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A Mother, A Mission and Memories

By J.A. Salaam and Richard B. Muhammad The Final Call @TheFinalCall | Last updated: Aug 14, 2019 - 3:09:22 PM

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Lezley McSpadden hugs her sister during gala dinner in St. Louis. Photos: J.A. Salaam

FERGUSON, Mo.—On the fifth year anniversary of Mike Brown, Jr.’s death, family, friends and supporters were demanding that his case be re-opened. And, there were events and activities here in Ferguson and downtown St. Louis to remember the 18-year-old teen and others who have lost loved ones to gun violence and police shootings. 

Three days of activities from Aug. 9-11 emphasized the importance of unity in the community, gratitude for Mike Brown and recognized the impact of his death on a national and international level. His killing, at the hands of a White police officer, ignited an uprising here along with national demonstrations and continued demands for change. He was unarmed when shot to death.

His mother and father, who both run foundations in his honor, remembered his loss, called for justice, and continue to create programs for children and advocate for other victims of police and other violence.

Lezley McSpadden hosted her annual Michael O.D. Brown We Love Our Sons and Daughters foundation “Rainbow of Mothers Gala,” in St. Louis on Aug. 10. The attendees were mostly women and mothers from different cities who shared a bond of sisterhood throughout the evening. Local presidents of the Urban League and NAACP were present and there was a live music performance. Ms. McSpadden also announced a co-founder of Twitter wants to support her efforts, which include youth programs, advocacy for mental health services and support for mothers who suffer loss. 

Mothers embrace Lezley McSpadden at dinner on fifth anniversary of the killing of her son Mike Brown, Jr.

Awards were presented during the program, which included a keynote address by retired Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson. Mr. Johnson, a Black man, came to Ferguson when the tension between law enforcement and the community was very high.  Angry protestors were not backing down and Mr. Johnson was charged with keeping order. 

“Looking back and these new days give me hope. The pain is still there and I always sense the pain. This five-year anniversary shows us how far we need to go, but it also brings back memories of the lives that were touched and so it’s a journey that we all must travel together,” said Mr. Johnson. He spoke of his own journey and decision to leave policing, saying it was difficult at times to face Ms. McSpadden and other mothers while heading the law enforcement effort during the 2014 uprising and afterward. He had to make a choice of whether to stay or to deal with those impacted by policing. That means I have to speak out to explain law enforcement but I have to be critical when police are wrong, Mr. Johnson said.

Among the evening honorees were St. Louis treasurer TaiShaura Jones, state Senator Jamilah Rasheed, activist Kayla Reed of Action St. Louis, Howard University law professor Justin Hansford, civil rights leader Al Sharpton and Atty. Benjamin Crump, who has represented the Brown family and others in police shooting cases across the country.

Atty. Crump argued change will not come until prosecutors are elected who will hold police officers accountable. In recent years, thousands of people have been killed by police but we only know about a fraction of them, he added. But, Ms. McSpadden has a voice that people need to hear and want to hear, he said, recalling her testimony before a human rights body in Geneva, Switzerland, as riveting. When officers kill Blacks across the country, these families need to speak to someone and Ms. McSpadden is always there, Atty. Crump continued.

“She tells them, you are the voice for your child,” he said. “It is the right thing to stand up for our children. It is the right thing to speak up for our children. It is the right thing to fight for our children.”

Triana Bojorquez, 21, painted this portrait of Mike Brown, Jr., at the top of this shrine that displays photos of slain Ferguson protesters.

(L-R) Ron Johnson, Prof. Justin Hansford, Jamilah Nasheed, Kayla Reed, TaiShaura Jones
Professor Hansford, who was working in St. Louis five years ago and who works with Ms. McSpadden’s foundation, felt honored to receive an award. He is pushing for legislation on the federal level that would set aside money to pay for mental health services for those impacted by police shootings and police violence. It would be modeled after federal legislation which funds support services for 9-11 first responders, Prof. Hansford added. But, he said, such efforts can start with local governments. The idea came from having students put forth ideas of how to respond to this crisis and this was the idea that Ms. McSpadden chose, Prof. Hansford explained.

He described the mother turned advocate as someone special, who others have tried to take advantage of and who has faced criticism for not conforming to someone’s image of what she should be. He described her as kind, committed and fearless.

Atty. Benjamin Crump congratulates Lezley Mc- Spadden during a dinner honoring those who fight for justice. He was one of the honorees.
Travis Washington, a young man about to receive his master’s degree from Southern Illinois University, spoke at the Rainbow of Mothers Gala where he promoted his “Hands Up Act.” Under the proposal, police officers would receive a mandatory 15-year sentence for shooting unarmed people. His proposal is included in a Change.Org petition that has garnered over 400,000 signatures, he said. There is trauma when people are shot and killed and police officers should not be exempt from punishment, he said.

