Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mike Brown and the Continued Marketing of Black Fear

Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Mike Brown and the Marketing of Black Fear

Yesterday, the parents and over 600 family members entered the cavernous building of the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church on the west side of St. Louis to do what no family of an 18 year old ever expected to do.  They entered to eulogize and bury their son, their brother, their grandson, their nephew, their cousin, their friend.  The world watched and Leslie McSpadden, Michael Brown, Sr. and their respective spouses had to be yet another long list of parents doing what is the unnatural.  WhY? And When will there be an end?

The past two weeks in my city have included protests met with tear gas, rubber bullets, militarized police, innocent and opportunists.  There have been forums, marches, candlelight vigils, churches raided for Maalox and water, all because a white police officer shot ten rounds, landing six in the giant body of young Michael Brown, all because of his fear of a big black kid walking in the middle of the street.  We watched in horror either on the television screen or in person as the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment Rights of citizens, protestors, and journalists were violated by the many officers of the 91 tiny jurisdictions in St. Louis County who descended on the modern apartheid village of Ferguson. Missouri.

We saw young leaders stand on the streets, clergy stand in the middle, and mothers holding up signs.  The blacks across the region and nation immediately felt a connection to what was happening for regardless of income level, amount of melanin, or zip code, black parents always fear entering the growing sorority of black mothers whose sons have been gunned down by cops or wannabe cops. 

This did not just happen and if one is listening to the youth in Ferguson, it has been a long time coming.  They have been crying out for the “respectable” ones to listen to them, despite their tattoos and their sagging pants.  They have been demanding that we really listen to what has been happening to them in their community.  The over policing and mistreatment by the majority white (50:3) police department, the clueless young white mayor of the 67.7% black town who denies there is a racial problem. The liberal whites who are scared to speak up and the racist whites who protested for the police officer – all without facing down rabid dogs, M16s, or police tanks or officers in riot gear.

The recent murder of 18 year old Michael Brown has spread wide the revolving door of black male fear. 
His police-involved shooting death has pulled the century’s old scab off the wound of racial profiling, fear, and policing in North County, St. Louis. Missouri.  The very-real frustration and pain of this community was captured on cell phone video and transmitted to the entire world.  This community, Ferguson, that the six mile suburb has a black population with police that are not from there.  This area, where Michael Brown died in the streets like an animal, is not where the sprawling grass and quaint homes line Florissant Avenue, this is further into Ferguson, an apartment complex,  that has the myriad of income, background, and lifestyles living together.

Mike-Mike, as he was known to his Normandy High School mates, was visiting his grandmother who lived in Ferguson.  He achieved the inner-city impossible – he graduated from high school.  He graduated in 2014 from the one major school system, 97% black,  that has been taken over by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.  He had his high school diploma and today, he was set to enter another rare fraternity – that of being a college student.  His future was so bright that his death makes no sense to the community, to the burdened young men who live in the community, they had hope in Mike-Mike, he was going to be someone.  The community knew he wasn’t a trouble maker, he wasn’t the likely one to be gunned down by a white, fearful cop. He was well raised and well loved.  The images of his family show that his parents, each remarried, managed to surround him with a community and family of support.  He wasn't a "knucklehead."

The interview with his parents and the anguish of his mother who had worked so hard to help her son escape a pre-determined fate.  “Do you know how hard I had to work to have him make it.  Do you know how many black males from St. Louis graduate high school?  He was going to start college.” I could feel the disappointment, fears, and tears of this mother who had to sacrifice so much.

There were news cameras along with print journalists from around the world.  There were the clergy, some fighting among themselves for a seat at the table to say they had the answer.  There were alderman and NAACP youth leaders emerging with thoughts and answers.  Among all those that came out, none were in advertising and marketing who could really talk about the powerful psychological use of the black male as the fear object that sold homes in exclusive parts of Ferguson, that redlined the poorer blacks population into an overcrowded public housing complex, that has failing schools right alongside award winning schools, that has black males afraid to take jobs one jurisdiction away because they have a warrant for their arrest for not having the money to register their vehicle, how many white industries are making money off the marketing of fear to the many whites who have it ingrained in them to be afraid of a young black male.

The youth, in the words of Mike-Mike’s cousin, Eric Davis, shouted and said, “Enough!” They stood firm and took to the streets, returning even after being tear gassed, wrongly arrested, and shot with rubber bullets.  They policed their own when opportunists tried to engage in more property damage and white young anarchists wanted to hide among the crowd.  They stood strong against the tone-deaf elders who wanted to sit down peacefully while they were saying they have been killed for the past thirty years.  The stood against the militarized, wanna-be GIJoe scared white cops who would kill a child in cold blood and then go into hiding.  They have screamed out and demand that we pay attention.

