The killing of Michael Brown has dominated the headlines and my thoughts over the past few days. An African-American 18-year-old dead with multiple gunshot wounds. The shots fired by a St. Louis police officer. The circumstances reeking of cover-up, profiling, and racism.
My African-American 18-year-old son Julian has spent the last two weeks as an intern at Equal Justice Society (EJS), an organization for which I have been a long-time board member. Founded more than 14 years ago by my friend and mentor, civil rights trailblazer Eva Paterson, EJS is dedicated to raising the nation’s consciousness on race and to exposing and combating the implicit bias and unconscious racism we all carry.
In the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, I asked Eva and Julian to write their reflections on the killing. I said nothing else. No further direction or guidance. What they wrote is filled with fury and futility and made me weep.
Separated by 40 years and decades of work on race, both of them land in the same place. A place bereft of the shiny bow to nicely tie it all up and make us feel better. If we want to feel better about where we are on race that is on us. We are the ones we are waiting for and we have to find a way to lift this nation up and beyond this ugliness. My commitment is to do all I can to help us move to that place because, quite literally, my son’s life (and the lives of countless other children) depends on it.
Reflections from Eva Paterson:
Once again, our hearts are heavy and our stomachs sickened by the most violent exhibition of racial hatred and anxiety in so-called “post-racial” America. Michael Brown should be embarking on his adult life right now. Instead, his bullet riddled body lay in the street in Ferguson, Missouri for hours after he was shot in what can only be described as suspicious circumstances. The story from the police is laughable, at least to anyone with any sense. How likely is it that an unarmed brother stopped with a buddy for walking in the street is going to wrestle for a gun with a police officer in a police car? We know this is a lie. Why?
Fortunately, President Obama announced this morning that the FBI will join the Department of Justice in investigating Michael Brown’s killing. The DOJ is also going to look at the case of Eric Garner, the man whose vicious crime was selling untaxed cigarettes on Staten Island. The video of his death, which has officially been classified as a homicide, is heartbreaking. He told the officers that he could not breathe at least five times. The scene of at least five police officers wrestling him to the ground like a slave or an animal brings back ancient memories. He was choked to death. Why?
Over the weekend, I saw the video of Marlene Pinnock, the 51-year-old grandmother, who was beaten by a California Highway Patrol officer alongside a Los Angeles highway. The ferocity of the beating was breath-taking. As she was beaten, I thought, “This must be how slave owners beat people who were seen as property.” I thought, “What was going through this man’s head that would lead him to pummel this defenseless black woman?” Why?
Young Trayvon Martin shot for being someplace that George Zimmerman thought he should not be. Why?
George Zimmerman acquitted of murdering a young black man. Why?
President Obama and his family portrayed as apes and animals by his political enemies. Why?
As black Americans, we often feel like strangers in a strange land. Julian could have been Trayvon. I could have been Marlene Pinnock.
Fifty years ago, a great civil rights act was passed aimed at curbing the outward manifestations of white supremacy. These murders seem to indicate that white supremacy lives on.
There are many people who agree this is madness and yet this madness goes on. Why?
Reflections from Julian:
Seeing videos of riots taking place in Ferguson, Missouri paint a picture of what I imagine the Civil Rights movement looked like. Attack dogs, batons, tear gas. These aren’t things that preserve peace—these things provoke violence.
When young black men can be shot for walking in the middle of the street that scares me. When young black men can be shot for playing their music too loudly that scares me. Seeing the same story flood Facebook and Twitter every three months scares me. Knowing that there are men and women who are supposed to protect us and have no intention of doing so scares me.
It is obvious that the justice system is not set up to protect people that look like Michael and me. There has been something rooted into the system, something rooted into our minds as human beings that makes this acceptable. Something that tells police officers with guns that they can fire them off at will just because they have a badge. And the fact that they would rather cover up and lie, and bury the incident about as far down as their shovels can reach proves that they don’t want to make this right. They are perfectly fine with having another black boy’s blood on their hands.
Adults are supposed to be the role models, right? Adults are supposed to show children right from wrong. Adults are supposed to show us that violence is never an acceptable response. Adults are the ones who are supposed to show patience and self-restraint. The police “men” are more like boys, letting their impulses take control.
This story of Michael Brown’s death is tragic. Not only does it make me angry, it makes me sad. Because with every story like this I see my body lying in the street where Michael’s was.