On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, guests gathered at Greater St. Mark Church. The sanctuary was a protestor safe haven as well as a site for planning and programming during the months of unrest that came in response to his death.
Last Thursday, it became a space for reflection as St. Louis Public Radio presented Living #Ferguson: A Storytelling Event, which featured activists and artists sharing the impact Brown’s death and the unrest had on their lives.
August 9 was already a date that spoken word artist, author and activist Cheeraz Gormon – the event’s host and co-presenter – would never forget. On that day in 2013, Gormon lost her brother to gun violence. As she sat at her kitchen table reflecting on his life on the one year anniversary of his death, her phone began to ping with activity. Notifications from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and a barrage of text messages came all at once.
“At first I didn’t pay them any mind, but then I decided to pick up my phone,” Gormon said. “The first of these messages said, ‘Raz, the Ferguson police just shot a boy.’ The next one read, ‘Cheeraz, it’s a dead body out on Canfield Drive.”
She went to Facebook. She saw the now viral image of Louis Head holding a sign that read “The Ferguson Police just executed my unarmed son.” She retreated further into her grief.
“The only thing I could think was, ‘Dear God, I hope his brothers and sisters are nowhere around to see this,’” Gormon said.
She then introduced the first of the four storytellers.
The story that actor, playwright and theater professor Gregory Carr Sr. told wasn’t one about a creative response to Ferguson. He came from the position of helping a friend in need – and through it further revealed how Ferguson residents had become collateral damage. Between the curfew and the closed stores, Carr’s friend from high school, whom he hadn’t seen in 20 years, posted on Facebook that she hadn’t been able to make it to the store to get groceries. He volunteered to pick some up for her. As they sat and talked after he delivered them, there was a knock at the door. A man with the “I ♥ Ferguson” campaign was at the door with sign for her to post in her yard.
“She said that she didn’t feel comfortable doing so with everything that was happening,” Carr said. “The man’s tone changed. We realized that he was no longer asking.
“I stepped in and said, ‘I think she’s told you she doesn’t want to put the sign in her yard – and I think you should respect that.”
Cat Daniels, who became known as “Mama Cat” for making sure that those involved in the protest were fed, talked about how she found her calling in Ferguson through a group of committed youth.
She saw a group of 10 young people on a furniture store parking lot on West Florissant.
“I was like, ‘What y’all doing?’” Daniels said. “They was like, ‘We ain’t going nowhere until we get justice for Mike Brown.’” That group later became known as the Lost Voices. “They were out there every night,” Daniels said. “I know, because I was out there with them.”
Her work feeding the activists in Ferguson led her to form Potbangerz, a nonprofit organization that provides meals to the homeless.
Michael Brown’s death forced filmmaker Aziza Binti to confront the harsh truth of the assumptions and misconceptions she had about black men based on her own fears.
Binti, a black woman, was so afraid that even though she had grown close enough with Dannie Boyd to designate him her best friend, when he asked if he could come by her house one night to chat, she called another friend over so she didn’t have to be alone with him in her house.
“They came over and everything was fine,” Binti said. “But after they left, the fear stayed.”
Ironically, Boyd was also one of the evening’s storytellers. He addressed the hurt that came the moment he realized he went from being seen as an innocent child to a menacing presence – and it was long before he reached adulthood.
When he was in first grade, his gym teacher favored him to the point where he had a special song announcing his arrival in class.
“Oh, Dannie boy,” Boyd sang with a smile as he imitated his beloved teacher.
He and the teacher crossed paths when Boyd was in middle school. Even though it was clear that he recognized Boyd, his teacher said nothing. He looked at Boyd not as a cherished former student, but “one of those thugs.”
“A part of the child in me died at that moment,” Boyd said.
He suggested that perhaps if Darren Wilson had seen Michael Brown for the teen that he was as opposed to an object to be feared that warrants the use of deadly force, perhaps things could have ended differently on that fateful afternoon of August 9, 2014.