The marketing of fear has been going on since this country was a country, and sadly, as we saw with Mike Brown, it still sells.  Let’s hope that this time, there will be more thoughtful dialogue, the images emblazoned in our eye through social media, that this time we collectively will not deny the truth and realize that they want the right to life, liberty and the pursuit happiness that is in the document we hold so dear.

We wonder if their blood crying out will be heard.

Friday, August 15, 2014

What Happened and What It Means

Like many in my metropolitian area, we were winding down the last muggy days of summer before the area kids started school in waves.  For many, it was their last weekend of summer before they would put on clothes, backpacks, and stand at bus stops.  For me, it was the last of a string of memorial services for family members who had lived a long fruitful life.  It was just another Saturday.

I had been with family and wanting to be present, had my phone and social media turned off.  It wasn't until the repast after the repast ended that I turned on my phone and was flooded with information about a police involved shooting in Ferguson MO.

From the time I read that at 9pm on Saturday night, the very day that my surrogate daughter celebrated her quarter century mark of life, I couldn't stop thinking about Mike Brown and the senseless murder of this 18 year old black man.

I couldn't sleep and on Sunday, while celebrating the college going-away of another 18 year old, my mind kept going to Mike Brown.  She also lived up in the North County suburbs.

After her celebration, we decided to go to Ferguson for the prayer vigil that was set to be the Canfield Apartments.

Not sure if it was being directionally challenged, confused between W. Florissant Road and New Florissant Road or divine intervention, my children and I ended up in downtown Ferguson for a peaceful prayer protest that was happening across from the fire station.

Streets were blocked off around the vigil I attended and cars had to circle the block for a place to park and participate.

I prayed in the street with others and with the babies. My college bound son took pictures.

We came home after we saw more than one police car zooming up the street and hearing about unrest on West Florissant.  My ten year old was afraid.

Driving back down 270 to Kirkwood, my son and I began counting the St. Louis County police cars we saw zooming north.  It confirmed the earlier reports of over 100 police cars and jurisdictions from as far away as Chesterfield descending upon this mostly black suburb.  The people were caged in and sieged because they demanded answers for this unarmed teen being killed and left in the street for hours, bullets riddled his body and police were putting up a blue wall.

As the week ensued, there were more and more reports of overaggressive,all white police in more military gear than our troops had when they served in Iraq.  The tear gassing and rubber bullets, the unlawful arrests of alderman and gassing of state senators, the arrest of journalists just telling the story, it was exposed for all the world to see the continued devaluation of the black male personhood.

Even the "riots" that flooded the news reels from Sunday and Monday were also questionable as it has been confirmed than an anarchist group from Chicago was among the crowd throwing Molotov coctails at the police and were working through the crowd riling it up, being seen throwing things at the police - the white faces of violence were not reported.

There were calls for the President and Attorney General of the United States, for the Governor who had been quiet and absent for the first couple days.  There were demands for federal intervention as this wound of segregation and overpolicing came to a head.  The prophetic among us even considered that the few (I counted two besides the Quik Trip) businesses that were damaged were a necessary statement in order to bring to Ferguson the attention of the world.  Nothing scares white people more than a crowd of black people.

Prayer vigils ensued, demands for action on those prayers resulted in people bringing food and partnering with the many social service groups that were meeting the needs of the kids.  Not a "they are so poor they need our food" type response but "they experienced a tragedy and when someone dies in a family, people bring over food because that is all we know how to do" gesture.  I was touched to see it as well as the free health care and the medical truck that was there providing mental health services to those traumatized by seeing a teen gunned down and his body left in the street.  Canfield Drive is not that wide, there were children living there, children traumatized.

I participated in social media conversations across the country and engaged in dialogue with friends white and black.  Black people understood immediately the symbolism of what was happening, the message the police was sending with leaving his body to bake in the hot St. Louis sun.  Whites kept thinking in terms of fear and came from a place of their privilege, accepting the media reports,  unchallenged, many had never been to Ferguson or North County.

Then there was action, finally.

Yesterday, Thursday afternoon, shortly after I left what we are all calling Ground Zero, there was a breath.

Perhaps it was after the President gave his statement Thursday morning saying there was no excuse for the gassing of citizens that had just happened Wednesday night.  Perhaps it was when the Governor spoke at a church to hundreds of people.  The police were not on site when I visited Canfield Green Apartments and sat in vigil at the site where Mike Brown died.  Police were not there at the protest outside Quik Trip.

They were up the street at the shopping center at Buzz Westfall.

Something changed around 4pm Thursday afternoon as I was going back south on 270 to help my college returning son get packed.  My black son that is still alive and gets to go back to college, something Mike Brown was looking forward to starting on this past Monday.  Something changed.

Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol was put in charge.

A black man who understood what it was like to be a black male in Missouri

He came on the scene and there were reports and pictures of him hugging protestors, protecting their constitutional right to demand answers.

He marched with them.

He was not covered in GI Joe-wannabe-military gear.

