Cartoon justice in Ferguson

Examining the curious movie and comic references in police officer Darren Wilson’s testimony
This undated photo released by the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s office on Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, shows Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson during his medical examination after he fatally shot Michael Brown,†in Ferguson, Mo.†According to a medical record released†as part of the evidence presented to the grand jury that declined to indict Wilson in the fatal shooting, doctors diagnosed Wilson with a facial contusion. (AP Photo/St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office)†

It’s hard to write about Michael Brown, Darren Wilson and Ferguson, Mo., without falling into the trap of writing yet another “think piece” that tries to give the definitive judgment on the issues. But I am fascinated by one aspect of Officer Wilson’s testimony: It’s filled with images that seem to belong to movies, comics and popular culture.

In his long questioning about why and how he shot Brown, Wilson mentioned that Brown’s size made him feel “like a five-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan.” But it’s not just the reference to a professional wrestler that makes the story feel so movie-like. At one point, Wilson said, Brown “had the most intense aggressive face . . . It looked like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” When Brown ran, Wilson said he saw “a cloud of dust behind him.”

Now, sometimes there is a literal cloud of dust behind someone when he runs, but, coming after he compared Brown to a horror-story monster, it almost sounds like he’s switching gears and comparing him to a character with almost cartoon-like speed. It’s part of the overall impression Wilson still seems to have of Brown as someone of enormous, outsized power: He’s like Hulk Hogan (a fictionalized version of a real person); he’s like a demon; he’s like a speed demon.

And Wilson’s belief in the almost superhuman power that Brown possesses is his reason for shooting Brown to prevent being hit again: “I’ve already taken two to the face, and the third one could be fatal, if he hit me right.” People do get killed by punches sometimes, but it’s pretty rare for a cop to get killed by a single blow, and Wilson’s belief that it could happen—that it was such a distinct possibility that it was kill or be killed—suggests that he saw Brown as inhumanly strong.

And, for that matter, so does his description of the fatal shooting, where, by his own account, he kept shooting Brown when he wouldn’t stop coming toward him. Not only does this sound like something out of a horror film—with the threat that continues to come even after being shot—but Wilson, once again, went on to portray Brown as superpowered: After the second round of shots, Wilson continued, “it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.”

A lot of Wilson skeptics, including myself, were nasty about that comment. Some compared this version of Brown to the Hulk, others to Mongo from the movie Blazing Saddles, where the sheriff—a black guy fighting white villains—is told, “Don’t shoot him, you’ll only make him mad.”

The point here is not that none of these things happened; I’m not trying to judge the evidence from where I am. I’m just focusing on Wilson’s perspective on the events he describes, and it’s hard not to see that he thinks of Brown, not only as a big, strong, young guy, but as someone whose hugeness and strength defy the laws of nature: His anger is demonic, his speed is physically visible, he can barely be stopped by bullets.

Well, this perspective is not one that seemed implausible to a lot of people; he was, after all, not indicted, and the prosecutor didn’t even seem to think the case was strong enough to be worth putting before a grand jury in the first place. But it’s hard to look at this and see a cop who knows what life is like on the mean streets. Maybe he does, and he can only explain it in terms of gods and monsters. Or maybe he thinks he’s fighting against them.