My heart is broken. Our hearts are broken. I am uncontrollably angry about what is happening in Ferguson, which is just a way of saying: what has always been happening in this country. I’m upset when people want to talk about anything other than the thought that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Black Americans are being brutalized, and shot at, and strangled, and demonized, and hated. I watch this video of Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, doubled over in pain, being physically held up by family after hearing the grand jury’s ruling to not indict the man who shot her child, Officer Darren Wilson—meaning he will not so much as have to face a trial for firing 12 shots and killing Brown, an unarmed teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri this past August. I watch as McSpadden shouts into the crowd with unrestrained grief, “Everyone wants me to be calm…do you know how them bullets hit my son, what they did to his body as they entered his body?” and then the video of McSpadden’s reaction after she found out that her son had been shot dead from bystanders on the street, who had to show her video and images from their cell phones of her dead son, lying there on the street for four hours with a pool of blood seeping from his head because the Ferguson police did not bother to inform her.
I watch that video of her anger and grief immediately after the verdict again, as she cries, “You know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many! Because you bring them down to this type of level where they feel like they got nothing to live for anyway.” I keep watching because her grief for her slain son is so raw, and I know I am going to need a constant reminder of that as the next few weeks and months unfold, as more and more people will be making a call for civility and non-violence and peaceful demonstration, as people are already beginning to focus on the looters and the rioters and the destruction of property instead of the legacy of destroying and breaking the black body, instead of the terrible death of an unarmed teen by a police officer who has yet to even directly apologize to the parents of the child he killed, who has publicly said that he would do it again and that he has a clear conscience. To this, McSpadden pointed out in an interview with CBS This Morning, “How could your conscience be clear after killing somebody even if it was an accidental death?”:
I feel like I can’t forget that this didn’t start with Emmett Till and it won’t end with Michael Brown (sickeningly, just this week, Cleveland police shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with an airsoft gun, which is a type of pellet hobby rifle, on a playground). I have to remember that when people express shock and outrage and surprise, that, as many long-time activists and anti-racist allies have pointed out, the system worked exactly as it is supposed to, because this is a system that put a black woman in prison for firing a warning shot in the air to tell her abusive husband to stay away, while acquitting George Zimmerman for killing unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, and the system that will not even allow the family of Michael Brown the dignity of a trial for their slain son. This is a system that allowed the St. Louis county prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, to treat the dead, unarmed teenager with six bullets in his body like he’s the one on trial, spend 20 minutes demonizing that dead teenager, place the blame on everyone except the officer who killed him, and discredit eyewitnesses while conveniently not saying anything about why the crime scene medical examiner didn’t take any photos or measurements of Michael Brown’s body.
This is a system that allowed someone who has a long history of protecting police officers to handle this case despite his many, many biases (his father was a cop killed in the line of duty by an African-American, and McCulloch is the president of an organization that raised money and support for Darren Wilson). This is a system where Dawon Gore, a black police officer, was charged with felony assault after striking a MetroLink passenger on the hand with his expandable baton. Gore was charged by Bob McCulloch, the same county prosecutor who spent 20 minutes publicly assassinating Michael Brown’s character before announcing that he would not be charging Darren Wilson, a white police officer who used his gun, not a baton, to shoot, not strike, a black teen dead.
This is a system that keeps passing laws to give police officers more leeway to use deadly force, and guess who deadly force is used disproportionately on? If you guessed poor, black folks, then you would be right.
