Thursday, April 6, 2017
Michael Brown's mother
“They think this is a fucking joke,” she cries. Her voice is filled with emotion.
Someone in the crowd yells as if to explain, “They killed her baby, man.”
“I can’t get nobody back,” McSpadden says.
She shakes her head in grief.
A man in the crowd yells: “We love you Miss Lesley.” His expression of sympathy is followed by a chorus of “We love you, Miss Lesley. We love you, Miss Lesley. We love you, Miss Lesley.”
She doesn’t appear to hear the chorus beneath her gathered outside in Ferguson—all looking for answers. She didn’t ask for this. Nothing in her life prepared her for this moment. She is a mother of a movement, a woman who only months before worked anonymously at a deli, lived an ordinary life, taking care of her children and trying to get her oldest son through high school.
And now, she is on top of a car in a white hat with #JFMB etched on it, addressing a crowd on a cold night in Ferguson. With her word, she can calm them, with her words she can excite them. But it does not seem she is thinking about this power. Right now, she is a mother screaming in agony.
“You know they wrong,” she yells. “Anybody out here who don’t think so, I don’t give a fuck. They are wrong. Everybody want me to be calm. Do you know how them bullets hit my son? What they did to his body? Nobody had to live what I lived through and ya’ll have to come with the fucked up comments.”
The scene could have been ripped directly from the pages of a tragedy: a flawed protagonist shown in a moment of distress, confronting her antagonist about an untimely death. Below her is a chorus in the crowd echoing her plea. “They wrong. They wrong. They wrong,” the crowd repeats her words.
McSpadden continues her soliloquy, as though she is standing alone.
“Why? Oh, why?” McSpadden screams. “They still don’t’ care. They ain’t never gonna care.”
She wrestles with the why, some kind of explanation, as if the killing was somehow her fault.
"I’ve been here my whole life I ain’t never had to go through nothing like this,” she says. “I don’t do nothing to nobody.”
She holds her head with both hands. She sobs. She rocks. Her husband, Louis Head, embraces her.
Then he turns to the crowd and yells and unleashes his own anger: “Burn this bitch down! Burn this bitch down! Burn this bitch down!”
Thousands of people have watched McSpadden’s most intimate moments of grief captured on video, shared on YouTube and Facebook—images of a mother’s pain unadulterated and unfiltered, disturbing, pricking the conscience of viewers, compounding empathy for this mother whose grief is unedited, on full display, unveiled not behind closed doors but in the middle of a public street for everyone to see.
Last week, after St. Louis prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced in a late night press conference, explaining without emotion the decision of a grand jury, McSpadden watched in a public square in Ferguson.
Her grief seemed to have come full circle from the rawness of the screams captured Aug. 9 when she found out her son was killed, to her calm calls for justice in Washington and Geneva, to her calls for peaceful protest the day before the announcement and again to full out raw emotion.
Since her son was shot, she has been riding an “emotional roller coaster,” said the family’s attorney Benjamin Crump, who said the killing of Michael Brown has drained the family during the three months of grief.
“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 emotional toll on both of them,” Crump said. “It’s really bad.”
The public first sees McSpadden Aug. 9, the moment she shows up at the police scene, as her son’s body still lies in the middle of Canfield Drive in Ferguson.
Crowds gathered behind yellow police tape watch as McSpadden pleads with officers to attend her son’s body, which still lay uncovered for four hours behind yellow police tape. We watch her helpless. She can’t get to Michael Brown Jr. She is powerless. She cannot change what has happened. She is experiencing every black mother’s worst nightmare—her black son killed by a white police officer after walking down the street unarmed.
She spins. She grabs her head and she wails, unleashing a piercing scream: “Why? Why? Why did you have to shoot my son?”
The emotion again is raw. McSpadden, wearing red with her hair pulled back, cries into television cameras: “You took my son away from me. 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.' "
Over the next months, as the grand jury deliberated, McSpadden would appear again in public, composed. Speaking few words behind podiums as lights flashed and cameras zoom in on her, waiting for her words, any words.
The time line of her public appearances follows the progression of her journey.
Aug. 9: Three hours after Michael Brown Jr. is killed, McSpadden is captured by cameras sprinkling red rose petals on the yellow line in the street where her son’s body lay. Protests erupt a block away.
On Aug. 10., McSpadden tells a reporter that police never contacted her to identify her sons 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 laying in the streets for hours. Hours.”
On Aug. 11, as Brown Sr. explained to reporter his son "a funny, smart kid who would make you laugh. He had just graduated from high school was on his way to college to take up heating and cooling,"
McSpadden stands next to him weeping.
Her face seems frozen in a pain that lies close to the surface. She is not stoic. She is not a person who hides her grief. She is a woman of few words.
When asked to say how she felt, she chokes back words. “I want justice for my son. I know who I raised. I know.”
Two days, later she appears at a rally at a church. A tear rolls down her face as she explained that no one from the police department had called her to explain what happened. She asked how anyone could be afraid of her son.
On the day before the funeral, McSpadden met with the Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvone Martin, who was killed in Florida, and Valerie Bell, the other of Sean Bell, who was killed by plan clothes police officers in New York in Nov. 25, 2006, the morning before his wedding. They told her to keep her head up.
“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 with bare feet sitting on the front row, doubled over in grief.
As days turned into weeks, she seemed to find more words to express her grief.
In October in Washington, McSpaden explained she felt as if their 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 in an interview with Washington Post reporters and editors. “There was one person out there with a gun. That is the person we should be focusing on.”