"I'll Never Get Over What Happened to My Son"
About halfway through Monday evening’s panel discussion at the Harvard Kennedy School, Lezley McSpadden announced that she was considering a run for city council in Ferguson, Missouri, where in 2014 her teenage son, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a white police officer. Brown was black and unarmed, and his death ignited street protests that transformed the then-nascent Black Lives Matter cause into a national movement.
“Please talk about what you’re contemplating,” nudged her lawyer, Benjamin Crump, who was sitting beside her.
“What I’m contemplating is running for city council,” she said, as cheers and applause erupted from the audience.
Moments later, her decision seemed surer; the campaign, she said, would be part of her larger advocacy for laws and policies to protect young people like her son from police violence. “We're pushing forward and we're coming through,” McSpadden said. “We have to get behind people that look like us and into elected seats so that they can really do what's right in our community. I'm going to start with me when I run for city council.”
After the applause quieted, Crump placed his hand on her arm. “Wouldn’t that be a legacy?” he said. “Elected to city council and supervising the same police department that killed Michael Brown.”
The JFK Jr. Forum discussion among McSpadden, her lawyers Crump and Jasmine Rand, and filmmaker Jason Pollock followed a screening of Pollock’s documentary Stranger Fruit. Three years in the making, the film is an investigation into Brown’s death that raises new evidence and questions about the bitterly contested facts of the case, addressing the confrontation between Brown and Darren Wilson, the officer who shot him; the physical evidence and testimony that emerged from the shooting; as well as an alleged strong-arm robbery that took place moments before it. The panelists, all of whom took part in the film, hope the project will lead to a reopening of the criminal case related to Brown’s death. (A few months after the shooting, a grand jury chose not to indict Wilson for criminal wrongdoing.) A protégé of filmmaker Michael Moore, Pollock was living in Los Angeles when Brown died. “And I decided to put my stuff in storage and basically move to Ferguson, because I was really, really mad,” he said. And as a white man, “I felt very alone being mad.” Eight months later, he met McSpadden and the two began working on the film together. “I’m hoping that it’ll change the hearts of people,” she said.
Crump, who also represents the families of Trayvon Martin and Stephon Clark, talked about how Brown’s death had “shocked” his conscience. He marveled at the number of “hashtags” that have followed since then, as, one after another, the deaths of other unarmed African Americans in police shootings or police custody made news. “I mean, just think of all the names we’ve come to know,” he said. Clark, killed in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento this March, is the most recent. Meanwhile, Crump pointed to several white murder suspects recently captured alive by police: the school shooter in Parkland, Florida, the mail-bomb suspect in Austin, the Waffle House shooter in Tennessee. “And we certainly can't forget about Dylann Roof, the young white supremacist who went and killed nine of the most innocent people you could ever find, in a church in South Carolina,” he said. “Then the police not only take him alive, but they take him to Burger King to get a burger and fries. Where is the humanity for Michael Brown? For Stephon Clark? For Alton Sterling? For Philando Castile?”
Justice is not blind, Crump argued. “A young black man, unarmed, if he moves a certain way, we don’t get the benefit of the doubt…we get bullets. A young white man who’s already murdered people gets more consideration than a young unarmed black man in America.”
Rand, who also represents Trayvon Martin’s family—the two lawyers often work together—spoke about the limits of “beautiful laws” if they are enforced by “inequitable minds sitting on benches and sitting in jurors’ boxes.” She recalled that officer Wilson referred to Brown in his grand jury testimony “as a ‘demon’ and a ‘hulk,’” she said. “Those terms are subhuman and they are superhuman, but at no point does he refer to Michael Brown as a human being.” In response to an audience member who had commended Pollock for “stepping out of” his whiteness, Rand rejected the idea that such a thing was truly possible. “I have a degree in African American studies, but I will never know what it’s like to live a day in the life of a black woman,” she said. Motioning to Crump, seated beside her, she added, “I will never forget the fact that I’m a white woman until the world forgets the fact that he is a black man.”
Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race, and public policy at the Kennedy School and the Radcliffe Institute, moderated the discussion along with Kennedy School student Ashley Spillane, MC-MPA’18, and he called Brown’s death “one of the most important cases of the twenty-first century.” He argued that the efforts by McSpadden and her lawyers to reopen the criminal case are not as quixotic as they may seem, because they have historical precedent. In 2003, now-retired Law School professor Charles Ogletree filed suit on behalf of five elderly survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot (also called the Tulsa Massacre), in which white mobs attacked what was then the wealthiest black community in the country, killing hundreds and setting fire to the Greenwood African American district. Though he did not win reparations—the statute of limitations had long passed—Ogletree did compel the State of Oklahoma to admit what had happened, Muhammad said. And a 2005 documentary on Emmett Till’s killing led the FBI to reopen the cold case from 1955, which surfaced new evidence and led to the Emmett Till Unsolved Crime Civil Rights Act, passed in 2007. The legislation, reauthorized and expanded in 2016, directs the Department of Justice and the FBI to reopen investigations into racially suspicious deaths that occurred before 1980. “What Jason and Lezley and Ben and Jasmine are doing is real,” Muhammad said. “It has real consequences. But it depends on all of us. It depends on the phone calls we make, the stories we tell about what happened here.”
The evening’s most affecting and human moments belonged to McSpadden, who choked up recalling the day her son was killed, seeing his body in the street, trying for hours to get past the police tape to reach him. “I’ll never get over what happened to my son,” she said. “But every day that God wakes me up and picks me up, and that I can make a difference and help another mother…and share with them this journey—because it’s a long one—I feel a little better inside.”