Lezley McSpadden, author of “Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil,” is chief executive and founder of the Michael O.D. Brown Foundation.
I gave a lot of thought to how I wanted to acknowledge the anniversary of the day a police officer killed my son, Michael Brown. To say it isn’t easy when this time of year rolls around would be an understatement.
But I decided I would write this year because the continuing execution of black and brown young people by law enforcement has not stopped, or even slowed down, since I lost Mike-Mike. And because more of us must continue the drum beat toward criminal-justice reform.
For many young black and brown people, the police too often feel like an occupying force in their neighborhoods instead of a force for good. A new study of young adults from the GenForward Survey at the University of Chicago found that while most white young adults believe you can trust the police “always” or “often” to do what is right, less than a third of young African Americans believe the same. Similarly, nearly half of African Americans ages 18 to 36 say they “always” or “often” go out of their way to avoid contact with the police or other law enforcement, compared with slightly more than a quarter of white young adults.
How is it that five years after Mike-Mike’s death, we still have a generation of young people who still don’t trust the police? What has changed? And what needs to?
I’d argue that nothing has changed. Black men and boys are still not safe walking down the street like Mike-Mike, riding in cars like Philando Castile or even being a good guy with a gun like Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford Jr.
I still strongly believe that law enforcement officials need to be held accountable for their actions. When they cut someone down in the prime of their lives, they need to stand trial, they need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and they need to pay for their crimes.
But I’m not just talking about when officers take someone’s life or use excessive force during arrests. I’m talking about oversight at every level — from tickets they write for jaywalking to cars pulled over on the streets. We need to know more about what those entrusted to protect and serve are doing every time they don their badges.
And most young adults agree: More than 70 percent support policies that put police under the supervision of community accountability boards, that require police to wear body cameras and that facilitate the adoption of community policing strategies.
Beyond policing, most young adults across race support radical criminal-justice reform. As the GenForward survey shows, most believe we should make it more difficult to put people in jail for minor violations such as failing to pay a traffic ticket, a practice the Obama Justice Department highlighted in its review of the Ferguson Police Department. Most support policies eliminating cash bonds, or the fees and fines that people must pay to be released from jail after being charged with a crime. And most support eliminating jail or prison time for nonviolent offenses.
With millennials now constituting the largest generation of adults, we need radical and comprehensive reforms in line with the policies that young people across the country support.
I understand that many of these suggestions are idealistic, even novel, nowadays. Instead, we have a president who isn’t just dog whistling but blatantly perpetuating the stereotypes and structures that keep systemic racism alive and well. We have a country in which white domestic terrorists are taken into custody without incident but, when a black man is accused of trespassing, he is paraded down the street, tied to rope, by horse-mounted police officers.
The president gives us lip service when he tells us that his immigration policies are to protect the nation from immigrants arriving in the United States illegally. I am not deceived; he is really flagging an open season on black and brown men and boys.
For too long, we’ve trusted and waited for those in power to do the right thing — to protect us and police themselves. I expected the police to deescalate. I expected the grand jury to press charges that would stick. But that didn’t happen; the officer who took my son’s life, Darren Wilson, walked away without an indictment on the grounds that Wilson was acting in self-defense.
But even those who believe Wilson’s account cannot deny simple facts: Like so many other young black people killed by police, my son was unarmed. He didn’t have to die.
No longer can I wait for others to act on our behalf. We must face the facts and act accordingly. With more than 40 percent of surveyed young adults saying criminal-justice issues will influence their vote in 2020, now is our time to demand justice for all the black and brown people who have lost their lives to law enforcement.
There’s nothing we can do to bring Mike-Mike back. But we can demand better and different strategies for safety and protection. We can vote to get our policy changes implemented. And we can continue to organize to amplify our voices.
Because it’s 2019 — five years after I lost my son — and our lives still matter.