The encounter between Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and teenager Michael Brown last August went all wrong. As a result, Brown is dead, Wilson's career in law enforcement is over (despite his not being indicted by a grand jury), and millions of dollars worth of property has been destroyed by rampaging protesters.
It didn't have to happen this way. It didn't have to happen at all.
The incident began when the officer encountered Brown and a friend walking down the center line of a street. He called out to them to get onto the sidewalk. Brown responded with expletives, followed by blocking the officer's door and, according to the officer's testimony, blows to the cop's face and a tussle for the officer's pistol.
If Brown had simply complied and moved to the sidewalk, as ordered, he would still be alive today. Regardless of what transpired after that initial order, regardless of whether Wilson was justified in shooting the teen, regardless of whether Brown's hands were raised, regardless of whether he was surrendering, as some witnesses claimed, or attacking, if Brown had simply moved out of the vehicle lane and onto the sidewalk, he would be alive.
What on earth makes teenagers — mostly African-Americans — want to risk their lives, and the lives of others, by walking after dark in the center of streets and roads? I have encountered, with heart-pounding fright, young people riding bicycles in the center of a dark street while bearing no light or reflectors on their bikes. The sudden encounter in your headlight's glare of bicyclists just 10 feet from your front bumper is enough to make a driver slam on the brakes and jerk the steering wheel to avoid a tragedy.
I've also encountered black teens, and, less frequently, white teens, strolling along the street in the middle of the traffic lane. Years ago, returning to work at mid-day from my home in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, a group of three girls strutting (there's no better verb for their movements) down the middle of the street. They took up enough of the street that I could not go around them, either on the left or right. I slowed to a stop and waited. They slowed to a stop and danced. They were not oblivious to my presence a dozen feet behind them. They knew they were preventing me from driving my car toward my destination, and they sashayed delightfully at their power over me, an old white man in a car. I refrained from honking my horn or shouting out the open window for them to move. I waited until they crossed the intersection, and I changed my route, turning instead of following behind them as I had intended.
What is it about the middle of the street that makes young people risk their lives for the opportunity to make the point that they can claim the street for their own. No doubt, some have been injured or died because they refused to give up their claim to the center of the street. Likely, some motorists have run off the road and wrecked to avoid walkers they encountered along darkened streets.
In Ferguson, MO, last August, one teenager who refused to give up his right to the center lane died as a result.