This is a system that does not cross-examine Darren Wilson in a grand jury trial, but aggressively questions and intimidates eyewitnesses. A system that essentially says to those eyewitnesses, “You may have really believed what you saw!” but reverently listens to the white police officer’s testimony without calling much of it into question. A system that believes a white police officer when he says he feared for his life, even though the officer had a gun and was in a moving vehicle under his control, and the dead black teenager had no weapon and was not in a moving vehicle. A system that does not blink when the officer says that he feared for his life and he literally felt like “a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” even though he himself is 6’4” and 210 pounds, which would make Darren Wilson the tallest and strongest five-year-old ever recorded in history, even though he had already shot Michael Brown at least one time from inside the car and several times when he was running away. A system that allows Darren Wilson to literally characterize Michael Brown as a “demon,” capable of “bulking up” and charging toward Wilson, despite having already been shot several times. Not that this is anything new: White people have been characterizing black men as brutes and demons and supernaturally resistant to death for ages. Through slavery, through lynching, and now through this. As Jamelle Bouie writes in Slate:
The idea that Brown could resist bullets is also familiar. In a recent paper, researchers found that whites are more likely to attribute superhuman abilities—like enhanced strength and endurance—to blacks than any other group. That, the authors assert, might explain some of the white tolerance for police brutality. “Perhaps people assume that Blacks possess extra (i.e., superhuman) strength which enables them to endure violence more easily than other humans. Add to this what we know about implicit bias—that most people perceive blacks as more violent and dangerous than other groups—and you have a Darren Wilson narrative that reads like a textbook case of racial projection.
This is a system that does not question Wilson on how someone like him, who was pretty much the same size as Michael Brown, someone who had a gun filled with bullets, could feel like he had no option but to unload 12 rounds at an unarmed teen. Wilson’s injury photos from being punched by a so-called demon Hulk Hogan look like little more than a mosquito bite. So this is our system. It has never not been fucked.
But when the hands are up and the cop still shoots, reform is merely a Band-Aid on a malignancy. When there is still no recognition of black humanity—when law enforcement is still so constantly projecting white fears of black criminality—then the answer is not just a happy political narrative. Because Darren Wilson still would have fired 12 times if Mike Brown had been wearing a tie on Canfield Drive.
She reminds us that we have to sustain our rage and let it fuel our protests. In Counterpunch, Robin D. G. Kelley writes about “permanent war waged by the state and its privatized allies on a mostly poor and marginalized Black and Brown working-class. Five centuries in the making, it stretches from slavery and imperialism to massive systematic criminalization.” He reminds us of the youth organizers on the ground in Ferguson and elsewhere in the country who already understand this and are under no illusion that the state or even federal government will come and right centuries of wrongs.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote the brilliant article “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic just two months before Michael Brown was shot, is my go-to person when I feel like I need to read something that makes sense. As Coates writes of Ferguson and state-sanctioned violence on black bodies:
Black people know what cannot be said. What clearly cannot be said is that the events of Ferguson do not begin with Michael Brown lying dead in the street, but with policies set forth by government at every level. What clearly cannot be said is that the people of Ferguson are regularly plundered, as their grandparents were plundered, and generally regarded as a slush-fund for the government that has pledged to protect them. What clearly cannot be said is the idea of superhuman black men who “bulk up” to run through bullets is not an invention of Darren Wilson, but a staple of American racism.
What clearly cannot be said is that American society’s affection for nonviolence is notional. What cannot be said is that American society’s admiration for Martin Luther King, Jr. increases with distance, that the movement he led was bugged, smeared, harassed, and attacked by the same country that now celebrates him. King had the courage to condemn not merely the violence of blacks, nor the violence of the Klan, but the violence of the American state itself.
Tim Wise point outs in his piece, “Most White People in America Are Completely Oblivious,” that “the inability of white people to hear black reality—to not even know that there is one and that it differs from our own—makes it nearly impossible to move forward.” And he asks:
Can we perhaps, just this once, admit our collective blind spot? Admit that there are things going on, and that have been going on a very long time, about which we know nothing? Might we suspend our disbelief, just long enough to gain some much needed insights about the society we share? One wonders what it will take for us to not merely listen but actually to hear the voices of black parents, fearful that the next time their child walks out the door may be the last, and all because someone—an officer or a self-appointed vigilante—sees them as dangerous, as disrespectful, as reaching for their gun? Might we be able to hear that without deftly pivoting to the much more comfortable (for us) topic of black crime or single-parent homes? Without deflecting the real and understandable fear of police abuse with lectures about the danger of having a victim mentality—especially ironic given that such lectures come from a people who apparently see ourselves as the always imminent victims of big black men?
