Brandon Webber Shooting is Seen Through Multiple Lenses 

The Brandon Webber shooting in Frayser has proved to be a Rashomon-like event, in that, like the classic Japanese film, it involved dramatically conflicting accounts of a graphic incident, each version stemming from an angle of vision that reflects the beholder's preconceptions, prejudices, and cast of mind.

The lessons of that tale, as of the real-life drama that occurred in the streets of the north Memphis community Frayser, are many, but the common thread of them all is the sense that reality is not a fixed, universal thing but is subject to as many subjective reckonings as there are reckoners, and that determining root truths may not be possible in any absolute sense.

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The problem exists not only in the psychology of human beings but in the attempts of pure science to take objective measurements. The 20th-century scientist Werner Heisenberg established from his study of subatomic particles something he called the Uncertainty Principle, based on the fact that the mere observation of phenomena seemed to alter them in undefinable ways.

In a true sense, politics is the epitome of this kind of inexactness. It absorbs "fact" content, and all successful politicians know how to churn out statistics to make their points, but electoral outcomes are based either on emotional attitudes toward candidates or on the subjective responses of voters to claims made by politicians that are purely rhetorical or questionable.

What is known about Brandon Webber is that the young African American died last week from gunshots fired by U.S. Marshals who were attempting to apprehend him as a felony suspect in an armed robbery and aggravated assault across the state line in Mississippi. Webber was said to have responded to an advertisement of a car for sale on Facebook, then to have gone through the motions of a test drive, and then to have shot the car's owner five times, leaving him wounded along a roadside. He then was reported to have fled back to Memphis in the vehicle.

At some point, not long before he encountered the marshals, Webber posted an online video of himself looking and sounding giddy and anticipating an encounter with police.

Shortly after, he was surrounded by the marshals, whereupon, according to the police account, he rammed their vehicles with the stolen car, exited that car brandishing a firearm, and went down in a barrage of shots from the marshals' weapons.

In the aftermath of the shooting, a crowd collected at the scene, confronting Memphis law enforcement officers who arrived en masse to establish a measure of control. The police reported that more than 30 officers were injured by rocks and bottles thrown at them. There were also accounts from some witnesses claiming that shots were fired in the area.

Depending on one's perspective, what happened after the shooting was either a protest or a riot. The slain suspect was, in one widely circulated narrative, a former Central High School honor student and a likeable youth with an idealistic streak, a S.J.W. (for "Social Justice Warrior"). In other, less-generous narratives, he was a street thug, a would-be killer who dabbled in the drug trade. It is possible that both these seriously contrasting takes were based on tangible pieces of Webber's history.

Ideological or personal motives seemed to have determined the attitudes of observers. Marsha Blackburn, the ultra-conservative U.S. senator from Tennessee, professed to be closely monitoring the event, but misreported it in two consecutive press releases as a case involving a "slain officer."

Unsurprisingly, mayoral candidates felt compelled to take a position. Tami Sawyer, whose persona is that of a community activist writ large, sided with the demonstrating throngs, though with an acknowledgement of sorts of the need for public order:

"Mourning, protesting, and decrying Webber's killing is not the same as proclaiming his innocence or trying to justify the crimes he may have committed. It does not erase thrown rocks or police injuries. These reactions, however, must be understood as a symptom of continued racial inequity in the justice system."

Mayor Jim Strickland also straddled the divide empathetically, though he made a point of backing up law enforcement: "I grieve for the loss of life. I see this too much, loss of young lives. I grieve for that and grieve for his family. They lost a loved one. Secondly, I am so proud of the Memphis Police Department and Shelby County Sheriff's Office. Their actions ... were remarkable. They endured assaults and batteries, rocks and bricks were thrown at them, injuring about 35 law enforcement officers, and no retaliation. And they brought peace to that area, and it's just remarkable, the courage and the strength reflected from great training."

Where the ultimate truth lies is yet to be determined.

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