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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Dorian Johnson: A Year After Mike Brown's Death, He's Still Grappling With the Fallout

Posted By on Wed, Aug 5, 2015 at 6:00 AM

Dorian Johnson, one of the few to witness Michael Brown's death. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Photo by Danny Wicentowski
  • Dorian Johnson, one of the few to witness Michael Brown's death.

Ask Dorian Johnson what happened on August 9, 2014, and he'll tell you that the story begins just past noon. He'll say that he and Michael Brown Jr. had been walking down Canfield Drive in Ferguson when they were stopped by a police officer in an SUV — and that the last thing Brown ever said to him was, "Keep runnin', bro."

As the officer moved to exit the SUV, something happened. Witness accounts differ: Maybe Brown blocked the door and began punching and throttling the officer through the open window. Then again, maybe it was the officer who violently slammed the car door into Brown and instigated the struggle.

What we do know is that two gunshots went off inside the vehicle, and one struck Brown in the hand. That's when Brown and Johnson took off running.

Johnson says he ducked behind a stopped gray Pontiac and watched as Ferguson officer Darren Wilson pursued his six-foot-five, 280-pound friend down the street. Seconds later, Johnson saw bullets tear through Brown's body. The eighteen-year-old crumpled onto Canfield Drive as the life drained out of him, staining the pavement red.

The August 9 shooting brought the weight of the world's scrutiny on the modest north county suburb of Ferguson, but a significant portion of that burden fell on the narrow shoulders of Dorian Johnson. The wiry college dropout with a checkered past and mismatched eyes - one blue, one brown - became a national lightning rod almost overnight.

To a grieving community seeking answers and justice, Johnson, then 22, was the key witness to the reality of both Brown's death and the black experience in Ferguson, and his emotional testimony became the gospel of a burgeoning protest movement. The "Hands Up; Don't Shoot" mantra was based, in part, on Johnson's account of how Brown raised his hands and told the advancing Wilson, "I don't have a gun," before the final shots rang out.

But Johnson also drew the ire of people skeptical about the movement taking hold in Ferguson. They combed through his statements, drawing jagged circles around the inconsistencies and omissions. They blogged, tweeted and commented that Johnson was no truth-teller - in their view, he was an accomplice, a proven liar, just another young black thug claiming victimhood and angling for a payday.

For a time, Johnson's face appeared in newspapers and on television across the world, but for the past eight months he's mostly avoided direct contact with journalists. Last week, however, he sat down with Riverfront Times for a 60-minute interview, describing the months of secrecy and strain that followed Brown's death - as well as the surprising silver lining to his recent, highly publicized arrest by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

He's currently suing the City of Ferguson, its police department and the now-retired officer Wilson. He says he lives in fear of retaliation from vigilantes and law enforcement.

It's been almost a year since Michael Brown was shot to death on Canfield Drive, and the shockwaves of those frenzied moments are still pushing Johnson toward an unknown destination. Try as he might, he can't escape what happened that day. Michael Brown told him to run. In some ways, Dorian Johnson has been running ever since.

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