A Year After Mike Brown: Lessons From Ferguson

August 9th 2015

Emma Bracy

Mention Mike Brown or Ferguson, Missouri, and people know what you’re talking about. We’re all familiar with what happened one year ago: A young man, fresh out of high school, was shot in the street by a police officer after an altercation and struggle. Afterwards, his body lay on the hot asphalt for four hours horrifying onlookers, adding tension, and raising questions. Was this excessive use of force, and was it racially motivated? Would the cop have killed a boy with the same skin-color as he? If so, would the body of a slain white teen be left out, like Brown’s was, to bake in the sun?

Reflecting on the scene brings elements of the great Sophocles tragedy Antigone to mind. The play centers around Antigone’s struggle to do right by her dead brother Polyneices. After he’s slain in battle, the king decrees that Polyneices’ body is to be left unburied on the battlefield — a harsh and shameful punishment. Antigone won’t have it. She buries her brother, even though doing so is against the law and punishable by death. When brought before the king, she doesn’t deny what she’s done. She boldly argues the morality of his edict and of her act. Antigone, disgusted by the status quo, pushes back.

In the days after Mike Brown was killed, Ferguson pushed back. People all over the country joined in. The Black Lives Matter movement was born.

Since then, a lot has happened. We’ve learned about new sets of circumstances under which a Black person may die at the hands of police: In a chokehold on the corner, in a chokehold in the street, while playing in a park, while running away, in a car, in a paddy wagon, at a car dealership — if it weren’t so true, it’d be unbelievable. We’ve seen the people responsible for these deaths walk free over and over again. There have been a lot of protests. But the air is still thick with fever. We’re still restless. And we’re still on track to have more people killed by police this year than ever before.

There’s a lot of talk about what’s different now, what has changed in the year since Mike Brown was killed. (And things have, thanks in no small part to the work of Black Lives Matter and change agents all over.) But in the midst of conversations about what we’ve learned, I’m inclined to think about what we haven’t.

Every time another unarmed person is killed by law enforcement, I am baffled by the number of American citizens who prove themselves to be enthusiastic apologists. How is it that so many not only accept cops’ innocence at face value, but are so eager to excuse the actions of people who might potentially be getting away with murder?

I think it has to do with a culture that doesn’t see the value in empathy. Or perhaps clings to an uncertainty about which will be the wrong side of history. Will standing for or against state sanctioned violence get you in the history books as the good guy? It’s hard to say. In 1957, Strom Thurmond thought he was doing the "right" thing when he performed the longest filibuster ever in an attempt to derail the passage of the Civil Rights Act. A lot of others agreed. Today, that’s no longer the (socially acceptable) case.

But such is the nature of life: things change with time. What was acceptable once might not be acceptable indefinitely. Maybe 100 years from now, future Americans will look back on this time of racial tension and unrest, and laugh. Although who and what they’ll be laughing at, I can’t say.

I am often curious if the officers who are responsible for these hotly contested deaths ever feel any remorse, or empathy for the families and communities they've shaken. I would imagine they must. Unfortunately, the officers’ responses often makes it seem otherwise. Darren Wilson waited over three months before saying he was sorry for killing Mike Brown, and when the apology finally came it sounded like little more than a, "my bad." Ray Tensing is another great example. There is video evidence of the former officer shooting and killing Sam Dubose in the head after pulling him over for missing a license plate. He is being charged with murder. Naturally, he was fired after the state prosecutor called his actions asinine. But the Fraternal Order of Police stood behind their reckless colleague. With the help of the police union, Tensing filed a suit demanding his job back — ostensibly claiming that he was the victim, for being fired.

Melissa Harris-Perry, MSNBC commentator, said after Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony, that "Americans long have had difficulty in understanding, acknowledging, and having empathy for the pain of black men." I would argue that this extends to the entirety of Black and Brown communities.

I remember once, during a bar conversation I was having with a white male acquaintance, I started crying as I explained the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement. I wasn’t crying because I was moved by anything in particular, but rather I cried because of the frustration that was welling up inside me. I was overcome with a singular knowing that is tethered to the Black experience. I felt that the conversation’s expiration was fast approaching. I tried to explain that my tears erupted because I assumed he didn’t want to talk about Black lives for too long, because I assumed he didn’t quite understand the gravity of it all — that he couldn’t. He said that he was tired, and that I was right. I left the bar after that, but I wasn’t mad. I was just, in that moment, experiencing the thing people of color sometimes experience when our realities brush up too closely against the realities of our white counterparts, and we realize how different our understandings of the world can be. I was sad because my peer couldn’t have empathy for my pain, and sad because I didn’t know what to do about it.

Something that mitigates the sadness is the Black Lives Matter movement.

On July 26, another young man was gunned down by an officer. This time the young man, who was unarmed and shot in close range, happened to be white. Many have pointed out that the #AllLivesMatter people have been, largely, silent. But supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement did not ignore this death. Zach Hammond was given the same and respect and empathy as an unarmed black man would have gotten. Those who profess #BlackLivesMatter denounced the killing of this white teenager, because “Black lives matter” doesn’t mean white lives don’t.

That’s what is so beautiful about Black Lives Matter. It's for everybody. Many white Americans are reluctant to join the movement. The ones who do, however, sometimes catch my eye. Such was the case with James Cooper.

Cooper, 36, is a photojournalist who spent eight months in Ferguson watching the aftermath of Mike Brown’s death unfold. Originally from St. Louis, he told me via email what drew him to Ferguson in the first place. "I was raised right and I knew what happened to Mike Brown was because of systemic racism," he wrote. "And I knew I couldn't forgive myself if I wasn't part of the reaction." While there, he "learned so much from being able to just observe everyone."

"I used to think there was a race card that sometimes got played." Cooper said in his email. "I thought the racism we had in America was left over from a much worse time where racism was tolerated and that in time it would just somehow get better. I bought into respectability politics." Ferguson opened Cooper’s mind to other possibilities.

"I learned that I'd been sucked into apathy by a society that was telling me, 'everything is fine. Black people are just using racism as an excuse most of the time.'" He no longer believes that to be true, saying that after "learning about more and more stories like [Mike Brown’s], I couldn't believe how stupid and blind I'd been." It seems as though a lot of lessons came out of his time in Ferguson. "But overall," he said, "I've been able to swallow my pride and realize how my ignorance and apathy allowed for this situation to exist."

Cooper's revelation is a positive sign of changing attitudes. However, another necessary change looms large. Law enforcement, too, must recognize systemic racism. We must train officers not just to diffuse situations without lethal force, but also teach about racial bias, the importance of getting to know a community, and empathy.

People will say we are meant to respect the law. But what is the law meant to do? Maintain order? Deter crime? If anything, it should keep people safe. James Baldwin wrote in a 1966 essay published by The Nation, "The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer." A year after Michael Brown’s death, this is, perhaps the most valuable lesson of all. But it's one some of us are still in the process of learning. In the meantime, remember Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice, and Walter Scott, and Sam Dubose, and all the others. Remember that Black Lives Matter. Think of Antigone: her courage, her morality, how she stood up for what she knew to be right. And when the law shows itself to be immoral or problematic, don't be afraid to push back.