The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On his 25th birthday, Michael Brown’s mother reflects on his life and her ongoing fight for justice

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Michael Brown lay on the pavement for hours under the hot sun that summer day in 2014, fatally shot by a White Ferguson, Mo., police officer. Eight days earlier, the 18-year-old graduated from Normandy High School and was on his way to Vatterott College, a technical school.

“At the time, his father was doing HVAC, so he wanted to try that,” says Lezley McSpadden-Head, Brown’s mother. “But he really was into computers [and] wanted to be a producing engineer.” She said her son had hoped to one day pursue a career in the music industry.

Brown would have turned 25 on Thursday and this week his alma mater celebrated his life, committing to promoting social justice awareness and civic engagement at the school and in the city.

“[Brown] graduated from Normandy and nothing was done to formally, officially, acknowledge that we lost one of our students and that his loss of life changed the course of conversations around race and police brutality in this nation,” Isaiah Melendez, Normandy’s assistant principal said. After receiving funding last year from Project R.E.S.T.O.R.E, a youth violence intervention collaborative at the University of Missouri, Melendez thought, “ ’Why don’t we do something in recognition of Michael Brown?’ ”

In partnership with McSpadden-Head’s Michael O.D. Brown We Love Our Sons & Daughters Foundation, Normandy kicked off the inaugural Normandy High School Michael Brown Program for Social Justice and Leadership in November. “To see Michael laying there for four-and-a-half hours was not only traumatizing to our family, but to all those young faces and those young babies,” McSpadden-Head said of the need for the initiative. “I didn’t want [students] to think their life is supposed to be that way for them by 18, or even 25. We don’t want our youth to have a low expectation of life. We don’t want them to devalue their lives, because they feel like, ‘Well, I’m 18 it’s over for me.’ ”

The program, designed to raise students’ awareness of social justice issues and take an active role in their communities, ran monthly sessions from November to May 17. Students heard from thought leaders, politicians and activists such as Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors.

Bush, who was a guest speaker at a session in January said it was an “opportunity to share my journey with the next generation — a generation of students whose lives and experiences mirror my own in so many ways.”

Brown’s death elevated Black Lives Matter’s national profile. The outcry among young Black Americans refocused public attention to acts of police brutality against the community. Bush led protests in Ferguson after Brown’s death. “I wanted to hear what [Michael Brown’s] legacy and the activism in Ferguson means to them,” Bush said in an interview, referring to the students in the Normandy program. “I wanted them to see me and realize that they have a voice and that their voice is important, that their voice needs to be heard.”

The last of the sessions took place Monday. “This session’s theme was … ‘believe,’ ” said Lyah B. LeFlore-Ituen, McSpadden-Head’s foundation board member and key adviser. She said the focus was on “engaging [students] to using their voice through music, to using their voice to potentially one day be the next generation of lawmakers and change-makers and great thinkers in an unlikely space,” she said.

Prominent leaders and social activists recorded a birthday tribute video played during the closing session at Normandy. They shared messages honoring Brown’s life and called for police reform, while encouraging the students to stay engaged in social justice.

While attending Normandy, Mike-Mike, as McSpadden-Head called her firstborn, didn’t play any sports or do any extracurriculars because of his hypertension, she tells me. There weren’t any social clubs for students to join either, nor did Brown have options such as learning to play a musical instrument. McSpadden said it’s because “Normandy has been unaccredited for a while.” The school lost its accreditation in 2014 because of poor academic performance and attendance, and for not meeting its adequate yearly progress set by the state, Melendez said. In 2017, the school received provisional accreditation and the newly appointed superintendent, Marcus C. Robinson, is working to get the required state teaching and administrative credentials to restore full accreditation.

McSpadden-Head, 41, had Brown when she was 15 and dropped out of high school. “We had made a pact that you’re going to graduate and after you graduate, give me a little time and I’ll go back to school and graduate,” she remembers telling her son. “But you gotta do it first because I want you to be better than me. And so I stayed on him.” Excited, she bought his cap and gown early in the spring of 2014 even though he was shy a few credits before the May ceremony. She told him, “I know you’re going to graduate.” (She would later get her diploma three years after his death, alongside her daughter.)

