One year ago today, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Just over a year after protests regarding the unjust acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer swept the nation, black America was confronted again with another abominable instance of racial inequality, and the absence of humanity in terms of the United States’ relation to black people.
Powerful protests calling for justice for Michael Brown were immediately organized, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag came back into the nation’s lexicon in full force (#HandsUpDon’tShoot was introduced), and the subjects of race relations, police brutality, and racial inequality were brought to the forefront of the nation’s mind. Racial divides were made clear as the black community mourned the death of yet another one of their brothers and people of all colors protested the fatal boot of police brutality, while whites continued to demonize black people, dismiss and demonize the efforts and movements of black people, and defend the white police officer who shot dead an innocent, unarmed black teenager.
The untimely death of Michael Brown didn’t only have a significant impact on the nation, it had a significant impact on my life. Trayvon Martin and the effects that he had upon the nation came at a time in my life when I wasn’t necessarily wrapped up in the affairs of my people, when I wasn’t necessarily “woke”, and I was easily influenced by the bias of my conservative, white peer group on the matters of stand your ground laws, and the murder of an unarmed, innocent black teenager. Though I realize my massive fault in that position now, Trayvon’s death didn’t have as much of an impact on me because of it.
But then, here came this indisputable and inhumane act of racially motivated* homicide and police brutality, right at the same time I had begun to grow into my identity as a black person. I was shocked by the incident, and disgusted with the response that most of my peers had. I could not believe or understand that in the wake of an innocent, unarmed teenager’s murder at the hands of a police officer that people could think that he “deserved” to be shot, that he was not “compliant” enough, or that there should be any discussion as to whether or not the police officer was guilty. I was confronted with how racist and insensitive the people I knew and associated with actually were. A very significant amount of people lost my respect, or the potential to gain my respect, after I saw their input and responses in person and over social media in regards to Michael Brown’s death. And after being repeatedly tone policed and spoken down to, I lost friendships because I realized that my black voice, my black life, were indisputably more important than the feelings of white people.
On Monday, November 24, 2014, a grand jury chose not to indict Michael Brown’s murderer. Black America had been told that black lives did not matter. Violent protests immediately erupted, and the lack of indictment felt like another fatal shot through the black community as the opportunity for justice and closure was ripped away and mourning for the death of Michael Brown came back down upon us in full force.
I remember lying on my bed crying, listening to “Strange Fruit” again and again. That I lived in the United States, where you receive a death penalty for being black, and not even a trial for being a murderer.
The next day at school I wore all black in mourning and protest; in the morning, at the start of announcements, I rose and covered my aching heart, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t say the pledge.
The impact that Michael Brown had on the United States, Ferguson, and myself has had a deep and long lasting effect. Michael Brown and the Ferguson protests will be immortalized by the powerful voice of the black community. Not only because of the pain that we felt, but because Michael and Ferguson brought about a fresh and unwavering new movement of advocating for the lives of black people, turned this generation of black young adults into a powerful, woke, angry force to be reckoned with, started a powerful narrative and conversation about the issue of police brutality, and brought together generations of all people of color against racial injustice. And as we continue on, through Baltimore and Charleston, through Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland, the spirit Michael Brown and Ferguson will always hold a special place in our hearts.
*Racially motivated does not only mean that someone was targeted because their aggressor hates that race; it includes things such as racial profiling, internalized and institutional racism, racial microaggressions, and actions motivated by thinking aligned with the concept of white superiority.