Making sure the world remembers

August 26, 2014

Elizabeth Schulte, Lee Sustar and brian bean report from Missouri on the public funeral service for Mike Brown--where the eyes of the world remain fixed.

WHEN A family invites the public to come share their grief at a funeral service for their young son, they're sending a message: We must not forget his murder.

When Mamie Carthan invited the city of Chicago to join her in mourning her son Emmett Till, murdered by racists in Mississippi almost 60 years ago, she was showing the world the brutal face of Jim Crow segregation--literally, when she insisted that Emmett's coffin be left open to show his brutalized features.

And when the family of Mike Brown held a public memorial service in Ferguson, Mo., they were making sure the world would see and remember the brutal face of racism and police brutality in 21st century America.

Thousands of people gathered at the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis on August 25 to pay their respects to the 18-year-old who was shot at least six times and left to die in the streets of Ferguson.

In the days following his murder on August 9, the St. Louis suburb exploded with protests against Brown's killing, becoming a center of world attention, as local police armed with some of the most sophisticated firepower in history unleashed nights of assaults against protesters.

A relative of Mike Brown arrives at the funeral
A relative of Mike Brown arrives at the funeral (Brett Myer | Youth Radio)

The funeral gathered a broad swathe of Black St. Louis and others from around the U.S. Many people wore their Sunday best. Others wore T-shirts with the slogan, "Hands up, don't shoot"--Mike Brown's last words, according to witnesses, which have become the rallying cry of protesters here.

Inside, the atmosphere was somber--but also defiant. From the pulpit and the pews, there was a sense that a line had been crossed--that the murder of Mike Brown might be a key moment in African Americans' long struggle for justice. Everyone hoped to receive the programs that contained photos, memorials and poetry about Mike by his family, but there weren't nearly enough. So people shared--and many had tears in their eyes when they passed them to their neighbors.

WITH AS many as 4,000 people packed into the main sanctuary and overflow rooms outfitted with close-circuit TV, the funeral registered the national and even international impact of Brown's murder and the rebellion that followed.

Three African American members of the U.S. House of Representatives attended--Lacy Clay of Missouri, Maxine Waters of California and Al Green of Texas--as did U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat. A representative of the White House--Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson--was on hand. There was Who's Who of local and national Black clergy, interweaving prayer and scripture with moving remembrances of Mike Brown and denunciations of racism. Superintendent Solomon Williams of the Church of God in Christ quoted at length from Martin Luther King Jr.'s writings on the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case that upheld segregation laws under the doctrine of "separate but equal."

When Williams recited King's words--"there was a strict enforcement of the 'separate' without the slightest intention to abide by the 'equal'"--the words seemed not a historical reflection, but as a description of racism today.

Benjamin Crump, the attorney representing the Brown family, captured the mood when he invoked the history of the U.S. Constitution that declared enslaved Africans were three-fifths of a man. "We will not accept three-fifths justice," he declared to loud applause and cheers.

But while the funeral articulated some of the broad outrage in Black America, there were underlying tensions as well. Several speakers denounced rioting and looting, and cited "Black-on-Black violence" as an issue almost on par with police violence. The African American youth who had been at the forefront of the rebellion in Ferguson were entirely absent from the podium, confined mainly to overflow rooms, where they had to watch on television.

Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network and an MSNBC talk-show host, reflected those contradictions in the keynote speech. He tapped people's outrage against the dehumanizing racism reflected in the treatment of Mike Brown's body, which was left to lie in the street for more than four hours.

"You can't come up with a police report, but you can find a video?" Sharpton said, alluding to the Ferguson police's sleazy decision to release a surveillance video that allegedly shows Mike Brown in a confrontation with a convenience store employee.

One of Sharpton's biggest applause lines came when he contrasted the availability of Pentagon funds to militarize local police forces while schools go underfunded. Another came when he contrasted the media treatment of supporters of Officer Darren Wilson with the coverage of activists demanding justice for Mike Brown, who are seen as "dividing the country."

But Sharpton also went to some length to deflect criticism from the police as a whole, claiming that the problem was a few "bad apples" who spoiled the barrel. He also said that behavior in Black communities helped racists justify their actions. "Some of us act like the definition of Blackness is how low can you go," adding, "Now you want to be a n---- and call your woman a w---." Too many African Americans, Sharpton said, want to have "ghetto pity parties instead of strategizing."

ONE THING is undeniable. If it hadn't been for the explosive protests that rocked the streets of Ferguson in the days after this police murder, no one would have known Mike Brown's name. His death would have been swept under the rug. And as Black residents who have been protesting in Ferguson know well, this fight is far from over.

Darren Wilson, the officer that killed Mike, is currently on paid administrative leave, his whereabouts unknown. With every day, more details about the area's brutal police forces are revealed, showing that Wilson was anything but a "bad apple." Wilson got a job in Ferguson after the force he once worked on in Jennings was disbanded three years ago--because of tensions between the white officers and Black residents.

As if local police never heard or understood the outcry after Brown's death, just 10 days later, two officers shot and killed another Black man at point-blank range.

Disturbing cell phone video taken by bystanders at the scene show Kajieme Powell, a local man known by people in the neighborhood to have struggled with mental illness, being repeatedly shot by police shortly after they arrive on the scene. Police claimed they were justified because Powell was supposedly wielding a knife. After shooting him, police proceeded to handcuff the dead man. The incident took place a few miles away from where Mike Brown was shot.

