I’m loath to jump with both feet on the slippery slope that leads to becoming some species of “common sense” Fox News-approved liberal. Nevertheless, I found it alarming to watch Twitter on Tuesday and discover just how many people—many of whom I respect—seem to believe that Joshua Brown was murdered by the Dallas Police Department, purposefully, in connection with the tragic murder of Botham Jean by Amber Guyger. And it seems important to me that one tragic murder, even as it fits into a disturbing, recurring pattern, shouldn’t be allowed to spiral into cycles of bad faith that hurt innocent people and inevitably re-victimize those who have already suffered. Because that’s the ugly truth—while an accusation like this may be aimed at the police, it can only ever strike a glancing blow before it redounds on the people without power who stand to lose the most from sustained hostility. When that hostility isn’t necessary or grounded in truth, it shouldn’t be cultivated for ideological purposes, and that point is critical enough to risk a little opprobrium from the people with whom I usually agree.
The quick-sketch background: Guyger was a white Dallas police officer who wandered into the wrong apartment on the wrong floor in September 2018, saw an unarmed black man who she believed was trespassing but was actually just existing inside his own home, and shot him in cold blood. That man was Botham Jean, he died in the hospital shortly after, and the incident spread like wildfire in national media for its infuriating injustice and for how it fit neatly into an established pattern of black citizens being killed under suspicious or simply criminal circumstances by police. More outrages followed—Guyger was not initially fired (she was placed on administrative leave), was not initially charged with murder (manslaughter instead), and a witness who provided video evidence was apparently harassed and threatened to the point that she lost her job. The pain was intense, the anger more than justified.
Eventually, Guyger was charged with murder, and last week she was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison.
Joshua Brown, who lived on the same floor as Jean, was another witness, in the sense that he heard the encounter and saw parts of the aftermath. CNN gives the details of his emotional testimony, which occurred late last month:
Brown said he returned home that night from watching a football game at a sports bar around the same time Guyger walked into Jean’s apartment. Brown was down the hall when he heard voices of two people who sounded like they were meeting by “surprise,” he testified.
He heard shooting “right after.” He testified he didn’t hear any police commands like “Show me your hands,” before hearing the gunshots. But he said it was difficult to make out the words between Guyger and Jean.
Soon after, Brown said, he saw Guyger enter the hallway from Jean’s apartment, talking on the phone.
She was “crying, explaining what happened, what she thought happened, saying she came into the wrong apartment,” Brown testified.
Ten days after that testimony, last Friday, Brown was shot and killed at his new apartment complex, about five miles from where Jean was murdered. On Tuesday, Dallas police announced that they had identified three suspects, and that Brown had been killed in a drug deal gone wrong. According to them, three men had traveled from Alexandria, LA—a drive of about four and a half hours—to buy drugs from Brown. An argument ensued, Brown shot one of the buyers, another buyer shot back, and the men fled. They dropped their own victim at the hospital—he’s alive and in police custody, where he gave them the details of the encounter, while the other two are currently at large—and Brown died. Police then used a search warrant to find 12 pounds of marijuana, 149 grams of THC, and $4,157 cash in his apartment.
The moment Brown’s death became public, there was an outcry from those who believed he had been murdered by Dallas police for his role in the Botham Jean trial. That outcry, especially on Twitter, became deafening on Tuesday when the police released their statement about the drug deal gone wrong. The story, some believed, was an obvious cover-up.
To stand by this conspiracy in the light of day, you would have to believe a few things:
1. The Dallas police are in the business of murdering witnesses, even witnesses in what was perhaps the most notorious and public crime the city had endured since the assassination of JFK.
2. They did so after Brown had testified, meaning the murder wasn’t meant to stifle his testimony, but done as revenge, or as an example for future witnesses who planned to testify, or perhaps to keep him from testifying in the civil case brought against the city by Botham Jean’s family…even though the judge in that case was already unlikely to find the city liable.
3. To murder Brown, they involved three other civilians in a staged robbery, one of whom got shot by Brown himself. Or maybe they pinned the crime on those three even though two of them are at large and one is in custody and could, in theory, tell people that the police had set them up.
