“Mr. Brown, what are we going to do about this?”
Nadia Epps, 19, one of our Sweet Potato Project teens, called Sunday morning to let me know she was headed out to the City of Ferguson. An 18-year-old teenager, Michael Brown, had been shot and killed by police the day before. Nadia’s sister, who lives in the apartment complex where the boy was gunned down, witnessed the shooting.
“His hands were in the air. They shot him down in cold blood,” Nadia told me.
Her question – “what are we going to do?” – both frightened and gave me a measure of pride. We tell our students that they are “urban pioneers” who are responsible for creating better, more holistic communities for their peers and siblings. We talk about the challenges and opportunities to achieve this goal.
In class every morning, we share news stories. Last year, the Trayvon Martin case was a huge topic of discussion. I will never forget the sense of betrayal and injustice students expressed when the verdict came down. It made no sense to them that the shooter of an unarmed teen with a bag of Skittles wasn’t convicted. To them, the acquittal was like declaring open season on anyone who fits Trayvon’s profile.
Unlike mainstream media, police brutality directed at youth of their age and hue is a topic that has their attention. Emotions have gotten very intense during our discussions. Several naïve but braggadocios boys in our program have vowed retaliation if their rights are ever violated. Thankfully, we’ve had high-ranking black officers who’ve come to class, respectfully listened and talked our students through their frustrations.
“Respect” is the operative word as it relates to what has transpired since the Ferguson shooting. I wonder if the “riot” that has now captured national media attention could have been averted if police officials had simply listened, respected and recognized the feelings of young people, their peers, parents and protestors. What would have happened if they respectfully walked them through their fears?
If the region’s daily newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and other media outlets were less voyeuristic and more humane, they could have validated the crowd’s anger. If it had voiced immediate outrage over the fact that a dead teenager was left lying on the cold concrete street for hours, according to witnesses, police officials may have gotten a clue that they needed to proceed with caution under media scrutiny.
In a KMOX Radio interview this week, host Mark Reardon asked if I was surprised that the shooting had turned into a riot Sunday night. “No,” I answered. I was surprised it didn’t occur hours after the shooting.
Imagine the indignity residents must have felt when police immediately arrived on the scene dressed in full riot gear, with M-16s and slathering canines in tow. The arrogant, Apartheid-style response sent a very clear message: “You are the enemy!”
The following day, Sunday, August 10, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar and Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson held a news conference offering a nonsensical explanation of the shooting. Apparently, according to Belmar, two individuals – one of them Mike Brown –physically assaulted the yet-to-be-named police officer. Brown supposedly pushed the officer into his own vehicle and struggled for the officer’s weapon.
If this is true, how did Brown wind up getting shot some 35 feet away from the car, with his hands in the air, according to witnesses?
The portrayal of Brown doesn’t reflect the profile of the promising Normandy High School graduate given by family and friends. Furthermore, why wasn’t the other suspect arrested? It’s not like he’s been hiding. Dorin Johnson, the young man walking with Brown at the time of the shooting, has been interviewed by several news sources.
Imagine the insult people listening to Belmar felt when he talked about the officer coming back to the force after undergoing two psychological evaluations. Belmar gave people no clue that he gave a damn about their concerns or pursuing justice.
Belmar’s mention of a six-week wait for the dead teen’s toxicology report was a nod that Mike Brown – like Travon Martin – will be portrayed as another out-of-control, young, black druggie. With just a few syllables, relatives, residents and protestors sensed the fix was in; the officer will be exonerated and Brown will be tainted as just another menacing perpetrator who provoked his own demise.
I’ve spent the past three year years listening and talking with teenagers in my program. Many, like Nadia, endure frequent police insults and harassment based on who they are, where they live and how they look. They’re angry, fed up and frustrated, mostly because they have no voice and no way to navigate the dangerous terrain that’s inherent with being a stereotype.
I’ve watched the wick of this powder keg burn slowly with constant internet footage of mostly black (but also brown, white, male and female) “suspects” choked, beaten and murdered by unrestrained, overreacting police officers. This is not just an indictment of police; it’s an indictment of those who tolerate police misconduct and injustice in America.
Yet, this recent regional travesty does make my student’s question relevant for us all: “What are we going to do about this?”
Sylvester Brown Jr. is founder of the Sweet Potato Project, writer and public speaker.