In short, he’s saying: PLEASE AT LEAST JUST LISTEN TO WHAT BLACK PEOPLE ARE SAYING. In all of this grief, in all of this anger, I have to remember that this isn’t an isolated incident, and we can’t mourn this death without mourning all the other deaths, without mourning all the other ways that certain people in this country are denied of their humanity and always have been.
This also speaks to what Rebecca Traister writes in her article in The New Republic, “This Is What Power Looks Like.” She makes sobering connections between the death of Michael Brown, the alleged violent gang rape of a freshman girl at the University of Virginia, and the multiple allegations of Bill Cosby drugging and raping women. She points out how, in all three stories, the power dynamics are reversed to make it seem like the victim is the one who holds all the power. In each case, we are told that the people who are killed, raped, and assaulted are the guilty, and those committing those acts of violence and hatred are the fragile ones, the ones who needs our sympathy and protection, the ones whose lives are irreparably ruined—not the dead, not the raped, not the drugged, not the beaten, no. The ones who did the raping, the killing, the drugging, the beating—these are the true victims.
Back when news of the Michael Brown shooting first broke, there was an outpouring of solidarity from Palestinians, including tips on how to survive tear gas—how to survive a war zone. Because this is what the people in Ferguson are living in: a war zone. I think of how a decade ago, Saddam Hussein was considered a monster for gassing his own people—and yet, America has been tear-gassing its citizens since protests broke out in August. It’s important to remember that it’s all interconnected. Oppressed people all over the world are being killed, brutalized, and demonized, and this is maybe a deeply depressing thing to consider, but this is the world we have inherited, and this is the world that was built, and we have to just keep going and keep fighting and keep agitating. At least we are not alone. I know it when I read tweets from Palestinians offering their support and solidarity to Ferguson and America:
The oppressed always stand together, no matter what race/ethnicity they are. We will resist because we deserve to exist. #palestine2ferguson
— مريومة (@Maryoooosa) November 25, 2014
We do, we do, we do.
In “Only Words,” a meditation on the crisis in Ferguson published the day after the grand jury’s decision to not indict Wilson, Roxane Gay uses the undeniable facts of the case to illustrate just how horrifyingly corrupt the final decision was: Michael Brown was unarmed at the time of his murder; Darren Wilson tampered with physical evidence; the trial’s prosecutor seemed to act instead as a defense attorney who, with no fewer than five family members associated with the St. Louis police, could safely be said to be upholding, as Gay writes, “an unchecked police culture…fear of blackness…[and] the continued desecration of black lives.” Gay is a voice for so many when she says, “That’s all we wanted—a trial, an opportunity for justice, an opportunity for Darren Wilson to be tried for the murder of Mike Brown, but that will not happen.”
At the bottom of the article, she notes that the Ferguson Public Library is accepting donations. Since Ferguson’s schools were shut down earlier this week, the library has become an even more essential resource for children in the community. If you’re wondering how you can help from afar, collecting donations for the library is one good start.
This week saw yet another senseless murder of a black youth: Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was in a playground alone with a airsoft gun when he was killed by a police officer. After a bystander called 911 about “a guy” (note that the caller didn’t specify “a child”) who was holding what he thought might have been firearm, two officers were dispatched to the playground. Tamir was shot within TWO SECONDS of the police’s arrival. The officers, Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, pulled up right next to him, stepped out of the car, and Loehmann fatally shot him.
In audio taken from the scene of the shooting, one of the officers approximates that the victim’s age is 20. An APA study has shown that black boys are perceived as being older and less innocent than white boys. The study participants think, on average, that black boys suspected of a felony are four and a half years older than they actually are. The difference between a 12-year-old and a 20-year-old, however, is far more extreme. Given the fact that black minors are 21 times more likely than white minors to be shot dead by cops, one can safely assume there will be more Michael Browns and Tamir Rices (and Trayvon Martins, and VonDerrit Myers, and Oscar Grants) before any justice is accomplished.