4. To justify the killing of Brown, they concocted a story that was, on the surface, a little confusing and very messy, and that involved many witnesses. In particular, they put Jacquerious Mitchell, the man who had allegedly been shot in the chest by Brown, up to the task of inventing the involvement of Brown.
5. They also invented the tips that led them to obtain a search warrant, and then planted drugs and cash in Brown’s apartment after he’d been killed.
6. All of this was manufactured to punish a witness who, while valuable, wasn’t very critical to the ultimate outcome of the Botham Jean case…more on that later.
Along with these apparent beliefs, those pushing the conspiracy narrative seemed to be certain that the details in the police story weren’t credible, in particular the idea that anyone would travel four hours by car to buy drugs. Aren’t there drugs in Alexandria? Why would anyone need to go that far to buy more?
In fact, anyone who has done even superficial research into drug crime knows that there are very good reasons that someone might want to buy drugs far from home, especially in volume, and that it happens frequently. It could be as simple as the fact that they made a connection through some third party and got a good price, or as complex as not wanting to use a dealer close to Alexandria and tip off competing dealers about what they were doing. There could be a thousand other explanations, too, and none of them are as far-fetched as the conspiracy theorists seemed to believe.
And like any good conspiracy, the reactions were littered with misinformation. First, that Brown had been killed at the same apartment complex as Jean, when in fact he was far away. Second, that the buyers mysteriously left 12 pounds of drugs and $4,000 when they fled the scene, when the specified amounts of drugs and money were actually found not in the parking lot where Brown was murdered and where the deal went down, but in his apartment, later, by search warrant.
The misinformation goes on—Brown couldn’t have testified in this case while he was dealing drugs (as if agreeing to testify in court gives police the right to search your home). Brown was a “key witness,” and he would have been discredited by the defense if he was truly a drug dealer (he wasn’t a “key witness” in any honest sense of that term—Guyger called 9-1-1 after she shot Jean, and nobody was disputing the essential facts of the case in a way that would have necessitated any character assassination of Brown, if they even knew about his crime). There was no way Brown could have been dealing one floor above a cop (even if you ignore that Brown had moved, it’s not as if every big apartment building with a cop living there automatically becomes immune to crime). Last, there was only $100 worth of marijuana involved in the deal (I suspect this information got passed on from some original tweet, but I haven’t seen it repeated in any actual media, and again, there were 12 pounds of marijuana recovered in Brown’s apartment which suggests that he wasn’t in the business of small-scale dealing.)
Now, your mileage may vary, but I find the idea that the Dallas police murdered Brown ludicrous, and while I can’t know with any certainty that it’s not true, it strikes me as surpassingly unlikely. To believe it, you have to desperately want to believe it, or to find some benefit in striking a posture of belief. And my skepticism on this front is different, I hope, from negating the legitimate pain felt by so many, and the legitimate mistrust felt specifically by the black community toward law enforcement.
It is understandable why a community would react with suspicion to the news of Brown’s death, considering the murder of Botham Jean and all that came before, and it’s understandable why there’s mistrust and hostility directed at police. Further, it’s uncomfortable to write this piece, and risk the impression that I’m taking the side of the police over the victims and an aggrieved city. Then again, white leftists like me on Twitter are not the aggrieved community here, and that demographic seemed to be largely responsible for spreading this latest conspiracy, backed by no evidence, at a time when tensions are already high. The only possible outcomes of this conspiracy taking root are bad ones, and no matter your feelings about the Dallas police or police in general, it doesn’t help anyone to spread a shadowy and unsubstantiated narrative. It is, instead, a direct path to inflicting more pain, and not only on the police.
I don’t mean to suggest this stretches as far as liberal QAnon, and like every good fiction there are strong elements of truth mixed in to the equation. It’s smart to be skeptical of any police department, or indeed any institution, but it’s equally important to recognize an outlandish conspiracy theory when you see one, and take pains not to endorse it blindly. Like it or not, there is an unavoidable truth here: those who believe the Dallas police murdered Joshua Brown in connection with the Botham Jean case are operating outside the realm of even remote plausibility, and those who don’t believe it but are spreading the story anyway—of which I suspect there are more than a few—are practicing a kind of ideological cynicism that will end up hurting people they never have to see.