In grieving Michael Brown’s death, mourners affirm value of black life

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NEWS ANALYSIS

Stephanie Talley mourned Michael Brown at his funeral on Monday, grieving the loss of his humanity as well as his life.

“Michael was a human being,” said Talley, 53, of Jennings, a neighboring suburb of Ferguson, where Brown was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.

“Michael was a child, laying in the street like a dog for four hours, like nobody didn’t care,” Talley said, closing her eyes as if the image physically pained her to recall. “That hurt me.”

Throughout much of this country’s history, and indeed for some right now, to be a black man in America has meant to be denied dignity in life. After he was shot, Michael Brown’s body lay uncovered in the street for an entire afternoon, denying him dignity in death.

For some, that alone was a crime that conjures black people’s collective memory of an era when someone killed in a public square and left dead for all to see was meant as a warning of what happens to those who run afoul of people in power.

Many of the funeral attendees are like so many African Americans who are told in word or shown in deed on a daily basis that they are invisible, forgotten, disposable. Monday was a day for them to proclaim that black lives do matter, and that when one is taken, it has to mean something.

Brown’s mother, Leslie McSpadden, did not speak at Monday’s service, but she wore her grief and a bright red dress. It was impossible not to see her in the front row of the church sanctuary, lingering over her son’s casket, staring longingly at the vessel holding the child she would never hug again.

To witness her was to see yet another grieving mother whose son was taken away because someone viewed him as a threat, and not as a young man at the gates of manhood. Brown was not perfect, but he was denied a chance to see what his life would become.

Brown’s parents, McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., have already said they do not expect a fair and impartial investigation by local authorities. They have taken some solace in reassurances from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder — a black man — that the federal inquiry into the case will be thorough and independent.

In his eulogy of Brown on Monday, the Rev. Al Sharpton urged the congregation not to pretend that his death was normal or in the category of something that happens to everyone eventually.

“We should not sit here today and act like we are watching something that is in order,” Sharpton said.

The pastor and activist told the audience of his reaction to seeing Brown’s body on the concrete in a Ferguson apartment complex:

“When I saw Michael laying there, I thought about how many of us were just considered nothing,” he said. “How we were just marginalized and ignored. To have that boy laying there, like nobody cared about him, like he didn’t have any loved ones…”

Many in the audience nodded in agreement.

In the two weeks since Brown’s death, thousands of people, mostly African American, have descended on Ferguson, drawn here by their frustration over how he was gunned down and over how they say they are treated by police as a way of life.

They do not feel they are seen as equals in this country. Instead, they feel stuck in the long shadow of racism that stretches back to the days of slavery four centuries ago, pre-dating democracy and the creation of the modern-day United States.

Benjamin Crump, the lead attorney for the Brown family, brought history to bear on the moment. He reminded the crowd gathered Monday that the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision originated in Missouri in 1857. In that case, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that historically, blacks — to whom he referred repeatedly as the “unfortunate race” — had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Crump also mentioned the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787, which declared slaves be counted as three-fifths of a person.

“We declare here today that (Brown) was not three-fifths of a citizen!” Crump told the crowd to cheers. “He was an American citizen! We will not settle for three-fifths justice! We will demand equal justice for Michael Brown, Jr.”

The St. Louis County grand jury is already considering whether to bring charges against Wilson, a six-year veteran of the Ferguson Police Department. Many in the community and across the country have already said that anything less than a murder indictment would be an injustice and yet another affirmation that black lives have no value. While fewer have much hope for a conviction — especially in light of the Trayvon Martin verdict last year — they at least want Wilson tried by a jury.

Meanwhile, back in the church, Talley wonders what kind of country her toddler grandson will grow up in, and if things will ever change.

“I’m just tired,” she said. “It goes on and on. We need to take our stand until equal justice has been done.”