ST. LOUIS — The Rev. Al Sharpton on Monday called for a change in policing after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., saying that Michael Brown Jr. should be remembered for more than just disturbances.
“A movement means we’ve got to be here for the long haul and turn our chance into change, our demonstration into legislation,” Sharpton told mourners who had gathered at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church.
Sharpton was speaking at the funeral service for Brown, who was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. The Monday service drew large crowds to the St. Louis church, including celebrities, politicians, civil-rights activists and relatives of other teenagers who died in similar shootings.
“This afternoon, Lesley and Michael Sr. will have to do something that is out of order,” Sharpton said. “They will have to lay their son to rest. Order says that children bury their parents. It is out of order … for children to be buried by their parents. We should not sit here today and act like we’re watching something that is in order.”
Burial at a St. Louis cemetery followed the services. A crowd gathered at the cemetery — including a few people who put their hands up — as a long line of cars entered the grounds.
At the church, family members spoke of the importance of the community’s voice following Brown’s death, and shared their memories of the teenager, who they say used to tell them he was “going to shake the world.”
“He just wanted so much,” his stepmother Cal Brown said. “He wanted to go to college, he wanted to have a family, he wanted to be a good father.”
Near the church — which can hold a crowd of thousands — a table was set up, covered with T-shirts that were being sold for $10 each before the service. “Hands up, don’t shoot,” one shirt said. “RIP Mike Brown,” said another.
Brown, 18, was shot by Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., a St. Louis suburb that’s about a 10-minute drive from the church. In contrast to the demonstrations that followed his death, the scene Monday was quiet and peaceful, with many in line refusing to utter a word. At the funeral, Sharpton referred to video that appeared to show Brown robbing a store, which was released by police officials when they publicly identified Wilson after several days of unrest.
“How do you think we look when the world can see you can’t come up with a police report but you can find a video?” Sharpton said. “How do you think we look when young people march nonviolently asking for the land of the free and the home of the brave to hear their cry, and you put snipers on the roof, and pointed guns at them? How do we look?”
Sharpton’s speech seemed as much a eulogy as an address to his critics, who have ridiculed Sharpton for his involvement in the Brown case.
On Monday, those in the crowded sanctuary unequivocally praised the remarks, in which the civil rights activist also decried a recent shooting of a 9-year-old in Chicago, insisted that black Americans must “clean up our community,” and renewed calls for peaceful protests. Some were moved some to tears.
“Two words: Al Sharpton,” said Yvette Harris, of Ferguson, who sat near the back of the sanctuary.
“It was beautiful,” added Felicia Hayes, 44, who lives in downtown St. Louis, and works up the street from where Brown was killed.
“My brother got murdered a few years ago, so I understand what this family is going through,” Harris said. “I didn’t know Mike, but I felt it was important to show my support for this family.”
Like Harris, many in attendance didn’t know Brown, or his family. The services served dual roles — a family celebration for those who knew the teenager, and a collective community mourning of young black life lost for others.
“This has galvanized our community, the black community of St. Louis,” said Kevin Boone, 58, who has lived his entire life in St. Louis, and grew up just down the street from where Brown was eulogized. “This service was our effort to find a way forward, together.”
A day earlier, Brown’s father pleaded for calm in the city, saying he wanted a peaceful day for the services.
“We appreciate your love and support,” Michael Brown Sr. told a crowd Sunday. “All I want is peace while my son is laid to rest.”
Brown’s black lacquer coffin with brass handles was closed as mourners filed into the sanctuary, which one church member, Pam Britt of St. Louis, said seats 2,500. Another auditorium a block away could hold an overflow crowd of 2,000.
The number of mourners could not be immediately confirmed, but the main sanctuary, including the balcony, was filled to capacity 30 minutes before the services.
In the rear of the sanctuary, onlookers rose to their feet when they caught sight of civil rights icon Jesse Jackson Sr., celebrity pastor T.D. Jakes, and the father of Trayvon Martin, another black teenager who was killed in a controversial 2012 shooting.
Those seated in the church again rose to their feet when the choir, singing softly to an organ, exploded into a full chorus, their voices vibrating through the pews.
Brown’s shooting and the massive protests it sparked garnered national attention when authorities confronted demonstrators while dressed in military gear and brandishing military-grade weapons. The events shook St. Louis’ African American community, Britt said.
“In this city, whites live in one side of town, the south side, and blacks live on the other,” said Britt, a custodian. “No one wants to talk about it until Mike Brown gets killed and all the racial tension comes out.”
Brown was walking in the middle of Canfield Drive with a friend, Dorian Johnson, on Aug. 9 when Wilson ordered them to a sidewalk. Police say at least one of the two mouthed off to Wilson, who rushed up to them in his cruiser — so close that his door apparently struck Brown when he opened it. An attorney for Johnson has often repeated Johnson’s claim that the officer struggled with Brown, held him by the throat and fired at least one shot as the teenager pulled away.
Johnson’s claim that Brown ran as the officer fired more shots, then turned to surrender with his hands raised before he was hit by several more bullets, contradicts accounts by Ferguson police and unidentified friends of Wilson, who claim Brown rushed toward him.
Johnson’s story was supported, at least partially, by several other witnesses who said they watched the incident in the residential area where it happened. Witnesses said Brown’s body, face down and bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds, was left for hours on Canfield Drive in full view of seething residents who documented the scene with pictures and video. It was there so long that shocked relatives who were not present during the shooting happened upon it and recognized the dead man as a family member.
As media outlets swarmed to St. Louis to record the spectacle on West Florissant Avenue, the protests erupted into violence, with police firing tear gas at young protesters, some of whom picked up the smoking canisters and hurled them back. Some in the crowds smashed into stores and looted them.
At their peak, the demonstrators numbered as many as 2,000, marching in circles on West Florissant and chanting three rallying cries: “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “No justice, no peace,” and “Please don’t shoot me.”