The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wilson said the unarmed teen looked like a ‘demon.’ Experts say his testimony was dehumanizing and ‘super-humanizing.’

“It looks like a demon,” Officer Darren Wilson testified about Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old that the police officer shot and killed Aug. 9 in Fersguson, Mo.

“He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face,” Wilson told the grand jury. “The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon. That’s how angry he looked.”

The grand jury did not indict Wilson on criminal charges for the shooting. But Brown’s death has set off months of protests and reignited debate across the country on police behavior and African American communities.

Officials said Wilson’s testimony was released to make the reasons for the grand jury’s decision clear. But it’s also making tensions worse, experts say.

Wilson, who weighs more than 200 pounds, testified that he grabbed the 6-foot-4-inch Brown: “When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.”

Here’s Wilson’s description of Brown’s overall demeanor:

Very aggressive. Um, he is I don’t really know how to describe it. Um, he turns. I looked at his face. It was just intense. It was. I’ve never seen anybody look that, for lack of a better words, crazy, I’ve never seen that. I mean, it was very aggravated, um, aggressive, hostile. Just, you couldn’t, you could, you could tell he was lookin’ through ya. There was nothing he was seeing…

Alex McGill Johnson is executive director of Perception Institute, a consortium of researchers, educators and social justice advocates. “The use of the word ‘Demon,’” she said in an e-mail, “and, even more pointedly, positioning himself like a ‘5-year-old’ holding onto a ‘Hulk Hogan’-like arm, clearly reflect Officer Wilson’s attempt not just to dehumanize Brown in that moment but rather to super-humanize him into something to be feared.”

That fear “justifies the use of lethal force in the officer’s mind,” Johnson said. “We should be concerned here how both the officer’s words and the visuals of Brown both work in concert to also dehumanize and super-humanize the perception of Brown in the public eye.”

New York magazine asked the same question in a posting, “Why Did Darren Wilson Think Michael Brown Had Superpowers?” The article says:

Brown was a legitimately large kid — he outweighed Wilson by about 80 pounds. But Wilson isn’t just saying Brown was large: He’s saying or implying that he looked like a demon, that he was emanating almost superhuman anger, that he was beyond human reason, that he was apparently trying to run through gunshots.
While Wilson was engaged in a physical confrontation with someone who outweighed him significantly, his characterization seems to fit a pattern outlined in a recent study led by Adam Waytz of Northwestern, which showed that white people associate black people with various mystical concepts — a so-called ‘superhumanization’ bias that might help explain certain societal outcomes, like black patients in hospitals receiving less pain medication than white ones. The researchers showed that whites are quicker to associate blacks than whites with various superhuman words, and are more likely to think blacks have certain superhuman abilities and associate those abilities with a diminished capacity to feel pain.

The language Wilson used also drew complaints on twitter: