hands, to be able to share in the dignity of those young, peaceful protesters. If we don’t affirm non-violence, then who will?”
The same day the DOJ released the shooting report, it also published the results of its investigation into the Ferguson Police Department. This report highlighted systemic exploitation and racial profiling of black residents in Ferguson. Jeffries said that report underscored the importance of the message of “Hands up, don’t shoot.” He said: “The issue of dealing with the police use of excessive force, often directed at unarmed African American men, in the absence of subsequent accountability through the criminal justice system, remains just as important today as it was the day before the Department of Justice report was filed.”
Justin Hansford, St. Louis University professor who has been organizing legal and community advocacy after Brown’s death, said the DOJ report on Brown’s shooting did not prove that Brown never had his hands up at any point during his confrontation with Wilson. The DOJ could not find evidence to conclusively say that he did, which is an important legal distinction, he said.
Hansford said his Facebook profile photo remains an image of “Hands up” because the message is consistent regardless of the positioning of Brown’s hands: “I don’t feel any way that I was somehow duped or tricked or that my picture was based on a lie. I think it is a very symbolic gesture that really speaks to the experiences of a lot of us, a lot of youth of color.”
The Pinocchio Test
Catchy phrases like “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “Black lives matter,” “an unarmed black person is killed every 28 hours” (which we have fact checked) have resulted from protests over the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner. They are emotional messages spread easily, like the “We are 99 percent” mantra of Occupy Wall Street.