It is extremely important, in the wake of so many senseless deaths, to remember the history of violence and murder of black women at the hands of police. Members of Saving Our Lives Hear Our Truths have compiled a list of black women lost to police violence over the last few years. Know their stories and remember their names.
It seems that each development surrounding the death of Michael Brown stretches our comprehension. If you’ve been unable to reconcile the plausibility of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson’s account of that terrible day, you are not alone. In this Vox essay, Ezra Klein highlights exactly why Wilson’s testimony seems completely unbelievable. The officer’s story requires a suspension of disbelief that would normally be reserved for a movie—not a deposition about the killing of an unarmed teenager.
I screen shot this image months ago. Artist unknown. It moved me for many reasons. One being ….brokenness. Today I feel a sense of brokenness on behalf of my people. Black people. Everyone expresses differently. I respect all forms and shapes of expression. I respect those who don't see this as a matter of black and white, who think "unity and peace" will save us all from this, who's optimism in the heart of the gut wrench still seems to have a place…Although I feel differently, I respect it all. We were not molded here, to all be molded the same……My words are like aimless shapes and figures at this time. Trying to find a place to go, something to hold on to, to make "sense" of this all. But the one thing that's been concrete in my heart is my will to want to express something to my friends. To the people I love, who love me, who feel pain in this moment just as I do, but who do not feel pain in the way that I often do in many walks of life. Who might feel I talk about race too much, that it's consumed me, who I've distanced myself from….because it's true, I can't a joke. When I told a friend of mine I was making an album about race, his response was…."Just make it fun". I would like him to think about it now. We are not Michael Browns family, but we are Michael Browns family. We don't hurt like they do, but we do hurt. Hurt like hell. Thing about my people though….we don't stay broken. We get up. We put the pieces together when there aren't even pieces to pick up…….and we will……again and again and again.
Solange Knowles shared her feelings about Michael Brown, Darren Wilson, and racism on Instagram. She added that she’s planning on making an album around the central theme of race. I understand that celebrities feel they have to be wary of what they say and do in matters of high controversy, so I’m impressed that Solange said what’s on her mind. This is one of the reasons I admire her so much.
On the day of the grand jury’s announcement that Darren Wilson would not be indicted, Run the Jewels, Killer Mike and El-P’s rap duo, assured fans that they would continue with a scheduled show in St. Louis. The heartbreaking news of Wilson getting to walk free came not too long before RTJ took the stage, and Killer Mike used their platform to speak about his fears for his black sons. Watching him choke up is heartbreaking: “You (expletive) got me today,” he repeated throughout. “I have a 20-year-old son, and I have a 12-year-old son, and I am so afraid for them,” he said, reflecting the fears of black parents across the nation about not only what they have to explain to their children, but protect them from.
Though El-P, who is white, didn’t say anything during Mike’s speech, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t standing in solidarity with him. Mike tweeted his appreciation of El’s support:
Lemme state I am mildly disgusted by the shade thrown at my friend and rap partner El-P. It was his and my wife's idea for me to speak
— Killer Mike (@KillerMikeGTO) November 25, 2014
At all. White writersy white friend did what you are supposed to do. He stood withhis black friend and supported his stance.
— Killer Mike (@KillerMikeGTO) November 25, 2014
El let Mike use this moment to say what he needed to say in a situation as heartbreaking as this past week has been.
This interview with the legal scholar Patricia Williams on Wilson’s testimony, and how it reflects the larger problem of racism, speaks to part of why so many of us are outraged, angry, and heartbroken over this verdict.
Looking at these photos from the incredible, inspiring protests happening nationwide in the wake of the verdict brings a bit of hope to a very bleak situation. If you’re wondering how else you can take action, Browntourage posted a list of crucial readings and resources.