The history of racism and brutality on the part of law enforcement was well known by Black people in Ferguson before Brown's killing and the nights of brutality that followed as police attacked protesters with tear gas and arrested dozens, night after night.

Likewise with the collusion between local legal institutions and police. In 2001, County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch oversaw a case involving two undercover police officers who shot and killed two drug suspects, who the cops claimed tried to run them over in order to escape. During the case, which was presented to a grand jury that refused to indict the officers, McCulloch referred to the murdered men as "bums."

Protesters are calling for the immediate arrest of Darren Wilson--and they also want Bob McCulloch to stand down in this case.

Darren Seals lives three blocks from where Mike Brown lived, and he's been organizing since day one. He said what he thought about Sharpton's idea of "bad apples": "It's like you've got a bucket with a thousand poisonous snakes, and there are four or five good snakes. I'm not reaching my hand in and taking a risk with those five good snakes with those thousand in there. That's the police."

He also said it was about time that leaders like Sharpton start listening to what young people in the streets of Ferguson are saying. "They won't let us speak for ourselves, and then they wonder why we burn shit down. They ain't listening," he said.

As for the president, "Obama doesn't get to come down here and tell us what to do. He denounced us on live TV. He doesn't represent us at all; he represents everyone but us."

DESPITE ALL the obvious evidence of police abuse, some people are showing their support for Mike Brown's killer, attending small demonstrations and fundraising for his defense.

The city's polarization was evident in the hours before the funeral. As the overwhelmingly African American mourners and racial justice advocates gathered to walk into the church, a disc jockey for AM talk radio station KTRS disparaged the event, mocking the somber procession of Black political, cultural and religious leaders as an Oscar-style red carpet--and all but accusing Rep. Lacy Clay of threatening riots if an indictment isn't handed down against the cop who murdered Mike Brown.

The area surrounding the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church highlighted the inequality, racial polarization and disinvestment in Black St. Louis and surrounding suburbs. Many big, handsome brick single-family homes with spacious yards, worth maybe a $1 million in a nearby zip code, stand shuttered and abandoned.

A generation ago, Ferguson was seen by many African Americans as an alternative to inner-city neighborhoods that had been abandoned by business and politicians, said Kevin, who's lived in the city for 25 years. "It was a nice, decent place," he said. "Quiet." The kind of place where if the kids' ball bounced in the neighbor's yard, they'd ask permission to get it, and the adults would look after them.

But as Ferguson turned majority African American, the political establishment--and the police--stayed white through "out-and-out fraud," Kevin said. Consequently, Black voter participation fell into single digits, recalling the Jim Crow South before the civil rights movement. "Put it together," he added.

Kevin's friend Joe Love, a St. Louis resident, agreed. With some 71 municipalities, the voting strength of African Americans was diluted, allowing an older, white-dominated political establishment to cling to power, he said.

"You have to remember that the state of Missouri was in the middle of the Civil War," Love said--staying in the Union but, as a slave state, with a long tradition of racism. These days, he said, the white backlash is built into the structure of local politics, with prosecutors elected countywide on campaign promises to crack down on crime--Black crime--in St. Louis and heavily African American inner-ring suburbs.

Apologists for the Ferguson police dismiss allegations that local city finances depend on arrests and fines targeting African Americans. But Helen Larkins knows better. A week before Mike Brown was gunned down, her granddaughter, a Ferguson resident, was arrested after she said she didn't know anything about fighting that had allegedly occurred in the area. The charge against the granddaughter? Resisting arrest.

"It cost $300 to get her out of jail," said Larkins, who said it was a typical story for African Americans in Ferguson. So when she learned of Mike Brown's funeral arrangements, Larkins made it a point to cross the river from her home in Illinois to attend.

ALSO AT yesterday's funeral were the families of Trayvon Martin and Sean Bell--people who know intimately what it's like to lose a young Black son and the struggle it takes to win some kind of justice.

Sean Bell was unarmed when New York police shot and killed him in a hail of 50 bullets in 2006, and ever since, his family has fought to bring the police responsible to justice. After Mike's murder, Sybrina Fulton, whose son Trayvon was killed by a racist vigilante in Florida in 2012, wrote an open letter to the Brown family, in which she concluded:

But know this: neither of their lives shall be in vain. The galvanizations of our communities must be continued beyond the tragedies. While we fight injustice, we will also hold ourselves to an appropriate level of intelligent advocacy. If they refuse to hear us, we will make them feel us. Some will mistake that last statement as being negatively provocative. But feeling us means feeling our pain; imagining our plight as parents of slain children. We will no longer be ignored.

There's a call for a national march in Ferguson on August 30, and Ferguson residents are determined to keep the pressure on.

Nick, who was standing near the memorial that sits in the middle of the street where Mike Brown was murdered, said he'd never been to a protest before this, and explained why others like him were moved into action. "Driving around Ferguson or anywhere in the country, you're a target," he said. "It's everywhere."

A young man named Talal was standing in the encampment that is being occupied by young people in a parking lot of a furniture store. "We're afraid, we're hunted like game, and our quality of life is shit. We're fed up."

Further Reading

From the archives