When Lezley McSpadden-Head held her first Rainbow of Mothers Gala just after the first anniversary of her son Michael Brown’s death, Ron Johnson was there in uniform as a captain in the Missouri Highway Patrol working security detail for the event. As he watched the mothers, most of whom had children who lost their lives during encounters with law enforcement, he noticed that none of the women made eye contact.
“I was a black man and a father – and I did my best,” Johnson said, speaking of his time on the frontlines of the Ferguson unrest. “Why wouldn’t they look me in the eye?”
Shortly after the exchange, he realized that he didn’t have the courage to look them in the eye.
“I knew that I needed to do more,” Johnson said. “I knew that I needed to be better.”
When gathered once again at Barnett’s on Washington on the day after the 5th anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, Johnson was there not as an officer, but as the event’s keynote speaker.
“There was a little black boy who wanted to be a policeman,” Johnson told the audience. “He got his wish. He ascended to the top. One day a life was lost that brought him to his knees. It brought him deep into his faith and brought tears to his eyes. That man has changed. And that man is me. Michael Brown changed me.”
Michael Brown changed Johnson so much, he said, that he was compelled to retire from the Missouri Highway Patrol. His career ended October 31 of last year.
“My job said, ‘Captain Johnson, you are going to have to choose,’” Johnson said. “Are you going to be a captain on the Highway Patrol, or are you going to be on a mission talking about those people?”
Johnson said his new purpose and journey are “bigger than the Highway Patrol.”
“I will stand for what is good with law enforcement, and I am proud of that,” Johnson said. “But I must stand up and speak against what is wrong. I need to turn on the TV set and not see a mother with tears in her face, crying for justice.”
Several of those mothers who have graced screens across the nation were now looking Johnson directly in the face as he delivered the evening’s keynote address.
“We represent thousands,” Lezley McSpadden-Head said as she offered closing remarks for her Annual Rainbow of Mothers Gala presented by her Michael OD Brown We Love Our Sons and Daughters Foundation.
One day after the fifth anniversary of her son’s death, she reminded the audience of the invitation-only event that the black mothers who sat at the table represent only a small fraction of those mourning children lost to police violence.
Attorney Benjamin Crump, who represented McSpadden-Head and accepted the award given to Rev. Al Sharpton at the gala, told the crowd that more than 2,000 lives had been taken as a result of the broken relationship between black people and police in the five years since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson.
“That was shocking to me,” Crump said.
He told the audience how McSpadden-Head advocates for those mothers who reach out to him because of his history of representing the families of black men and women who tragically lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement
“Every time that I call Lezley, she takes time out to talk to them,” Crump said. “She keeps it real. She tells them, ‘You are the voice for your child.’”
Crump also gave the region praise for standing up and fighting back – not only in the streets with protests, but at the polls with voting power.
“The only way we can win these battles is if we do what you all did in St. Louis,” Crump said. “And that is, if they don’t convict these killer cops, just vote them out of office like y’all did McCulloch. That’s what we have to continue to do. If we don’t have the right people in office, we won’t have anybody to pick up the fight.”
Several of those on the frontline of the fight in Ferguson were honored for their efforts with special awards for their service to the movement. Honorees included St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura O. Jones; Justin Hansford, Howard University associate law professor and executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center; state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, Action St. Louis founder Kayla Reed and Sharpton.
“Mike Brown is the reason why we have the movement that we have,” Reed said. “In St. Louis we really tried to carry that torch in his name and his legacy. I’m honored to stand in the legacy of your son. So many of us, our lives are so much different because of what happened five years ago. All of the work that we do is for you.”
She gave the same acknowledgement to the other mothers in the room who share McSpadden-Head’s pain because of their children’s own tragic encounters with law enforcement.
“You truly are the mothers of our movement,” Reed said. “You’ve not only mourned in front of us – but stood beside us and fought to decriminalize us when they sought to tear protestors down. We drew our strength from you and, whenever you need me, however you need me, I will always be there.”