And so, minutes later, a trembling Johnson was staring into a local TV news camera, uttering the words that would change both the nation and his life.
“He put his hands in the air,” Johnson said of Brown in his final moments. “He started to get down, but the officer still approached with his weapon drawn. And he fired several more shots. And my friend died.”
The killing of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014, became one of the most incendiary events in American history, exposing deep divides over race and justice and helping to spark a national movement for police accountability. Johnson’s assertion that Brown was trying to surrender when Wilson killed him spawned that movement’s most powerful rallying cry: “Hands up, don’t shoot!”
Ultimately, two separate law enforcement investigations concluded that Brown did not have his hands in the air when Wilson opened fire. But controversy over Johnson’s account raged for months.
After a few public statements, Johnson became a ghost, virtually vanishing from the all-consuming narrative he had helped set in motion. Five years later, in a series of interviews with The Washington Post, Johnson provided his fullest accounting of what he believes happened that day on Canfield Drive — including new details about Brown’s erratic state of mind.
Despite the conclusions of federal and local authorities, Johnson said he stands by his story.
“His hands were definitely up when he turned around,” Johnson said. “Whether his hands were up, or halfway up, or fully down or up, he was killed and he was unarmed. He wasn’t posing a threat.”
Johnson had lived in Ferguson for only about nine months in August 2014, having moved into a third-floor walk-up near the back of the Canfield Green apartment complex with his longtime girlfriend and their newborn daughter. For a man who’d spent his entire life in Walnut Park, one of the rougher neighborhoods of North St. Louis, moving to Ferguson was a big step up.
While Johnson and Brown were often described as “best friends” in news stories about the shooting, the two men had met only a few weeks earlier.
Eager to show off his new place, Johnson invited several young men from the neighborhood to hang out and play video games. During one of those sessions, in July 2014, Brown and Johnson hit it off, discussing their love of music and Brown’s newfound exploration of Christianity.
Johnson, then 22, could tell that the younger Brown was looking for someone to talk to. But their only other substantive conversation came on Aug. 9, the day of the shooting.
In details never before shared publicly, Johnson said Brown showed up at his apartment at 2 a.m., wanting to talk.
Brown told Johnson that his grandmother and stepmother were both sick, Johnson recalled, and that Brown had a premonition that he could heal them through prayer. But his friends and family wouldn’t listen: The previous afternoon, in what would be their final conversation, Brown’s father hung up on him.
Johnson went inside to get dressed but fell asleep instead. Hours later, he ran into Brown in the parking lot and apologetically offered to continue the conversation.
The two men set off on foot toward Ferguson Market & Liquor.
According to Johnson, Brown was convinced that he was in the midst of a spiritual epiphany and that strange things were happening all around him. At one point, Brown walked into the middle of traffic on West Florissant Avenue. Cars whizzed by from both directions but miraculously avoided hitting him.
“He had a look like ‘I told you,’ ” Johnson recalled. “I had an eerie feeling the whole time we were walking.”
The pair entered the market. Earlier that day, Brown had tried to barter with a clerk, offering to exchange a baggie of marijuana for a soda and two boxes of cigarillos, according to the market’s lawyer.
Now, Brown looked at a different clerk and said, “Do you know who I am?” He quickly added, “You know who I am.” Then, surveillance video shows, Brown reached across the counter, grabbed the cigarillos and shoved the clerk.
The clerk threatened to call the police, and the pair left the shop. Johnson said he was shocked by Brown’s behavior.
“He wasn’t in a mindstate of not knowing what he was doing. He was in a mindstate of trying to figure out what was happening to him,” Johnson said. “He was just trying to find understanding.”
Brown and Johnson soon encountered Wilson in his patrol vehicle, and the officer ordered them to stop walking in the middle of the street. Wilson then realized that the pair fit the description of the people who had robbed the market, and he quickly doubled back.
By all accounts, Brown and Wilson then began grappling through the driver’s side window of the police cruiser, and Wilson’s gun went off, striking Brown in the hand. Brown and Johnson took off running.
What came next is heavily disputed. Johnson and several other purported witnesses gave TV interviews that shaped the initial public perception of the shooting and fueled nights of riots and protests.
Brown “stopped to turn around with his hands in the air and started to tell the officer that he was unarmed,” Johnson said on MSNBC a few days after the shooting. “Before he can get his last words out, the officer fired several more shots.”
