It’s been two years since Michael Brown succumbed to at least a half-dozen bullet wounds on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri.
In the days after his death, news reports of his body roasting on the hot Ferguson pavement for hours made me think of the song “John Brown’s Body.” For days the chorus ran over in my head: “Glory, glory, hallelujah!” I hummed. “Glory, glory, hallelujah! His soul’s marching on!”
The song is about a white abolitionist named John Brown who believed the only way to free slaves was through armed insurrection. Brown was captured in 1859 and sentenced to death in an act of rebellion we’ve come to know as “John Brown’s Raid.” Two years later, during the civil war, union soldiers marched to the song to memorialize him and energize themselves. “Ye soldiers of Freedom, then strike, while strike ye may,” they sang. “And his soul is marching on.”
In 2014, the marching anthem for a different form of black liberation—the freedom to live—became “hands up, don’t shoot.”
Police-involved deaths of black Americans occurred before 2014. But that year, America woke up to the frequency with which they occur. On its website, Black Lives Matter says a police involved death occurs every 28 hours. The totality of these tragedies has changed the way we perceive them. They are no longer isolated incidents; they are all part of the same story. The past two years have taught us that. Footage has taught us that. The cries of family members taught us that. In two years, the struggle to preserve black lives expanded into a new human and civil rights movement. And it’s still growing.
Dorian Johnson alleged that his friend, Michael Brown, surrendered to police by putting his hands up, but was shot anyway.
Johnson had been with Brown that Saturday in August, starting from when he stole a pack of cigarillos up until he was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson a few hours later.
The Justice Department would go on to debunk Johnson’s claim that Brown put his hands up. But it was too late. The image of Brown with his hands up was indelibly imprinted in the liberal American consciousness.
In the days after Michael Brown’s death, a movement called “Black Lives Matter” gained traction. Started by three queer black women back in 2012 after the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the tagline on its website reads “not a moment, a movement.”
Protesters, journalists, citizen journalists, organizers, and civil-rights leaders descended upon Ferguson after Brown died. And quickly the city of 21,000, once dwarfed by its considerably bigger neighbor, St. Louis, became the larger-than-life symbol of over-policing in black America.
The night after Brown’s death, Ferguson erupted in civil unrest. Establishments were burned and others were looted. Young men walked around with handkerchiefs covering their faces to hide their identities. There were no shortage of these images on cable news.
But, like in all poor black communities, civil unrest never happens for no reason. Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement exposed certain truths that had never been part of a national conversation.
With Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, two teens who were killed by white civilians, it was hard to find a common enemy. Individual racism is easy to isolate. But after Ferguson, America was rudely awoken. It wasn’t individual racism, as it turns out. It’s many individuals and many systems working together to create a devastating and crushing reality.
Ferguson’s police force had three black officers out of 53 on the force when Michael Brown was killed; the city’s black population was 67% last year. The Justice Department later found the white police force systematically targeted black citizens. In Ferguson, 95% of people jailed for more than two days were black.
Tensions in the wake of Michael Brown’s death put a mirror to this once invisible American city, and it sent a strong indication to the world that racist policing wasn’t just occurring there.
Tensions in the wake of Michael Brown’s death put a mirror to this once invisible American city
Weeks before, we’d watch 43-year-old grandfather Eric Garner utter the words “I can’t breathe” while being placed in the chokehold that would end his life. In November, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer. According to a report released in June by prosecutors, officers responding to the boy’s shooting believed Rice was much older than he appeared and that the toy gun he was carrying was real.
Americans continued to march and mourn, this time for a boy.
Weeks later, a Staten Island grand jury did not indict the officer involved in Eric Garner’s death. New York City erupted in protest. It was December and the city had already been protesting in the name of black lives since summer. But the Garner video exposed a deep flaw in the criminal justice process: one where prosecutors protected police instead of holding them accountable for their wrongdoing.
The videos kept coming, and the protests followed the videos. Activists’ repertoire of chants unfortunately grew from “Hands up, don’t shoot” to include “I can’t breathe” and “black lives matter.”
In April, Baltimore erupted in protests after 25-year-old Freddie Gray went limp and died in police custody after a severe spinal cord injury caused by erratic and sudden movements in the police van that was transporting him to jail. And in 2016, the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile renewed calls for police reform and accountability.
Every month brings forth a new struggle—a different aspect of the story that leaves black lives particularly vulnerable. After six black women died in jail since Sandra Bland, the movement is questioning process: about longer-than-needed jail stays and higher than acceptable bail bonds.
This was what Black Live Matter founder, Alicia Garza had in mind from the beginning. ”We need a bigger vision than just Band-Aid reforms,” she said in an interview with The Nation. “We need to move towards a transformative vision that touches on what’s at the root of the problems we are facing.”
It’s not fair to label Black Lives Matter.
It’s an ever expansive movement, an amorphous one. Every month, it seems, the movement grows to include different criticisms of the criminal justice system.
Though Black Lives Matter founders were explicit in their demands—justice for all black people, including trans and black women—the movement had been largely centered around the deaths of black men, about calling attention to their vulnerability. The names of black men shot and killed by police became synonymous with the slogan “black lives matter.”
But a report entitled “Say Her Name” published by the African American Policy Forum in May 2015 changed all of that. The report highlighted the deaths of women at the hands of the state. And they didn’t only include shootings: they included 57-year-old Alberta Spruill, a city government worker, who died of a heart attack after police broke down her door and threw a concussion grenade on a bad tip that there were guns and drugs in her apartment.
It included 23-year-old Shantel Davis, who was shot and killed by an NYPD detective in 2012. Fusion interviewed her sister at the three-year-anniversary vigil for her Davis’ death in a video about police violence against black women.
The broader movement morphed to include police violence against black women. In San Francisco, a group of topless black women stopped traffic in protest of the erasure of their bodies. Black women represent 5.8% of San Francisco’s female population, but accounted for 45.5% of all female arrests in 2013 according to a report from the Center on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.
With every mounting call, with every video capturing violence, incremental change is being made.
In New York, the no indictment in the death of Eric Garner led to a formal request for a special prosecutor to be brought in to handle police-involved deaths in the state. This by a group of mothers whose children died at the hands of police spanning 20 years. In July, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order naming Attorney General Eric Schneiderman New York’s special prosecutor. On Monday, he took on his first investigation, a mother of eight who died awaiting arraignment in a New York City suburb.
The state’s attorney for Baltimore shocked an entire country when she brought swift charges against six of the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death.
The police officer who was involved in the shooting death of Walter Scott was charged with murder in April and indicted in June.
The probe into Sandra Bland’s death was being conducted, at first, by the Texas Rangers, a wing of the same agency that arrested her. Then, the FBI stepped in.
The deaths don’t stop, though. They pile up. John Brown was an active participant, he knew the stakes. His white skin privileged him in the fight for abolition. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland and Samuel DuBose didn’t have that privilege. They are unwitting participants, tragic examples in the fight to preserve black lives.
As we cycle through the two-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, we can see no signs of protesters, activists and organizers stopping. They continue on chanting their versions of “John Brown’s Body.”
This piece has been updated since its 2015 publication.