Michael Brown and Ferguson
Two years later the world knows what we always knew … Black Lives Matter
I remember it like it was yesterday.
I had heard that a young black man, Michael Brown, had been shot and killed by a St. Louis-area police officer in one of the neighboring townships called Ferguson. I had been to the Lou, as it is called, many times in my life, but could not remember if I had ever visited Ferguson before, or even heard of it before this hot August week in summer 2014.
To be mad honest, I tried to avoid the news and the calls for as long as I could. Just a couple of weeks before, in New York City, a black man named Eric Garner was choke-holded to death for selling loose cigarettes to support his family. It was on videotape. That, coupled with all of the time I had spent as an activist protesting what happened to Trayvon Martin, including participating at a sit-in at the Florida governor’s office, had me on edge. My nerves were not prepared for yet another police killing. So I ignored the calls and media about Michael Brown and Ferguson.
But then it got to me. I finally saw the images and finally listened to the calls from some of my many friends and colleagues in Missouri. There was one recurring theme: We need help, this place is going to explode.
I used what money I had that summer and jumped on a plane to St. Louis. I rented a tiny car and drove straight from the airport to Ferguson, and I immediately saw the damage from folks rebelling, rioting, looting in the days and nights before. I saw many young people, black and white both, walking the long stretches to and from where Michael Brown had been killed. And I saw police at every turn, and media at every turn, too. I had been in the middle of unrest like this before, or immediately after, like Los Angeles, so I knew what this tension was, how something could pop off at any given moment, the outrage and the feeling of doom was that thick.
When I finally got to the street where Michael Brown died, I was stunned to see how narrow the street was, how suburban the community was in comparison to, say, St. Louis. But there were people everywhere: black and white and other activists denouncing the police and the system; NAACP members telling folks to vote; church folks begging people on the streets to turn to Jesus; and many young people just straight mad, some spitting speeches, some spitting poetry, some spitting their own local versions of hip-hop.
In the middle of it all, surrounded by candles and flowers and photos at various stages of his life was a shrine to Michael Brown. The blood from his body was still right there on the asphalt, too. Perhaps someone wanted people to remember every single time they crossed that street. Perhaps they wanted people to remember that his body was allowed to lay in the street for 4 1/2 hours. I simply stood there and prayed, thinking to myself how many times I had been a part of this before, not knowing on this day there would be more to come, in places such as Texas and Baltimore and Minnesota and Louisiana, more places in these past two years since Ferguson than I could even count.
When I looked up from Michael Brown’s shrine, I saw my friend and fraternity brother Hill Harper, the actor. We hugged each other and gave each other that look black folks do when we just do not know what else to say. We both did mutter some variation of “Be careful … “
The next few days in the Ferguson area were a whirlwind for me. I agreed to host a town hall meeting for young people at the Missouri History Museum, and it was packed. I gave a short talk to the very diverse crowd, and urged peace and dialogue and solutions. And I would not let anyone speak who was not 25 or younger. Older adults had to listen to these youths. It was beautiful, it was surreal, and Nate Parker, the actor and filmmaker, was there, and talked about a film he was working on about slave rebellion leader Nat Turner that he was going to call The Birth of a Nation.
The next day I was a panelist at a summit a local college hosted, that featured area police, and it was ugly. It was a full house like the museum, but because local police were a part of the event it was instantly hostile. Black folks simply did not want to hear from the police so soon after Michael Brown’s death.
I also felt sad for the leadership, both black and white, that seemed to ignore the voices of the people and instead focused on quick fix remedies that would not change the community for the long haul. I had seen and heard all of this before.
When I attended Michael Brown’s funeral, even more disgusting were the many black clergy who showed up and fought for seats up front because they knew national and international media were present. Ferguson had become, suddenly, magically, a rallying cry for injustice across the globe. This is when we lose, I thought to myself, when our own egos and our own agendas and our own shine become more important than the life and the body of a dead black boy.
I, a Christian, tuned out most of the pastors at that funeral, especially when the talk turned to how young black people dress and behave. When leadership is aping the language of the folks who have historically demonized and criminalized black folks, then they are clearly not on our side. There is a big difference between constructive criticism and judgment. This was littered with judgment.
I was so profoundly affected by my time in Ferguson that I could not go to Baltimore less than a year later when that city too exploded. I have had a hard time watching the many videos of blacks dying while in police custody, or not, but certainly killed by police. I have felt fear, fatigue, pride, all of that, as Black Lives Matter, born of incidents like Ferguson, has become a global crusade.
And, alas, I have wondered, long and hard, about the toll of all these dead black bodies piling up, what those photos and videos recycled again and again are doing to me, to you, to us. And when, honestly, and if, it will ever end.