Mike Brown notched a hard-fought victory just days before he was shot: A diploma


Michael Brown, on March 4, 2014. (Photo by Elcardo Anthony )

The graduation photo was taken in March.

Back then, Mike Brown was still just Mike Brown. A student with a football tackle’s build. Just one of the 100 or so in his senior class at Normandy High, a struggling school that had lost its state accreditation and, along with it, a measure of its pride, in an area already beset by challenges.

That day, he and the other students passed around a handful of green graduation gowns, slipping them on and off, as they posed one-by-one for pictures.

In his photo, Brown barely smiled, his green mortarboard tilted back on his large head, a red sash around his shoulders — a slight bravado that, his teacher noted, might have obscured how difficult reaching this moment had been.

Michael Brown officially graduated Aug. 1, later than some and months after the photo was taken. He still had credits to earn then. He was in an alternative learning program, a way to help the students facing the longest academic odds.

But he got his diploma. And 10 days after that, he was to start at a local technical school to learn how to fix furnaces and air conditioners.

“He’d accomplished it,” teacher John Kennedy said. “In the last two months, man, Mike was there every doggone day and he was giving it his full effort.”

Now, Mike Brown is no longer just Mike Brown.

Last Saturday, as Brown walked down a street with a friend, the 18-year-old man was fatally shot by a police officer in this city in St. Louis’s northern suburbs. Brown was unarmed.

An unidentified police officer had a confrontation with Brown and a friend as they were walking. What happened remains unclear.

County police and the FBI have announced separate investigations. But doubts in the local community about whether the shooting was justified quickly boiled over, leading to days of rallies and unrest, including angry confrontations between protesters and police, nighttime scenes made hazy by tear gas and shouted slogans.

Now Brown is part of a renewed national discussion about how police treat minorities, especially young black men.

President Obama on Tuesday offered his “deepest condolences” to Brown’s family, who is now represented by the same attorney used by the family of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager gunned down by a neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012.

The Rev. Al Sharpton came to St. Louis. Social media and talk shows swirled with anger aimed at both Brown’s death and the violent demonstrations that followed.

Tuesday night, authorities in Ferguson braced for another round of violence. The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily banned flights from operating below 3,000 feet over the city, at the request of county police. A police spokesman said that a helicopter had been shot at multiple times and that the flight ban is “to provide a safe environment for law enforcement activities.” The ban may also preclude the hovering of news helicopters.

Investigation moves slowly

The official police investigation, a standard reaction to any officer-involved shooting, was moving slowly, said county police spokesman Brian Schellman. Three days after the incident, detectives still had not talked with many “critical witnesses.”

“They’ve reached out to numerous people who have been unwilling or unable to talk with them,” Schellman said.

Police detectives have tried “numerous times” to talk with Dorian Johnson, Brown’s friend who was with him when the shooting occurred and who, since then, has given several press interviews.

Ferguson police have said Brown pushed the officer as the patrolman was trying to exit his car, then struggled with him over his gun.

Johnson has said the officer was the aggressor. The officer, according to Johnson, shot Brown while still inside the vehicle, then emerged and fired multiple times.

“We want to talk to him,” Schellman said of Brown’s friend. “We have to talk to him.”

Ferguson police had planned to release the name of the officer who shot Brown, but they reversed course Tuesday because of “threats being made against all Ferguson officers on social media sites,” the city’s police spokesman, Timothy Zoll, said in an e-mail.

There is no timetable for when the officer’s name could be released, he said.

Benjamin Crump, an attorney for the family of Michael Brown, said releasing the officer’s name could help ensure peace on the streets of Ferguson.

In Ferguson, residents with signs gathered at the site of the shooting in the early afternoon, prompting honking horns and cheers of “hands up, don’t shoot.”

In nearby Clayton, several hundred people marched through downtown and descended on the county prosecutor’s office.

“I need justice for my son,” Michael Brown Sr. said at a news conference Tuesday.

The town where Brown died has 21,000 residents. The poverty rate is about twice Missouri’s average. There are challenges. But it is also home to the world headquarters of Emerson Electronics, a $24 billion company. Nearby is Express Scripts, the pharmacy benefits manager that employs thousands in the St. Louis area.

Black residents make up about two-thirds of Ferguson’s population. In the 2000 census, whites held a slim majority. Meanwhile, the city’s police force remains overwhelmingly white.

David Klinger, a criminology professor at the nearby University of Missouri at St. Louis, said he was surprised that some in the community reacted so violently.

“Obviously there’s been stuff that was boiling under the surface for years,” Klinger said.

‘The gentle giant’

Trying to piece together the incident that killed Brown has been tough for his friends and family. Seeing Brown on the street, he looked intimidating. He was a big man. But he was not threatening, they said.

The county prosecutor said Brown had no adult criminal history. And Brown’s family didn’t think it was in his nature.

“We called him the gentle giant. He was a gentle giant,” said Charles Ewing, Brown’s uncle.

His family tried to get him to play football. Brown was too timid for the sport, Ewing said.

“He had never gotten into a fight in his entire life,” said Duane Finnie, a family friend.

At school, he was that kid who was full of jokes and trying to make others laugh.

John Kennedy, who taught Brown this year, saw it. And he’d seen it in other students at Normandy High. They were covering, hiding the struggles they faced inside school and outside, too. Brown didn’t have it easy, Kennedy said.

At the school’s alternative program, Kennedy was always the first one in the building. The place would be empty. He’d unlock the doors at 7 a.m. and he’d always find Brown standing there, smiling. Classes didn’t start until 8 a.m. But Brown was there. First one in the door.

On Tuesday, Kennedy, who has taught at Normandy for 19 years, struggled to reconcile that memory with how his former student was now part of a national debate, his death the spark for unrest in the streets. It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. Not for Mike Brown.

“It’s a disappointment,” Kennedy said. “There’s a lot to be disheartened about.”

Frankel reported from Washington. Mark Berman contributed to this report.

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
Todd C. Frankel is a reporter covering people and policy. You can follow him on Twitter: @tcfrankel.
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