Were the ground not saturated with city, St. Louis would be pseudo-prairie—no dry season but chock-full of grasslands. Rivers run wily underground, so mosquitoes seem to sprout from the earth just to greet you. High noon in August is a stagnant heat, the kind that weighs heavy on your shoulders. A thousand miles from either ocean makes the Midwest relentless like that. The breeze trickles in lazily, if at all.
Without wind gunshots echo louder. He puts his hands up after the first one, but they keep coming.
Imagine this. You are eighteen and tomorrow you are going to college. You are attempting, perhaps reluctantly, to piece together some haphazard picture of a grown-up life. You have family scattered throughout your town, you have friends and a grandmother whom you are going to visit, your new school is nearby. And who knows exactly what you are going to do, but already you've made the kind of choices that tell us something. You like home. You know the importance of living securely, of having a trade. You might not be a household name, and that's just fine.
It is not enough that you are a teenager. Their bullets don't care how young you are, and if you happen to be a boy, they will call you a man anyway.
It's not enough not to be arrogant. This was not a strategic precautionary measure. It is not enough to be unassuming, to walk humbly and with God, to stay out of people's way. You don't have to be Che or Lumumba to be shot and killed in the middle of the road on a summer afternoon.
It is not enough that you are afraid.
These are pieces of the stories they tell: altercation, clenched fists, the deceased lunged for my weapon, physical assault, resisting, aggressive. In Ferguson the police chief wipes his forehead, says things like, "assaulted a police officer," "struggled over the officer's gun." As if—completely unprovoked—an unarmed teenager, outnumbered by officers, tried to steal a gun in a cop car. And as if that justifies murder.
To dehumanize a person, all you have to do is to paint him as incapable of fear. Even the strongest humans are afraid sometimes—it's an innate instinct, can be controlled but never defeated. Even superheroes, the ultimate pillars of bravery, are willing to act despite their apprehension. Only monsters are truly incapable of being afraid.
They're saying, "We were scared of your son because your son was not scared of us."
But this is not the truth. A boy just headed to his grandmother's house, a kid who had never even been in a fight. In those few minutes before his petrified heart slowed down and gave out completely, it must have pounded loud with terror.
The other stuff is irrelevant. Your capacity for violence, or lack thereof. Your history of drug abuse or lack thereof. Your absent father or the one sitting at home on your couch waiting for you to walk through the door. The rap music drifting out of your headphones as you walk down the street. The college degree that may or may not be hanging on the wall in your mother's home. The time of day, the season. Your hoodie. None of it really matters.
When someone is shot in the movies there's string music and the scene slows down. But here everything happens fast, and, other than the bullets, there's a strange silence.
Hands in the air—can you see his hands? Shaking? He has one bullet already in his body. His shirt already pooling with blood. Mike Brown, eighteen, falls to his knees.
Here he is. Kneeling. Hands up. More bullets greet him.
If they want you, they will get you. It is not enough to surrender. This is not that kind of war.
Elegies for boys who never thought they'd be household names. Who valued the simple dignity of a humble existence. Elegies for the unarmed. For men whose last moments were filled with panic, desperation, for boys who cried out for their mother. A child starts running in fear in Sanford; a man crying "I can't breathe!" on the sidewalk pavement in Queens; shot in the back while handcuffed and kneeling in an Oakland subway station—"I have a four year old daughter" were his last words. Plainclothed and shot by two of his own in Harlem; seventy-years-old and shot in his kitchen by an officer who calls him a nigger; shot in San Clemente, his daughters watching from the car window; soaking wet, begging for help in North Carolina and shot ten times; shot in Wal-Mart for holding a toy gun; shot, cornered and unarmed, in his Bronx apartment bathroom; shot in Ferguson Missouri, from thirty-five feet away, the August sun on his face, fear lodged under his sternum, his hands in the air.
I imagine he wasn't thinking about Trayvon, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Omar Edwards, Kenneth Chamberlain, Darius Simmons, Manuel Loggins, Jonathan Ferrell, John Crawford, Ramarley Graham. I imagine he was thinking just one thing over and over—"Please. Please. Please."
Elegies for boys who wanted mercy.
But it is too late for mercy. Mike Brown is dead now. His body went cold all alone out there in the road, and the sun turned noon into evening.
We want justice. I want only the guttural sense of unfairness that you reserve for the worst things. I want to hold his hand as he lies in the street. I want to tell him: Listen. You didn't fight, but we will. We will fight. They will know your name. I promise.
[Photo via AP]