Lesley McSpadden’s face is a landscape of loss as she struggles to be heard about the death of her son Michael Brown Jr. In interviews and news conferences — even testifying in Geneva — she is poised, her words measured as she tries to find her voice.
But her grief is also raw, rumbling just beneath the surface. There are moments of eruption, when suddenly she is before us wailing and cursing the world that has brought her to this place.
We watch it all, this unadulterated portrait of a mother’s grief as she travels an impossible journey. One day she is a wife and mother working at a grocery store deli, pushing her son through school. The next, she is a woman flung into the public square, where we bear witness to her pain as she battles to make her baby’s life mean something more than another tragic statistic.
Watching can be uncomfortable, too — after all, who emotes so publicly in polite society? But how polite is a society in which any black mother at any time could become a Lesley McSpadden? So when she speaks from the well of her sorrow and her anger, it is hard to turn away.
A week ago Monday was such a moment. She and the world learned that then-Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson would not face charges in Brown’s death. Wilson told a grand jury that Brown attacked him, tried to take his gun and, in the final moments of his life, charged Wilson, who was in fear for his survival. Brown, he said, was like a “demon.”
McSpadden screamed in anguish as St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced the grand jury’s decision.
“They think this is a f------ joke,” she cried out as she stood on top of a car in the darkness, overlooking a sea of protesters in Ferguson.
Someone yelled as if to explain, “They killed her baby, man.”
“I can’t get nobody back,” McSpadden said. She shook her head.
“We love you, Miss Lesley. We love you, Miss Lesley. We love you, Miss Lesley,” the crowd chanted. But McSpadden, the mother of their outrage — and possibly an emerging movement — seemed not to hear:
“You know they wrong. . . . Everybody want me to be calm. Do you know how them bullets hit my son? What they did to his body? . . . And y’all have to come with the f----- up comments.”
The scene could have been ripped from the pages of a tragedy: a flawed protagonist confronting her antagonist.
She held her head in her hands and sobbed. Her husband, Louis Head, embraced her, his anger rising, and he turned to the crowd, yelling, “Burn this b---- down!”
She has been riding an “emotional roller coaster,” said the family’s attorney, Benjamin Crump. They are drained, he said of Brown’s relatives.
“To have a kid killed in this manner, and then to have a public fight to get simple justice and never have time to grieve, it is an emotional toll on both of them,” Crump said.
Experts say mothers and fathers often feel the same pain when a child dies, but the public displays of how they cope with that grief can be different. Men often see crying as a sign of weakness and try to maintain an appearance of being strong. Michael Brown Sr. has talked openly about his pain and his hurt. And there is a picture from his son’s funeral in which Brown Sr. sits in a sweat-drenched shirt, his head back, mouth wide open in a harrowing scream.
It is McSpadden’s tears we have come to know, her flashes of anger that jump off our screens.
We first saw her Aug. 9, pleading with police to get to her son’s body, which was in the middle of Canfield Drive. Crowds gathered behind yellow tape looked on.
Finally McSpadden spun around, again her head in her hands as she unleashed a piercing scream: “Why? Why? Why did you have to shoot my son?”
“You took my son away from me,” she cried into the television cameras. “You know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many. Because you bring them down to this type of level, because they feel like they don’t have much to live for anyway. . . . ‘They are going to try to take me out anyway.’ ”
On Monday, Nov. 24, she’d come full circle.
During the months in between, McSpadden wrestled with her words, in churches, on media show couches, on podiums as lights flashed and cameras zoomed in.
The timeline of her public appearances follows the progression of her journey.
Aug. 9: Hours after the shooting, McSpadden was captured by cameras sprinkling red rose petals on the yellow line in the street where her son’s body had lain. Protests erupted a block away.
Aug. 10: McSpadden told a reporter that police never contacted her to identify her son’s body: “The only way I learned about him was from a guy calling me on my phone. I was able to look on his phone and say that is my son lying in the streets for hours. Hours.”
Aug. 11: As Brown Sr. told a reporter that his son was “a funny, smart kid who would make you laugh,” McSpadden wept beside him.
When asked how she felt, she said only: “I want justice for my son. I know who I raised. I know.”
Two days later at a church rally, a tear fell as she said that no one from the police department had called to explain what happened.
On the day before the funeral, McSpadden met with Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, who was killed in Florida, and Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell, who was killed by plainclothes police officers in New York in 2006, the morning before his wedding. Keep your head up, they told her.
“They are speaking to me from experience,” McSpadden told CNN’s Don Lemon. “They are offering me something right now. I can’t tell you what it is, but it is something. Something is better than nothing.”
Fulton turned to McSpadden and told her to focus on happier times. “Don’t focus on his death,” Fulton said. “It will eat away at you.”
Bell told her, “Losing my son is like losing a part of my body, like losing an arm.”
At the funeral, as speakers talked about how Brown’s death had become a rallying cry, McSpadden, dressed in red and pearls, was doubled over in the church pew. Her shoes sat nearby, her feet bare.
As days turned into weeks, she seemed to find more words to express her grief.
In September, during a news conference in Washington — the same day the Ferguson police chief issued an apology — McSpadden mostly held her head down as the Rev. Al Sharpton spoke.
“I’m here in Washington to ask for help in getting justice for my son in Missouri,” McSpadden eventually said.
The next day, while speaking with Washington Post reporters and editors, she said her son’s life had been unfairly scrutinized by the news media and law enforcement even as relatively little remained known about the officer who shot him.
“My son is gone,” she said. “There was one person out there with a gun. That is the person we should be focusing on.”
The critical thing now, she said, was the effort to get a law passed that would require police officers to wear body cameras.
In November, Brown’s parents testified in Geneva before the U.N. committee against torture.
“I hope this opens the eyes of everyone to let them know what goes on in Ferguson,” she said. “We need your help. We don’t have any trust in the local authorities. That is a big reason why we are here in Geneva. We need worldwide support.”
Back home, three days before the indictment announcement, McSpadden returned to Canfield Drive. She appeared subdued as she walked through a crowd of protesters. Someone covered her head with a black umbrella against a light rain. She grasped a speaker attached to a bullhorn and urged protesters to remain calm as they awaited the grand jury decision.
All along she and Michael Brown Sr. had called for a peaceful response to the decision, no matter the outcome.
“I love you all,” she told the crowd. “Don’t agitate the police; don’t let the police agitate you. I don’t want any of you to get hurt.”
She clung to her hope for justice, she said. Her face was not wet with tears.
Then came Monday night, the announcement and her eruption.
In recent days, she has found herself having to explain that her son was not a “demon” but a human being. “It’s insult to injury,” she said. “It is so disrespectful.”
Her journey continues.