Michael Brown’s story is on our minds this week. Michael was about to begin college classes. He died at 18.
Young Adults and College Students across our country are asking big questions about Michael’s death. As with any death, the answers aren’t easy to come by. The best grief work is often done not by finding concrete answers but by sharing stories. The best eulogies help us catch a glimpse of someone’s life.
Though we lived in the same city, unfortunately I didn’t know Michael Brown. I can’t share stories of his life that could make you laugh out loud or thank God for his presence with us. Instead, I am faced with the only story I know of him, the story we are hearing reported of Michael’s encounter with the police on Saturday. So many of the details in that story are unknown, but the story has given rise to a great deal of anger and confusion. And that story is so different than stories from my own youth and my encounters with the police.
When I was in high school three of my good friends were stopped by a police officer. It was late at night on an unlit suburban street outside Denver. Our community had an official curfew for teenagers. More than violating curfew, these three teenage boys had just committed acts of vandalism, they had TP-ed a neighbors house. They were walking in the middle of the street, carrying large duffel bags, and the police rolled up flashing their lights.
My friend Dan Church remembered the night saying, “the only thing I was afraid of was getting in trouble (with my parents.)” The officer did pick up the boys, but they weren’t cuffed. The policeman dropped them off, at home. The parents were indeed miffed, but when they told me the story at school they talked about the night with laughter. When they got to the house, the cop even let them take pictures in front of his police car. One of those teenagers is now a Colorado State Patrol sergeant. My three friends and I were all young men, and we are all white. Michael Brown was a young man, and he was black. I wonder how much race played a role in the difference in our stories.
Last night I went with church friends in to listen to the governor of Missouri, the Ferguson Mayor and police chief, the county prosecutor, and leaders from Black churches in St. Louis at Christ the King, United Church of Christ. The most powerful moments of the rally weren’t listening to the officials. The highlight of the rally came when the pastor invited a father, mother, and son to share stories on the theme “Raising a Black Son in America.”
They all shared stories of interacting with the police, stories that were very different from mine. The mother, Ms. Amy Hunter, spoke about having “the talk” with her 12 year old twin sons. The boys had grown tall and strong, and she felt she had to teach them how to “carry themselves” around other people. She taught them how to stand and dress so they would not seem like “threatening black men.” She spoke of a phone call she received from one of her sons, who had been stopped and questioned by the police. “But mom,” he told her, “I am wearing my Sperry’s and my shirt is tucked in. I didn’t know why he was going to stop me. I was only a short distance from home. I felt like I should run to you.” She told him, “Never run.”
A father shared his dread of a different phone call, a call from the police. He said that every time his son left the house, he feared the police would call. He wasn’t scared of his son’s behavior, he was scared of how others might perceive his son. Throughout the father and mother’s stories, the crowd reacted. We were in church, and there were grunts of agreement and amens. The crowd resonated.
These were not just the stories of one father, one mother, they were the broader story of how young black men feel about the police in our city, in our country. I realized how much my and my white friends’ stories of interaction with police are privileged stories. My friends and I, growing up, were given a different expectation of how we would be treated by the community and law enforcement. We did not share the same concerns and our parents did not have the same worries.
I wondered how the officials heard these stories. I wondered whether they heard the fear behind the anecdotes. Their answers to the congregation’s questions were filled with facts and figures showing how well the police had scored in the previous years on racial profiling surveys and with policing equity groups. But I don’t think the crowd wanted facts and figures proving the officials were on the right track. The congregation wanted their fear and frustration to be heard, acknowledged. I wish we had heard something like:
“We know that we have a crisis on our hands, and it is a crisis of trust. For the rule of law to function, we need trust between the community and officials. We know that trust has been broken, and it has been broken over decades. We can’t talk about the specifics of the Michael Brown case because the investigation is ongoing. But we will do everything in our power to make sure that investigation open and fair. We are sorry about Michael’s death. We are grieved by the lack of trust in our community. We need you all in this congregation, half of whom are clergy. We need the leaders in our community to help us to build trust. We are here to listen to your stories, to learn what we need to do to restore trust.”
I would like to think about Michael with his mother and his friends. I would like to imagine him in his first days of college living into an opportunity for achieving his life’s dreams. I would like to imagine him doing what recent high school graduates do. The story of Michael’s death should unsettle us. The status quo won’t do. We need to write a new story together. Writing that story will take hard work of building relationships of trust between police and the black community. It won’t be easy. But we need to start.
Christians believe that all of our stories are caught up in The Story. We believe in a Gospel of love and redemption that is the final story for all people. We can’t afford to write out any characters. How can we be part of writing a new story for our country, a story that sees the death of Michael Brown as a turning point for hope and trust?