Wilson gave a starkly different account, telling a grand jury that Brown had charged at him and punched him through the driver’s side window, forcing him to shoot. Wilson’s jaw was bruised, and Brown’s DNA was found on his clothing, corroborating the officer’s account.
Several credible witnesses supported Wilson’s version, saying that “Brown appeared to pose a physical threat to Wilson,” a federal investigation later found. While the witnesses “gave varying accounts of exactly what Brown was doing with his hands” — including balling them, holding them out or pulling up his pants — “they all establish that Brown was moving toward Wilson when Wilson shot him,” the federal report said.
That November, prosecutors declined to charge Wilson with a crime, touching off a fresh round of rioting.
Johnson watched Ferguson burn from a St. Louis hotel room. For weeks, his grandfather had been shuffling him from hotel to hotel, hiding him from a scoop-hungry press. Several conservative pundits were saying Johnson should be charged for lying to police about the shooting, and Johnson was the target of numerous death threats.
Within months, he had lost his job cleaning train platforms and his new apartment in Ferguson. He was back in the city, sleeping on his mother’s couch, his newborn daughter nestled on his chest.
It was cruelly fitting that Johnson played a starring role in one of the nation’s most controversial police shootings. Like many young men from his neighborhood, he has been stalked all his life by violence and trauma.
His left eye is discolored from a pencil that pierced his cornea, thrown by a classmate on the first day of seventh grade. His high school football career was cut short when he was struck in the knee by a stray bullet on the way home from practice his junior year.
Two years later, in 2009, his best friend was killed in a drive-by shooting. A year after that, his younger brother was killed after losing control of his Pontiac Grand Am. Johnson raced to the scene, only to be handcuffed by police and thrown in the back of a police van.
“I kept questioning life,” Johnson said. “I just felt like I kept getting dealt bad hands, year after year.”
Nothing that came before could prepare Johnson for the Ferguson case, though. His social media accounts were overrun with death threats from around the world. Every time he turned on the television, someone was calling him a liar.
“It hurt,” Johnson said. “To come out and voice what really happened and then get that kind of response.”
The shooting shook Johnson deeply. Years later, he still trips up discussing it. He said he can’t stop seeing the moment Brown’s “soul left his body.”
“Even though I didn’t really know him, I cried for him like he was my brother,” Johnson said. “I still cry for him.”
Johnson never joined the protests that raged for months in Ferguson. At one point, he agreed to travel to Cleveland to protest the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old gunned down by police while carrying a toy pistol. But the trip turned Johnson off, he said, because the other demonstrators were consumed by petty disagreements.
His enduring celebrity is a torment. He said he’s approached constantly, both by people who thank him for speaking up and by others who chew him out. He’s lost several jobs. He quit one gig, working maintenance at a nearby state park, after he noticed a vehicle that kept showing up during his shift and worried he was being followed. He lost another job, as a line chef, after a customer recognized him and created a commotion.
Johnson recently managed to move out of the city into a small house on a quiet side street in Ferguson, just a few blocks from the police station. But violence still seems to haunt him.
In a single week earlier this year, Johnson attended funerals for a cousin and a close childhood friend, both killed by gunfire. Then in June, Johnson turned on the news and saw the story of a 69-year-old man shot and killed in his own auto shop.
It was his grandfather.
A few weeks ago, on a sticky summer afternoon, Johnson walked up Canfield Drive and pointed out familiar spots: There’s where Wilson stopped them. Here’s where Johnson hid behind a car during the shooting. That’s where Brown’s body lay on the concrete.
He knelt and placed a hand on a plaque commemorating Brown’s death.
Not long after the shooting, Johnson said, federal investigators encouraged him to see a therapist to talk about all the trauma in his life. He attended a few sessions, but it just made things worse.
“I’m already sad as s--- and now y’all are trying to force me to open up?” Johnson recalled. “Sometimes it felt like they wanted to make me a serial victim.”
Then a childhood friend suggested that Johnson try music. He always had a talent, and he had once wanted to be a hip-hop artist. The friend, Sharif Allen, offered to let Johnson join his record label, Ragly, which features aspiring St. Louis artists.
And so, in recent months, Johnson has been writing — scribbling in notebooks and pecking out lyrics on his iPhone — trying to seize back control of his story.
That’s how he found himself roaming Canfield Drive with another local rapper on this sticky afternoon, filming a music video and singing about the shooting.
“My life changed up, walking with Mike Brown when he died,” Johnson rapped into the camera. “He had his hands up.”