The word spread within minutes of Michael Brown’s death – a young black man with his hands raised in surrender had just been shot by a white cop.
Soon, “Hands Up. Don’t Shoot!” became a rallying cry for protesters in the streets of this St. Louis suburb and a symbol nationwide of racial inequality for those who believe that minorities are too often the targets of overzealous police.
Yet the witness accounts contained in thousands of pages of grand jury documents reviewed by The Associated Press show many variations about whether Brown’s hands were actually raised – and if so, how high.
To some, it doesn’t matters whether Brown’s hands literally were raised, because his death has come to symbolize a much bigger movement.
“He wasn’t shot because of the placement of his hands; he was shot because he was a big, black, scary man,” said James Cox, 28, a food server who protested this week in Oakland, California.
Some witnesses said the 18-year-old had his hands held high toward the sky as Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson gunned him down midday Aug. 9. Others thought they saw his hands partially raised, about shoulder high. To some witnesses, his palms appeared out, as if surrendering. To others, his palms seemed open, as if glancing at his wounded hand or gesturing with an attitude of “what are you going to do about it.” Some said Brown’s hands weren’t raised at all.
The truth may never be certain. Despite a three-month state grand jury investigation and an ongoing federal probe, no one has publicly disclosed any photos or videos capturing exactly what transpired.
After a Missouri prosecutor announced Monday night that the grand jury had decided not to indict Wilson, the symbolic chant of “Hands Up. Don’t Shoot!” rang out from protesters from Los Angeles to New York to London.
In Ferguson, some protesters have been wearing shirts with the phrase as they demonstrate outside the police station.
Protester Taylor Gruenloh, a 32-year-old white man from nearby Florissant, said that while he believes there’s truth to claims that Brown had his hands raised when shot, the lack of proof makes little difference to protesters who have found it to be a unifying force.
“Even if you don’t find that it’s true, it’s a valid rallying cry,” he said. “It’s just a metaphor.”
Brown had been walking with a friend down the center of Canfield Drive when Wilson, passing in his patrol vehicle, told them to move to the sidewalk. They did not. Wilson testified that he then realized Brown was a robbery suspect. A scuffle broke out at the vehicle. Wilson fired a shot that hit Brown in the right hand. When Brown ran, Wilson gave chase. At some point, Brown stopped and turned toward Wilson, who opened fire.
Wilson told the grand jury that Brown had his left hand in a fist at his side and his right hand under his shirt at his waist, and was charging toward him.
The phrase “hands up” is peppered throughout the grand jury documents, as prosecutors and investigators tried to clarify exactly what witnesses saw. In quite a few cases, it’s unclear exactly what the witnesses say they saw, because the gestures they made for grand jurors weren’t described in the transcripts.
Some of the witness accounts of the shooting differed so much they didn’t seem like the same scene.
“I saw him in the middle of the street on his knees with hands up,” one witness said. “(The) officer came up to him and shot him in his head and he fell.”
Another witness was insistent that Brown was on his feet and did not raise his hands.
“The officer was already in pursuit of him. He stopped. He did turn, he did some sort of body gesture, I’m not sure what it was, but I know it was a body gesture,” the witness said. “And I could say for sure he never put his hands up after he did his body gesture, he ran towards the officer full charge.”
In some regards, the disputed circumstances of Brown’s death highlight the inherent troubles with eyewitness testimony.
“It’s difficult for people under the best of circumstances to accurately report what happened,” said Elizabeth Brondolo, a psychology professor specializing in the effects of race on mental and physical health at St. John’s University in New York.
For Wilson and others at the shooting scene, what they say they saw may depend not just on their vantage point, but also their view of life, she said.
“The truth always really matters, but it’s important to recognize that past experience to stereotypes also influences the perception of hands being raised,” Brondolo said.
After the Ferguson grand jury announcement, several hundred protesters marched through central London with their hands raised, shouting “Hands Up. Don’t Shoot!” Others carried hand-made banners saying “Black lives matter.” The Brown shooting has particular resonance in London, which was rocked by days of rioting following the 2011 death of Mark Duggan, a young black man shot to death by police under disputed circumstances.
Architect Evan Chakroff was among the protesters this week in Seattle. He said the “Hands Up” gesture is far from a literal representation of the circumstances of Brown’s death.
“My sense is that it’s totally symbolic and a way of representing powerlessness” in the face of inequality and militarized police, he said.
Several demonstrators said focusing on the exact circumstances of Brown’s shooting misses the point of the slogan.
“This is not about one boy getting shot in the street, but about the hundreds just like him who have received the same callous and racially-influenced treatment,” said Oakland, California, protester Gabe Johnson, a middle school teacher. “So ultimately, no, it doesn’t matter at all if somehow we can say for sure whether this one young man really said these words or had his hands up.”
Associated Press writers Jim Suhr and Phillip Lucas, Alina Hartounian in Phoenix, and Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.