Hands Up, Don't Shoot! Lesson | Facing History & Ourselves
Darnell Taylor marches with his daughter, Lauren, 4, on his shoulders down Market Street to Kiener Plaza as part of a march against police violence downtown St. Louis, Mo., on Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014.  (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cristina Fletes-Boutte)

Hands Up, Don't Shoot!

Students review the US Department of Justice report, revisit how confirmation bias impacts our understanding of events, and consider how to bridge the gap in understanding that often surrounds events like Ferguson.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies




One 50-min class period
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Racism


About This Lesson

In September 2014, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) opened two inquiries into issues related to the shooting of Michael Brown, one focused on the shooting itself and the other on police–community relations in the city of Ferguson.

 In this lesson, students review the DOJ’s findings, the complexity of the DOJ’s task, and the implications of the findings for journalists and consumers of news. Finally, students reflect on the persistent differences in understanding about the events in Ferguson and what individuals, community leaders, and journalists can do to try to bridge those gaps.

  • How do the Department of Justice reports about Ferguson confirm, expand, or challenge our understanding of the events surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown?
  • How can we remain open, patient, and flexible when faced with emotionally charged events and incomplete information?
  • How can individuals, groups, and leaders bridge the gulfs in understanding that often emerge in the aftermath of events like Ferguson?
  • Students will be able to describe the results of the US Department of Justice investigation and explain how the two reports provide a larger context for understanding the information aftermath of Ferguson.
  • Students will be able to analyze an excerpt from the DOJ report and draw conclusions about what it reveals about the challenges journalists and news consumers face today.
  • Students will be able to reflect on what we can do to bridge the gaps in understanding about the events in Ferguson—and similar events—and their significance.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 4 activities 
  • 1 teaching strategy
  • 1 video
  • 1 handout
  • 1 extension activity

In September 2014, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it was opening two inquiries into issues related to the shooting of Michael Brown: the first an independent criminal investigation into the circumstances of the shooting, and the other an investigation of whether the Ferguson Police Department engaged in systematic violations of the US Constitution or federal law. 

At the same time, between August and November 2014, a grand jury in Ferguson reviewed evidence that included hours of testimony and documents about the altercation between officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. On November 24, 2014, St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch announced the grand jury’s decision that the evidence in the case did not support an indictment of Officer Wilson, setting off a second round of protests in Ferguson. As in the days and weeks following the shooting itself, there was a mix of large, nonviolent demonstrations and frequently tense, sometimes-violent confrontations with police during the day, plus sporadic violent protests and looting, mostly at night. 

The Department of Justice released its two reports on March 4, 2015. In the first, the DOJ decided against charging Officer Wilson with a civil rights violation. In the second, investigators strongly criticized the Ferguson Police Department, concluding that “Ferguson police officers routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force against them.” 

The findings contained evidence that both confirmed and contradicted the assumptions of people from across the spectrum of beliefs about what actually happened on August 9, 2014. For example, the protesters in Ferguson used the chant “Hands up, don’t shoot” based on their belief that Michael Brown was in the process of peacefully surrendering to Wilson when he was shot. After reviewing the forensic evidence, Department of Justice investigators challenged that interpretation, but as in many of their findings, they were unable to be conclusive. 

According to Wesley Lowery’s report in the Washington Post on March 4, 2015, “here is what investigators believe most likely happened on Aug. 9.

  • There is not evidence to suggest Darren Wilson’s use of force was unreasonable
  • Michael Brown likely did reach into Wilson’s vehicle and grab the officer
  • Michael Brown did double back toward Darren Wilson
  • Michael Brown’s hands were probably not up, but it’s impossible to say for sure”

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Lesson Plans


On March 4, 2015, almost seven months after the death of Michael Brown, the US Department of Justice issued two reports. In the first, federal investigators declined to charge officer Darren Wilson with a federal crime in the shooting of Michael Brown. The second detailed significant evidence of a pattern of discrimination by the Ferguson police force and courts.