Once Brown officially graduated — one of 119 students to do so that year — McSpadden-Head said she felt he’d earned some hangout time with his friends and cousins. “I had never let my son do anything over the summer as far as being away from home,” McSpadden-Head said. But, he had accomplished a once-challenging feat in Ferguson for Blacks, earning a high school diploma, and she thought, “Why not? He went to school, he graduated. Hey, yeah, you can go hang out in the neighborhood with some guys that you know, what’s wrong with that? Well, little did I know. Little did I know. Never did I think that would be my son. Never ever in a million years … for August 9 to just snatch my dreams away.”

That day, after leaving a grocery store around noon, Brown and a friend, Dorian Johnson, were walking in the middle of Canfield Drive, a two-lane street in Ferguson. The shop reported a robbery of cigarillos and provided a description to the Ferguson Police Department dispatch. Darren Wilson, a White police officer aware of the report, drove by the two Black men and instructed them to walk on the sidewalk before using his SUV to block them. Brown allegedly refused to get on the sidewalk, and a scuffle followed between Wilson and Brown. The officer later testified that Brown reached for his waistband. Witnesses claimed Brown had his hands up. Wilson shot Brown six times. As cops investigated the scene, they left Brown’s body on the hot pavement for more than four hours. Months later, under Attorney General Eric Holder, a DOJ investigation found “Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes.” Wilson’s actions, however, the DOJ investigation found, did not constitute “prosecutable violations under the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute.”

“We have to confront the reality that we still haven’t seen transformative change,” Bush said. “We spent months on the streets of Ferguson — night after night — demanding justice and pushing for change. But the police still killed Jason Moore, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Philando Castille, Atatiana Jefferson, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright and Ma’Khia Bryant. The list goes on. The reality is we will not get justice until we fundamentally shift our approach to public safety and center the demands of those who have been harmed by our policing crisis: our communities.”

On Nov. 24, 2014, a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson. “There’s no statute of limitations on murder, he can still be charged,” McSpadden-Head says. “We’re in the process of launching a campaign … trying to apply some pressure to the St. Louis county prosecutor and ask him to charge [Wilson].”

County prosecutor Welsey Bell said during a phone interview Friday, that evidence, such as a video recording of the shooting, could justify prosecution. However, he added, the existing evidence was not strong enough to prosecute Wilson.

Bell said he understands Brown’s family’s frustration. “If I was in the same position, I will feel the same way.”

McSpadden-Head is not giving up. She recently launched the hashtag #reopenthecase campaign, hoping newly elected officials like Tishaura Jones, the city’s first Black mayor, and Bush, will assist in her fight and not forget “what we’re still living with. And how it’s hard to live through it.”

Bush is ready to help. “St. Louis sent me to Congress to save Black lives and that is what I am working to do every single day,” she said. “We are working on legislation to change the way we respond to calls for help so that people in crisis are met with compassion, rather than violence … We are fighting to transform our approach to public safety — one where we divest from policing and reinvest in the things that make our communities truly safe: affordable housing, health care, education and good-paying jobs.”

Until then, McSpadden-Head holds on to the memory of her son.

Michael Orlandus Darrion Brown was the eldest of his surviving siblings, and McSpadden-Head said he “adored” his brother and three sisters. On their last family vacation in 2013, they went fishing — “It’s a family ritual,” she said, her voice unsteady as she recounted her fondest memory of her son.

She doesn’t know how Brown would’ve wanted to celebrate this milestone, she said, because her son was killed by Wilson just as he was about to start his life as a young man. “My son never even had a job, he didn’t even have his driver’s license,” McSpadden-Head said in a telephone interview the day after Normandy’s tribute for her son. The event was attended by women from McSpadden-Head’s foundation Rainbow of Mothers, an annual gathering focused on mental health and well-being of mothers whose children have died as a result of police violence, gun violence or other forms of premature death. Samaria Rice, whose son Tamir Rice was shot in 2014 as he played with a toy gun in a park in Cleveland, and Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant, who was killed in 2009 by a transit police officer in Oakland, Calif., showed up in Ferguson to support their sister-friend McSpadden-Head.

“I need to see equality; I need to see the officers who have chosen to be in the profession, who have chosen to wear the badge and have chosen to serve and protect be held accountable,” McSpadden-Head said. “We weren’t given a choice. I didn’t choose for my son to die. I didn’t choose to become a mother of the movement. I didn’t choose to become a civil rights activist.”

“This wouldn’t be my choice if my son was living at 25.”