A new documentary about the 2014 officer-involved shooting death of Michael Brown led to protests and gunfire in Ferguson late Sunday night. Stranger Fruit, which premiered at South by Southwest on Saturday, questions the narrative presented by police about what happened before the teenager was killed by former cop Darren Wilson, and has the potential to impact the still-active federal lawsuit filed by the teenager's family.
The new controversy revolves around a bit of previously unseen footage culled from a security cam inside the store Brown was accused of robbing the night before he was killed. In it, the 18-year-old is seen handing a package to a clerk, who then appears to smell it before passing the parcel around to his co-workers. The employee and Brown then seem to pass a box of cigarillos back and forth before that box ends up behind the counter.
Video previously released to the public only showed Brown taking the cigarillos, ostensibly illegally, on the day he was killed. Family and supporters argued it could have prejudiced a grand jury against indicting Wilson. But the filmmaker of Stranger Fruit argues in his documentary that the new material shows Brown traded weed for the cigarillos, left them behind the counter for safe keeping, and came back to retrieve them just before his death. He says that without both videos, we are left with the mistaken impression that Brown just took the merchandise without paying.
The video is actually consistent with one initial account offered by Ferguson's police chief in August 2014: that Brown was stopped for being in the middle of the road, not alleged theft. But when he testified to a grand jury that same year, Officer Wilson said he would not have come into contact with the teenager if cops weren't looking for someone who had stolen cigarillos from a local market. Brown's friend Dorian Johnson seemed to corroborate that latter narrative in court, saying that the store owner tried to block Brown from leaving after he took the cigarillos––a fairly clear indication that they were not his.
Regardless, protesters gathered at the store in question on Sunday night for a demonstration that took a violent turn when shots were fired. No one was reported injured, but cops hid behind their cars and at least one man was charged with attempting to cause catastrophe after he allegedly tried to light a napkin on fire in a cop car's gas tank.
Meanwhile, Jay Kanzler, who represents the store, holed up inside. The lawyer says that the package Brown passed to his clients that night smelled like marijuana to them, but that the footage omitted a portion in which they handed it back. He claims that he will release a more complete version sometime on Monday to counter what he told the Daily News was a "practically shameful" stunt.
"This is all great publicity for this filmmaker," Kanzler said, according to the paper. "But there's real lives at risk. Police officers were shot at. There were threats to burn down the store. All because some guy wanted to promote a documentary."
There is reason to believe, however, that the footage could find its way into a courtroom––publicity stunt or not. Brown's mother, who appears in Stranger Fruit, is a plaintiff in a federal civil suit filed against Wilson, his former boss, and the city of Ferguson itself. That case is set to go to trial next year.
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