The Slatest

Why the Urgent Anger of Michael Brown’s Mother Matters

Someone captured raw, emotional video of Leslie McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, during St. Louis prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s announcement on Monday night that officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for killing her son. Standing outside with a rally of supporters and protesters near the place where her son was shot, McSpadden voiced her anger to the crowd, occasionally pausing in emotional stillness, as the voice of McCulloch’s 20 minute-long statement droned on in the background. “They still don’t care!” she fumed, at one point. Eventually, McSpadden broke down crying, as some rushed to comfort her and others began to move to protest.

The nearly five-minute video, taken by Facebook user Writer’s Block Survival, at first feels voyeuristic and exploitative. The unrelenting persistence of the camera upon a woman grieving desperately for her dead son, along with the mob of photographers and cameramen also trying to capture the moment, is jarring. There’s a disconnect between the intensity of the moment and the apparent ugliness of turning one woman’s pain at the loss of her son into such a spectacle.

But upon closer consideration, this unfiltered visual is incredibly powerful, and in an odd way, refreshing. Throughout much of the coverage of the fallout from Brown’s death in August, the people of Ferguson, Mo.—overwhelmingly black, in direct contrast with their law enforcement—have been warned to “protest peacefully” and voice their anger “constructively,” oftentimes from concern trolls invoking, ironically, the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has aptly made clear, such invocations only serve to ignore how terribly the government treated King himself, without consequence. President Obama has also made these sorts of warnings time and time again, most notably last night in a speech that felt cold and surreally disconnected from what was actually taking place.

But with this video, this moment, we see something that we haven’t been able to see from other families that have suffered similar recent injustices. Trayvon Martin’s family, for example, publically displayed its grief, but never showed this sort of utter anguish and anger at a system that treats the lives of young black men as disposable. Brown’s family has advocated for nonviolent protests as well, to be sure, but they also haven’t felt the need to conceal their personal sadness and anger, either. “Everybody wants me to be calm,” McSpadden cries in the video. “Do they know how them bullets hit my son? What they did to his body as they entered his body?”

This is not the first time his family has expressed such brutally visceral emotions in the public eye. The same day that Brown was killed, a shocked McSpadden told a reporter, “You know how many black men graduate? Not many! Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like, shit, I don’t got nothing to live for anyway.” Even more painfully vivid, a photo of Michael Brown, Sr. crying in anguish at his son’s funeral went viral—echoing an image of Mamie Till mourning beside the casket of her son, Emmett Till.

It’s ironic that Mamie Till was able to openly express anger and defiance when her son was murdered by white supremacists precisely because state-sponsored white supremacy was the defining aspect of American life in much of the country in 1955. But now, in a post-racial society, when instances like the killing of Michael Brown occur, the families of the victims and the people in the communities being repressed are supposed to remain “calm.” They are not allowed to voice their anger, even peacefully, lest they be considered a threat to the rest of America, which is how the first Ferguson protests erupted into a militarized craze on the part of law enforcement.

Perhaps Brown’s death was the tipping point after so many years of déjà vu, and that’s why the protests have become a source for the voicing of discontentment the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades. Or perhaps McSpadden and Brown, Sr., who rightfully feel no need to pretend to be “calm and collected” at every public appearance and are unabashed in their raw emotionality, are finally forcing us to face the fact that things won’t change unless voices like theirs finally start to be heard.