Words sustain us. In the weeks following the death of Michael Brown—the unarmed 18-year-old fatally shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson—there has been much written about Brown's life, the love he had for his family and friends, his affinity for rap music, and the racial tensions that plague the small St. Louis suburb. Daily dispatches from reporters like Wesley Lowery, Julie Bosman, Tyrmaine Lee, and Ryan J. Reilly, among others (not too mention Alderman Antonio French's real-time tweets) provided a ground-level view into what had been described as a warzone.
But beyond the daily reporting there has been a select batch of writings about both Brown and Ferguson that have unpeeled deeper truths and supplied greater clarity concerning the state of America's racial present. The following stories serve as a reading list of sorts, each with different agendas, though they share one common thread: the measure of one person's life should never be determined by the color of their skin.
"Silence Is Not An Option" by Roxane Gay
It should not matter if Mike Brown was a good boy but I have no doubt that he was. His life mattered, no matter how he chose to live it. He had family and friends who must mourn him and who must now worry about who will be murdered next. Every life matters. There are few things I believe more passionately. Unfortunately, we live in a country where your worth and safety are largely determined by the color of your skin.
Yesterday, a young black man was murdered in Ferguson, Missouri. Every day, this happens. This is the value of black life. We are targets. Our children are targets. This is the scarred reality in which we must raise our children.
"Elegies for Mercy: Michael Brown and Ferguson, Mo." by Josie Duffy
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.
"The Front Lines of Ferguson" by Rembert Browne
When you make that long walk down West Florissant, eventually you get to the top of a hill. I don't know what's usually on the horizon, but on Wednesday it was the faint glimmer of police lights. Even in the light of day, the sight was ominous. Because there was already a feeling that beyond those lights sat a battlefield.
When I showed up, it was anything but. The police had blocked car traffic, giving pedestrians an "enter at your own risk" look as they moved forward. I expected to walk in and see protesters and police officers inches away from each other's faces, screaming. Instead I heard gospel music blaring from a flatbed truck. This wasn't war. This was a post-funeral barbecue … that just happened to have tanks and a small army standing before it.
"Ferguson on Fire" by Jamilah Lemieux
I went to bear witness. I needed to see it all for my own eyes.
It cut me to my core to see the heartbreak in the faces of older women handing out lovingly prepared peanut butter sandwiches because, "Y'all better eat something." There is a choking sadness in the sight of toddlers holding signs begging for the ability to grow up. Walking down the street where the manchild known as "Mike Mike" took his last, terrified steps, and seeing the place where he lay bleeding for hours like roadkill burned as much as the teargas we ingested for the simple crime of giving a f*ck.
"America Is Not For Black People" by Greg Howard
By all accounts, Brown was One Of The Good Ones. But laying all this out, explaining all the ways in which he didn't deserve to die like a dog in the street, is in itself disgraceful. Arguing whether Brown was a good kid or not is functionally arguing over whether he specifically deserved to die, a way of acknowledging that some black men ought to be executed.
To even acknowledge this line of debate is to start a larger argument about the worth, the very personhood, of a black man in America. It's to engage in a cost-benefit analysis, weigh probabilities, and gauge the precise odds that Brown's life was worth nothing against the threat he posed to the life of the man who killed him. It's to deny that there are structural reasons why Brown was shot dead while James Eagan Holmes—who on July 20, 2012, walked into a movie theater and fired rounds into an audience, killing 12 and wounding 70 more—was taken alive.
"This Is Why We're Mad About the Shooting of Mike Brown" by Kara Brown
We shouldn't have to explain that the punishment for even the most heinous crimes in our country is not a public execution without a trial.
We shouldn't have to explain why we don't trust cops when a number of eyewitnesses tell a consistent and vastly different story than that of the police officer who murdered Mike Brown.
We shouldn't have to explain why we fight back when we are attacked.
We shouldn't have to explain why we deserve the same protections and rights afforded to every other citizen of America.
But maybe you can help with some other questions I have, because I am at a loss.
"In Ferguson, Mo., A City Meets the Spotlight" by Gene Demby
Everyone on Canfield is exceedingly friendly. But people say the vibe in Ferguson changes completely after dark now, when the police are out in more force, and tensions start to flare up. Bishop V-Luv tells me that after those standoffs between the police and the people who are out marching, the folks in the neighborhood clean up the next morning.