Ms. McSpadden, who was praised for her work and compassion, was emotional at times during the evening. She has testified in favor of police body cameras, stood with other mothers who lost children to police shootings, and was among “Mothers of the Movement” recognized during the Democratic National Convention in 2016. She also ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Ferguson city council. She shared the pain of her son lying uncovered in the sun and officers who wanted her husband to stop displaying a sign saying police had killed his son before covering the body. She refused the deal. She spoke of the need for mental health services for mothers who must often parent other children despite a painful loss. She thanked her husband for his daily support. “He truly loves me,” she said.

At the conclusion of the evening, the mothers from across the country gathered for a group hug and prayed with Mrs. McSpadden, who visited her son’s grave earlier in the day. 

Her emotional younger sister and aunt of Mike Brown, Jr., Brittany, fought back tears as she recalled that horrible day August 9, 2014. She saw her nephew lying in the middle of the street. She was one of the first on the scene but was not allowed to go near his uncovered, bloodstained body. “It feels like 2014 to me. It’s five years later and it does not feel like five years. It feels like yesterday. Everything about that day, I will never forget from the time I woke up that morning until the time I went to bed that night. There’s no change to me, nothing is different. Things are still the same. Until things happen, then nothing changes for me and that’s for us to get justice,” she said.

“I want to see Darren Wilson being tried like he supposed to be with actual witnesses who saw something coming up on the stand saying what they saw. I want the jury to hear the witnesses’ stories and decide if what Darren Wilson did was right or wrong and what he did was wrong!”


People at the opening night of the “As I See You” exhibit. Photos: JA Salaam

Cal Brown, the stepmother of Mike Brown, Jr., created a weekend exhibit titled “As I See You.” It highlighted positive images of “Mike Mike” from a baby until his premature death. Part of the display was called Mike’s room. His high school cap and gown from graduation were displayed along with pieces of papers with his rap lyrics scribbled on them. It included a bag of Skittles candy, his favorite books, tennis shoes, denim vest and a life sized paper mache statue of him sitting in a chair. 

Mike Brown, Sr., helped craft the sculpture of his son. Mr. Brown told The Final Call about his experience posing for the art piece. “I didn’t even know that I was going to participate in that part of the program. Definitely, it took a moment for me to get myself together, just knowing that I had to lie on the ground for them to form this and then for them to start adding layers to make a replica to represent him. It was very emotional. I had to do it. I had to get myself together to do it,” he said. 

The exhibit was housed at the Ferguson Urban League Empowerment Center, located on the site where a Quik-Trip convenience store and gas station once stood. It was torched during unrest in Ferguson. There was a private exhibit showing Aug. 8. The display opened for public viewing on Aug. 9 to help anchor weekend events. 

“My inspiration I have for this is the love I have for Mike Brown, Jr. The media spent a lot of time dehumanizing him. And I just felt like at some point, even if it was five years later, we needed to take the time to show people he was a human being. He was somebody’s son, grandson, nephew, you know, he belonged to somebody,” said Cal Brown.

Twenty-one-year-old Triana Bojorquez was one of the artists who helped with the exhibit. She painted a portrait of Mike Brown Jr. at the top of a shrine that displayed photos of slain Ferguson protestors.

Kayla Moore talks about programs run by Mrs. McSpadden’s foundation to benefit children as part of legacy of Mike Brown Jr.
On the anniversary of his son’s killing, Mike Brown, Sr. held a press conference in front of the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton, Mo., the county seat. He was flanked by several families from across the country whose children were victims of police involved shootings. Mr. Brown called for St. Louis county prosecutor Wesley Bell to re-open the investigation into his son’s death. “My son was murdered in cold blood with no remorse,” he said.

Later that morning, there was a gathering on Canfield Drive near where Mike Brown, Jr., was killed. It included words, poetry, song, a moment of silence, a tribute to frontline protestors and continued demands for justice. Several youth groups, spawned by the killing of Mike Brown, Jr., performed. Doves were released at the end of the remembrance.

Child holds sign during Aug. 9 remembrance of the life and legacy of Mike Brown, Jr.
Blocks away there were community giveaways, health screenings, food, games and a voter registration booth to encourage more political action for change, all organized by Chosen For Change, the foundation headed by Mike Brown, Sr., Julia Davis, community activist and Ferguson protest frontliner, expressed disappointment with the lack of commitment she sees from some activists. “Five years later I see that we have become more commercialized. I see that although we say we want justice, we follow plans that are laid before us. When before we didn’t do that, we did what we knew needed to be done—which was to wreak havoc in these people’s streets so that they can acknowledge us,” she said. “Now we are asking for them to see us as humans. So we’re still fighting for humanity, I think we should be fighting to tear down the system and rebuild it as a separate nation of people. Because that’s the only way that we won’t have this to happen again and have us to do a repeat of what we’ve done for the last five years.”