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Elon Musk’s criticism of debunked ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ mantra triggers CNN’s Don Lemon: ‘Needs…context’

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In an effort to fact-check Twitter owner Elon Musk on Thursday, CNN’s Don Lemon presented a dramatically watered-down version of the infamous “Hands up, don’t shoot” myth that emanated from Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

The left-wing host declared “context” was needed after Musk posted a tweet saying the mantra was “made up.” Musk posted and deleted the tweet about Brown’s fatal shooting upon finding a closet of “#StayWoke” t-shirts at Twitter headquarters. The phrase became a nationally rallying cry for racial justice protests against police, but the Obama administration’s Justice Department concluded after an extensive investigation that it was fictional that Brown had his arms raised in surrender before being fatally shot by Officer Darren Wilson. 

Lemon, after declaring “facts first,” told viewers that “some said” Brown was trying to surrender when killed by Wilson. He then said the DOJ report “cast doubt” on that account in a clip flagged by conservative media watchdog NewsBusters.

“The DOJ did not find grounds to charge the officer but in a separate report that same day, it did find evidence of systematic racial discrimination in Ferguson at the hands of the city’s police department and municipal court,” Lemon said, noting Blacks were far more likely to be searched in vehicle stops than Whites and the overwhelming majority of those ticketed were Black. 

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“So remember, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ after Ferguson became a nationwide protest symbol for police mistreatment of minorities. It was about more than the shooting of Michael Brown. It was about the pattern of police shootings and brutality in this country,” Lemon said.

Lemon then appeared to stumble over the teleprompter, saying, “And #StayWoke, which mocked – Musk mocked, was how Twitter wanted… called out racial justice, was how they wanted to call out racial injustice.”

“CNN This Morning” co-host Poppy Harlow praised Lemon for the segment, saying “it’s important to have the facts.” NewsBusters writer Mark Finkelstein ridiculed Lemon’s talking points as effectively calling the Ferguston motto “fake but accurate.”

Lemon did not tell viewers it was under the Obama administration that the Justice Department cleared Wilson in the shooting and buried the “Hands up” narrative. 

It is now widely agreed even in liberal media outlets that the mantra was not based in fact. The Washington Post put it bluntly in a pair of headlines in 2015: “‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ was built on a lie,” by left-wing opinion writer Jonathan Capehart, and “‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ did not happen in Ferguson,” a fact-check article by Michele Ye Hee Lee.

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“Brown never surrendered with his hands up, and Wilson was justified in shooting Brown,” Capehart wrote.

“Investigators have overwhelmingly rejected witness accounts that Brown had his hands up in a surrender before being shot execution-style,” Ye Hee Lee wrote. “The DOJ has concluded Wilson did not know whether Brown was armed, acted out of self-defense and was justified in killing Brown. The majority of witnesses told federal investigators that the initial claims that Brown’s hands were up were not accurate. ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ did not happen in Brown’s killing.”

The Washington Post also forcefully fact-checked Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. and then Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., when they declared in 2019 Brown had been “murdered.” The DOJ report cited numerous witnesses who said Brown did not have his hands raised and charged at Wilson before being shot and killed, ignoring repeated directives to “get down.” This came after Brown, having been stopped by Wilson as a suspect in a robbery that evening, punched and grabbed Wilson in his car.

“Harris and Warren have ignored the findings of the Justice Department to accuse Wilson of murder, even though the Justice Department found no credible evidence to support that claim,” Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler wrote at the time.

In 2014, CNN pundits mimicked the “Hands Up” pose in solidarity with protesters, while legal analyst Sunny Hostin held up the sign “I can’t breathe,” a reference to the death of Eric Garner in New York. The on-air stunt later became a punchline for critics who viewed it as emblematic of CNN’s left-wing shift under then-president Jeff Zucker.

“CNN This Morning” under new CEO Chris Licht debuted this month to dismal ratings.

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