There is no shortage of murders. It’s not that we’re having an epidemic, but there are plenty of good examples of black men (or boys, as in Tamir Rice’s case) murdered by cops. Why not Walter Scott? Or Eric Garner? There’s always Philando Castile. Or if you’re a Second City fan, there’s Laquan McDonald. A Walmart shopper? There’s John Crawford. You get the point, right? RIGHT?!?
Yet, the murder of choice for two Democratic presidential candidates was MIchael Brown.
Michael Brown’s murder forever changed Ferguson and America. His tragic death sparked a desperately needed conversation and a nationwide movement. We must fight for stronger accountability and racial equity in our justice system.”
— Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), in a tweet, Aug. 9
“5 years ago Michael Brown was murdered by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael was unarmed yet he was shot 6 times. I stand with activists and organizers who continue the fight for justice for Michael. We must confront systemic racism and police violence head on.”
— Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), in a tweet, Aug. 9
It’s beyond discussion that the officer who killed Michael Brown wasn’t convicted for murdering him, but that’s a separate issue from whether he was murdered.
Both appear to be echoing a narrative that emerged shortly after Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Brown, 18. The legal definition of murder varies according to jurisdiction, but generally it means killing someone with malice aforethought.
Since this happened in Missouri, it would have been more useful to use the applicable definition, particularly given the “malice aforethought” language is archaic and not “generally” the definition. So what’s “murder” in Mizzou?
Under Missouri law, first degree murder is defined as “knowingly caus(ing) the death of another person after deliberation upon the matter.” Second-degree murder is defined as “knowingly caus(ing) the death of another person or, with the purpose of causing serious physical injury to another person, causes the death of another person.”
This comes with a caveat for law enforcement officers under 563.046(3).
In effecting an arrest or in preventing an escape from custody, a law enforcement officer is justified in using deadly force … when the officer reasonably believes that such use of deadly force is immediately necessary to effect the arrest or prevent an escape from custody and also reasonably believes that the person to be arrested … is attempting to escape by use of a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument.
Glenn Kessler at WaPo parses the witness statements, which don’t tell a story of murder. To compound the situation, Warren was a Harvard prawf, which suggests she should have some working knowledge of the meaning of “murder” (although given what’s come from Tribe and Dersh of late, the quality of instruction at HLS may not be remotely what one would expect). Harris was a particularly carceral Attorney General of California, and a few years earlier would almost certainly have been sucking down brewskis with Darren Wilson rather than on the streets with protesters.
Notably, other Democratic candidates chose not to fall into the murder trap.
It certainly was a “killing,” as Michael Brown was undeniably dead afterward, but “killing” lacks the punch of “murder.” Yet, Politifact, while acknowledging that there was “broad consensus” that “murder” was the wrong word to use. refused to put up its cute Truth-O-Meter and call it a lie.
“I don’t know if the legalistic distinction intensifies the anger, but it does feel like an attempt to shift the debate from a discussion about the killing of black and brown people by police,” said Jean Brown, who teaches communications at Texas Christian University and specializes in media representations of African Americans. “This is unfortunate, because rather than discussing the need for de-escalation tactics and relations between police and communities of color, this has become a conversation about legal terms. Quite frankly, it’s a distraction that doesn’t help the discussion.”
Because the significance of Harris’ and Warrens’ [sic] use of the word is open to some dispute, we won’t be rating their tweets on the Truth-O-Meter.
Is the use of the word “murder” by two people running for the Democratic nomination for president, possessing the particular competencies necessary to distinguish murder from not murder, open to dispute because there are other issues that are important and tangentially related? Is this merely a “legalistic distinction?” Is there a definition of the word “murder” that isn’t “legalistic?” Does the definition matter if one dismisses it as some mere “legalism”?
For a few years now, I’ve noted “legalistic” words that have become untethered from their definition. Some have been given vague and broad meaning, so much so that they mean whatever Humpty Dumpty says they mean. “Rape” is the most prominent here, as it’s become understood by many, particularly on campus, to mean whatever the “victim” feels is rape.
Is “murder” now whatever Harris, Warren and whomever they’re pandering to feels it is? Putting aside whether facts matter, or even exist, is it a mere “distraction” that they chose to use a word with which both should be quite familiar in order to appeal to their constituencies, to “virtue signal” their support for black lives?
There are plenty of examples of bad shoots, of the racist assumption that still permeates law enforcement that black men are more criminal-ish, prone to violence, threatening, that it’s unnecessary to call the killing of Michael Brown murder. And much as de-escalation is a critically important shift in how police deal with the public, there will still be times when a cop is threatened with death or serious physical injury, and is lawfully and properly (some might say “morally,” but I won’t) entitled to shoot and kill.
By conflating the two, is it a legalistic “distraction” or is it an accurate differentiation between a justified killing and murder? Or does “murder” get added to the list of words that no longer mean more than what people feel they mean?