On the Death of Michael Brown

It was my birthday this weekend: August 9th, 2014. I got lots of messages and texts and voicemails from friends and acquaintances telling me how much of a difference I make in their lives. People I haven’t spoken to in years reached out to specifically tell me that they are inspired by me, that I have been able to touch their lives from afar, or that something I said or did ten years ago still sticks with them today.

I don’t know how worthy I am of that.

I’m a flawed person. I often “forget” to return phone calls and messages, which usually means that either I don’t know how to respond or simply don’t want to. I get “stuck in traffic” a lot, when I’m actually just running late. I cancel plans sometimes because I’m tired, or because I’d rather sit in bed and read. I check “attending” on Facebook events and then I don’t go. I make New Year’s resolutions like not biting my nails, or exercising more, or finally finishing my novel, and I never meet them. I’m messy – I leave banana peels everywhere, and I never do my dishes. I’m also bossy, and I like my life the way it is – so, I can be inflexible and demanding. Sometimes, I drink too much. I avoid awkward situations in even more awkward ways – for example, I decided I didn’t click with my therapist, so I just stopped returning her phone calls and emails, until I answered an unknown number and it was her and I lied that I had moved to a different city.

I come up with big plans and set big goals about my life and changing the world and joining organizations and volunteering, and then in a few weeks those plans fizzle out and I’m just left doing the same old thing. Or, I’m doing something different and I’m still unhappy and useless. I read a bio I had written for a training last summer, with all of these “projects” I had going on – and none of them lasted more than a few months.

I guess this is all to explain that, when I start thinking about the problems in the world, in this country, all of the people who have died and have been killed, I don’t feel qualified to be at all involved in whatever revolution is needed to start us over.

But then days like August 9th, 2014 happen.

Michael Brown was murdered by police in Ferguson, MO. My mind is racing. Frightened white people in the suburbs close their mall (the mall that became the source of much white strife when public transit made it accessible to other parts of town – “Oh, no, these young black hoodlums are going to destroy us, let’s make a dress code and a curfew for the mall and try to kick all of them out because they don’t belong here”). Police show up in riot gear to peaceful protests. People so full of anger and sadness and given no way to express it turn to destruction. I think of my second mother, and mentor, Antona, and her family, my family – my little brother Josh, a young black man with no more guilt than Michael, my little sisters. My dearest friend from childhood, Dacia, and her partner, Rashid – unfairly arrested, victims of the same police brutality – could it have been them in that street?

Because it couldn’t be me, and that’s the point – it won’t be me. This is why we’re mad.

Does that mean I step back, and let others’ voices be heard? I follow, I listen, I let others more at risk, more affected lead? Does it mean I raise the call, because I am more protected, I am not Michael Brown? I’ve been obsessively reading and re-reading one particular Sharon Olds poem, in which she asks, Which way do we face to talk to the dead? I have no answers; I find myself spinning in aimless circles.

I have so many big ideas that I stifle before they can even take a full breath – like poking my finger through the hole in a bubble wand, soap running down my fingers, before a little kid even gets a chance to blow.

Then I talked to my friend Dacia, who is extremely involved in racial justice work in St. Louis, and she says to me: “Things will be changing for the better. I can feel it.”

I ask her how I can help. I want to create a racial justice training for police officers, and pass a law that implements it nationwide. I want to put hundreds of counselors on the ground in Ferguson, to help community members, families, children, deal with the trauma. I want to sue someone; I want someone to be fired, arrested, imprisoned.

I ask her how I can help, and she says, “Just being you is helping give me strength.”

So, me: I’m flawed. I try to do what I can – sometimes I don’t do enough, and sometimes I do too much. Sometimes I fail; sometimes I don’t even try. Sometimes I make mistakes – sometimes I can admit it, sometimes I can’t. I backtrack. I second guess myself. I listen too much to my critics. I stayed up until 3 in the morning last night writing this. I’m trying to listen to people in St. Louis and follow their lead. I watched this video, I read this article, I signed this petition – I’m sharing them with you, now. I’ve asked my elected officials and local candidates to release statements – and around the time I went to bed last night, one of them did.

Maybe it’s not enough. Maybe what I do will never be enough. But even our most powerful, most inspiring leaders are flawed – examining history tells us this much is true for sure.

On the same day that I was beginning my 25th year of life, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri ended the life of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Which way do we face to talk to the dead? Which way do we face to talk to the living? We face each other; we face ourselves. We are already imperfect – we have nothing to lose.

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