Time to retire Ferguson narrative

“Hands up, don’t shoot” never happened. Somebody tell the Democrats running for president.

Even amid the heated political rhetoric that dominates the news media and social media, resurrected false claims about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., stand out as egregious.

On Friday and Saturday, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenHarry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Warren offers plan to repeal 1994 crime law authored by Biden Panel: Jill Biden's campaign message MORE (D-Mass.), Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John RyanBiden, Buttigieg bypassing Democratic delegate meeting: report Tim Ryan jokes he's having 'dance-off' with Andrew Yang The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape MORE (D-Ohio), Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerCastro qualifies for next Democratic primary debates Eight Democratic presidential hopefuls to appear in CNN climate town hall Biden, Buttigieg bypassing Democratic delegate meeting: report MORE (D-N.J.), Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHarry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Warren offers plan to repeal 1994 crime law authored by Biden Sanders leads Democratic field in Colorado poll MORE (D-Calif.), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandCastro qualifies for next Democratic primary debates The Hill's Morning Report - Trump searches for backstops amid recession worries 2020 Democrats react to NYPD firing of officer in Garner case: 'Finally' MORE (D-N.Y.), Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHarry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' The exhaustion of Democrats' anti-Trump delusions Warren offers plan to repeal 1994 crime law authored by Biden MORE (I-Vt.) and New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioSenate Democrats push Trump to permanently shutter migrant detention facility The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape CNN to host de Blasio, Bullock town halls MORE, all running for their party’s nomination for president, tweeted out statements containing disproven claims or false implications about the incident.

ADVERTISEMENT

Booker tweeted: “5 years ago, Michael Brown was killed by a police officer ... I have been thinking all day about Mike and his family, and my prayers are with them. I am also thinking about the everyday citizens who stood against this police violence and racism and were tear gassed for their patriotic acts. Ferguson called to the conscience of our nation and inspired a movement that rightly continues.”

Gillibrand said: “5 years ago, a Ferguson police officer killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager. He shot him 6 times. Nothing will bring Michael back, but we can't stop fighting the injustice done to his family and so many others.”

Ryan wrote: “Five years since the tragic death of Michael Brown and we still have significant work to do. We must rebuild trust between police and the communities they have sworn to protect.”

DeBlasio said: “Michael Brown should be here today. My city knows the pain of Ferguson all too well ... NO ONE should die due to the color of their skin.”

O’Rourke tweeted: “Five years ago, Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer. ... We are reminded of an idea as urgent, and as ignored, today as it was when Michael was killed: Black Lives Matter.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Sanders wrote: “Michael Brown should be alive today. Five years after his death, we must finally end police violence against people of color.”

Harris had this take: “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.”

And Warren tweeted: “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.”

I’m not too surprised when I hear friends and members of the public refer to the debunked narratives about the Ferguson shooting. I’ll explain why in a moment. But I was more than a little taken aback to find these presidential candidates — some of them lawyers — passing along divisive, libelous implications.

To back up for a moment, the shooting happened on Aug. 9, 2014. A Ferguson, Mo., police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed an 18-year-old unarmed suspect named Michael Brown. Brown was black, Wilson is white. Witnesses claimed that Officer Wilson had shot Brown in cold blood while Brown’s hands were raised in surrender. Though without evidence, those accounts were afforded wide credence in the media. They sparked riots. They ignited a movement called “Hands up, don’t shoot!” 

ADVERTISEMENT

If ever there were a time for responsible journalists to carefully mitigate uncorroborated and inflammatory claims, this was arguably the moment. At the time, pockets of the nation were a racial tinderbox.

The problem is, all of the racially tinged accusations against Officer Wilson were likely false, according to the final analysis by President Obama’s Department of Justice. The report, issued in 2015, found that Officer Wilson’s accounts were corroborated. He’d acted in self-defense. Brown, the report said, had reached into the police vehicle and grabbed Officer Wilson by the neck. And Brown appeared to be lunging toward Officer Wilson when Officer Wilson shot him in self-defense.  

The Obama Justice Department investigators concluded that original witness accounts claiming that Brown’s hands were up when he was shot, and other key claims, were “unreliable” and — in many instances — directly contradicted by the forensic evidence, while Officer Wilson’s story was supported by the forensics. “Hands up, don’t shoot,” the Obama Justice Department found, was contrary to reliable accounts — and likely fabricated. 

The findings of this important report got nowhere near the news coverage of the original false claims. There were no apologies to Officer Wilson. His career and life were ruined by the false claims.

Now, the very candidates regularly accusing President TrumpDonald John TrumpFacebook releases audit on conservative bias claims Harry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Recessions happen when presidents overlook key problems MORE of being a liar and divisive, of making claims “without evidence,” have made their own divisive, false claims. Not only are these claims “without evidence,” they contradict the evidence, according to the Obama Justice Department.

There are, undeniably, instances of racism and bad policing in our society. Most everyone can get behind the idea of addressing them in a productive way. But to incorrectly forward the notion of the Ferguson shooting as an example of those problems shrouds the search for progress. 

Ferguson, based on the findings of the Obama Justice Department, isn’t an example of bad policing run amok or racism. It’s a tragic case of media malpractice ruining the life of a police officer who was found to have done nothing other than defend himself.

Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times best-sellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.”