"Eventually the television cameras and news reporters left Dallas and New Orleans," the Post-Dispatch editorial says. "They will leave St. Louis, too, along with the visiting civil rights firemen, the outside hell-raisers and the self-anointed experts. The ubiquitous #Ferguson hashtag will fade. We will be left to work this out on our own."
"#Ferguson: An American Apartheid" by Goldie Taylor
The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown has ripped proverbial scabs off of a myriad of festering sores. While the facts of the case deserve unbiased and transparent investigative scrutiny and all the rigorous questioning that can be mustered in the confines of a courtroom, what is happening in my hometown is larger than that and reaches back and through a troubled history that began to unfold long before he was born. To witness and participate in collective acts sparked by Brown's death, in St. Louis, on social media and around the country is as much about his life before his was shot six times and left lying in the street as it is about how politicians and law enforcement—from the White House to Jefferson City to Ferguson City Hall– have responded. It spans well beyond what police have deemed a "clean shoot" and the many ways they have sought to sway public opinion. There can be no perfect martyr in our quest for justice and we should not ask that of Brown.
"Michael Brown: 5.20.96 - 08.09.14" by Cord Jefferson
At the heart of the protests for Michael Brown, if all the sadness and anger and frustration may be distilled down to one thing, there seems to be a demand that the police force responsible for Brown's death acknowledge his basic humanity. Because that's what he was before all of this—a human being. A young man who was loved and who loved in return. A young man who will be missed by his heartsick mother and father. Michael Brown is now different things to different people, but we should never forget that he was a person above all else. A person who was probably taught that one of our nation's greatest virtues is the unwavering and "inalienable" right to life her citizens have just by nature of being human beings. And yet I've never seen that to be true. Michael Brown never saw that to be true.
"Stay Here" by Stacia L. Brown
Stay here. Do whatever you can. Duck. Chant. Sob. Rail. But stay. The rest of us are running to and fro in your stead, spreading your words, your footage, your fears, your demands for a demilitarized, diverse police department. We are trying to make the world around you understand how wrong it is for police from multiple counties to bring in heavy artillery on ground and heavy surveillance in sky, in order to subdue the few of you brave enough to venture out each night in search of answers. We are trying to help you hold your county accountable for employing and protecting an officer who would flee down the same street where he opened fire on an unarmed boy and left him there, first to die, then to bleed in open view for several hours.
"Eighty Years of Fergusons" by Adam Serwer
Fifty years later, walking down West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson in the early hours of the morning, Charles Mayo would recall a similar experience after a night of mediating between police and protesters. "'Y'all helping the man,'" Mayo said he was told. "No, I'm helping another kid get home tonight."
Since Aug. 19, the nightly clashes between police and protesters have ebbed. That night, wave after wave of green-clad police crashed into the crowd seeking those suspected of throwing bottles or rocks at police, but there was no tear gas. Clergy and black-clad peacekeepers huddled with men erupting in tearful rage at the police, preventing physical confrontations. Even if no one was thinking about Watts, or Detroit, or Birmingham, those nights long past were present, as the protesters looked at themselves through the eyes of the world. The protesters cried, "This is what you want," and "Don't give them what they want," not just to the police but the media, whom they feared were escalating tensions in pursuit of a good story, compounding the tragedy of Brown's death by turning black suffering into nightly entertainment.
"The Parable of the Unjust Judge; or Fear of a Nigger Nation" by Ezekiel Kweku
For the black middle class, respectability becomes an aspirational fable, a promise that they, too can be free of racism if they become successful enough to transcend their race. For the black underclass, it becomes a morality tale that explains their own destruction. Respectability politics is a false narrative, but it maintains its power because, like so many powerful lies, it sits adjacent to the truth and set slightly askew: they are looking for a way to turn you into a nigger, and if necessary, they will find one. You will never leave a body pure enough to not be judged complicit in its own destruction.
"Between the World and Ferguson" by Jelani Cobb
We know intuitively, not abstractly, about terrorism's theatrical intent. The sight of Michael Brown, sprawled on Canfield Drive for four hours in the August sun, dead at the hands of an officer who was unnamed for a week, recalled that memory. It had the effect of reminding that crowd of spontaneous mourners of their own refuted humanity. A single death can be understood as a collective threat. The media didn't whip up these concerns among the black population; history did that.
[Image via AP]