  • First, ask how many students know about the DOJ report and what conclusions were reached.
  • Then listen to the NPR radio conversation on the findings. You may also want to distribute the transcript to students so they can take notes while listening, underlining words or phrases that stand out to them.
  • Ask students to summarize what they heard and then take several minutes to reflect on the radio piece in their journals. Did they hear anything that surprised them or any new information? What questions did the conversation raise for them? Did it change what they thought about the events in Ferguson? Why might it be difficult to reconcile the two DOJ conclusions (about the Ferguson police force in general and the actions of Officer Wilson in particular)?
  • Ask volunteers to share their responses. Then tell them that the DOJ report on the shooting is 86 pages long, and the report on the Ferguson police department is 105 pages long. This news piece is three minutes long. What can they conclude from that? What do they know after listening to the NPR piece? What questions do they have about the DOJ report? How could they find the answers to those questions?
  • You might want to share Wesley Lowery’s summary, included in the Context section, and discuss what his language implies about the difficulty of knowing what actually happened.

A significant rallying cry and legacy of Ferguson is the phrase “Hands up, don’t shoot,” which grew out of rumors that Michael Brown had his hands up and was surrendering when he was shot. By analyzing an excerpt from the DOJ report, students will have an opportunity to experience some of the complexity of reviewing and weighing all the evidence and witness statements, and will be better positioned to consider why it is so difficult to develop a totally clear understanding of the events. In addition, Attorney General Eric Holder’s response to the findings provides an opportunity to discuss the relationship between the two DOJ reports: What is the larger context for the events in Ferguson and how might this inform both the interaction between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson and the potential for confirmation bias in responses to those events?

  • Using the Learn to Listen/Listen to Learn teaching strategy, have students review the excerpt of the Department of Justice Report in the Hands Up, Don’t Shoot! Handout, which includes what the DOJ concluded about the veracity of the “Hands up, don’t shoot!” claim, along with Attorney General Eric Holder’s comment about the larger context for the movement.
  • Debrief the process with the larger group. This excerpt is two paragraphs out of 86 pages. What did students learn about how complicated the task of sifting through all the evidence in this case was for those investigating? Did the excerpt answer any questions students had after listening to the NPR conversation? What does the excerpt reveal about the challenges faced by journalists and other consumers and creators of news and information? How did students respond to Eric Holder’s question? How does the other DOJ report inform their response?

One of the biggest challenges for everyone—journalists and citizens alike—is the need to avoid drawing inflexible conclusions based on incomplete information. As discussed in the following video, that challenge was heightened in Ferguson because of the lack of available and verifiable information.

View and discuss the video “Looking Back at Ferguson.” Focus on these questions: What do the journalists believe were some of the biggest challenges of reporting on and drawing conclusions about the events in Ferguson? What can we do as news consumers, sharers, and creators to minimize those challenges for ourselves? Look back at what you knew or thought you knew about Ferguson, as captured in your timeline. Can you identify which items were facts, which included opinion, and which were generalizations? Did you discover anything you thought you knew that proved to be inaccurate or misleading?

Even in the wake of the Department of Justice report, significant disparities continued to exist between different people’s understanding of the events in Ferguson. Ask students: Given everything we have learned in this unit, why do you think this was, and still is, the case? What can individuals, community leaders, and journalists do to bridge such gaps in understanding when incidents like this happen in the future? Has focusing on these challenges changed the way you think you might respond to controversial events in the future, and if so, how?

Extension Activity

As has been clear throughout this unit, the events in Ferguson sparked intense emotional responses on all sides of the issues. This emotional connection, along with the lack of complete or irrefutable information about the shooting, made many people more likely to engage in confirmation bias. Given this reality—that many people took a strong position on the shooting long before all the facts were known, or embraced certain narratives, based on their personal experience or underlying beliefs, that were later disproven—how can we find a way to grapple with such complexity and remain open to new details as they emerge?

Jonathan Capehart, an African American journalist who contributes to the Washington Post and MSNBC, documented his own struggle in a personal reflection on the Post’s PostPartisan blog. Have students read this post, Hands Up Don’t Shoot! Built on a Lie, and reflect on it in a private journal response.

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

The handouts below, available in English and Spanish, are used in the Hands Up, Don't Shoot! lesson plan.

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