There were no tanks, no gassing, no rubber bullets.


See, if you approach people in respect, peace, and honor, peace is what is returned.  Understanding and more than one "yes ma'am" and "yes sir" as elders spoke to the teens among the crowd.

Now that we are one business week complete from when the world turned upside down in Ferguson, we reflect back at what it all means.

I could not write for an entire week.  My daughter, a white young woman and activist, wrote an article that said what I could not do in the midst of my reflection as a black mother of black males.

I read reports and reports, twitter feeds, Facebook postings, listened to MSNBC, avoided Fox because I didn't want to be any more angry.  I spoke to friends and quelled the concerns of family who contacted us from far away.

Then I began reflecting.

My college-bound son has my entire foyer filled with his luggage, waiting to be loaded up and driven down to his promise at Alabama State University.

Like Mike Brown's mother, I infused my son with values and expectations, hope and promise.  I proudly stood at his high school graduation and breathed a sigh of relief that my last son was finished with this thing that is illusive for so many of our black males just 18 miles away from him.  Like Mike Brown's mother, I am married and raised my son with the involvement of mother, father, and family.

I reflected on his life and like many have said, call for a Mike Brown Law that restricts deadly force by the police, that demands dash cams and badge cams for all police.  That demand federal investigations any time there is a police involved killing of yet another unarmed black male.

We try to make sense of the senseless, the thing we sigh and say "not again." Even as we remember Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin.  Even as we proclaim that all life matters, not just white kids in the suburb where I live, but all life.  That images matter and that black males are not any more dangerous than the white kids walking around town.

It means that the nation has to finally pause and address this situation.

It means that even a Republican condemned what the police did in Ferguson.

It means that the St. Louis region has to answer for the deep racial divide, the racial segregation, the apartheid conditions they created because of white flight, white fear, and white privilege.

It means that black people have to continue to speak up and stand up and vote.  It means being involved and not being resigned to saying nothing will change.

It means so much.

It means that perhaps in a week or two this will fade to the background like all the other news stories.

It means that we can not let it fade.

It means we are all involved, all of us.

It means we have to change.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

That New Pencil Smell

The television commercials have been in full swing, from the cheesy to the comical.

The school buses have been doing their test run and parents across the nation have been doing their version of "Happy" while the kids have been trying to hide under the covers and prolong the inevitable.

Back to school is one of my favorite seasons.

I think it is because of the perpetual learner in me.  There is just something about those newly sharpened pencils, a fresh box of colored pencils, and the crisp ream of new paper that begs for the mind to be unleashed.

My youngest children, both girls, seem to share my enthusiasm for the "Back-to-School" aisle at our local Target.  All the bins of markers, pens, pencils, and notebooks sent these girls gleefully up and down the aisles negotiating their "supply list" with the money their dad gave them for this task.

I tried something different this year, instead of paying for it all at once, with their input, of course, I gave them the money my husband gave me for this "first wave" of shopping.

It was a bit inspiring and comical to watch these almost 7th and 5th grade girls negotiate between wants and needs and deciding to forgo that "really cute pencil case."  I smile as I was able to sneak in a math and economics lesson even as the sales signs were begging for attention.

When I was a girl, those mandatory Prang Intimates (water color paints!), Crayola crayons, and Big Chief Writing Tablets were met with the Scooby Doo metal lunchbox (with matching thermos) and the wooden pencil box.  I remember the year in middle school when I was allowed to buy colored pens and colored paper to go in my "trapper keeper."  It was just so optimistic.

My daughters came home with their purchases, one went $20 under budget and lent her big sister $10 so she could make up for going $30 over budget.  The big sister reminded us that "middle school is more expensive with more classes and more binders needed" than the little sister's "elementary school is so easy" needs.  I sensed a bit of sibling rivalry rising up and hoped a bag of SmartPop white cheddar and an organic raspberry lemonade would quiet down the pending war...it did for a while.

The girls each chose to purchase plain binders that they "blinged up" with words that represented them.  They utilized my scrapbooking supplies (think I need to go shopping now) and old magazines that they cut up.  They plan to DIY their composition notebooks with something called "washi tape" and add some kind of chalking effect so they can write on the outside.  I guess those tween/teen DIY videos my big girl has been watching have really helped them step up their design game.  They have two more weeks of summer vacation to do all this planning.

My dining table is covered in new bins, crayons, and markers waiting for the anticipation of new classes and new experiences.  Nevermind that my girls have been in Mama Tayé's Academy all summer and have read close to 6000 minutes (little sis) and 3000 minutes (big sis).  They each have 3-5 books added to their home library from summer reading prizes and have calculated equations, written essays, and conducted observations.  They are still excited about the official going back-to-school month of August.

The New Pencil Smell equals optimism, possibility, and wonder.  To me, it means adventure and discovery.  I am well past the age of 5th and 7th grades, but I am still in awe of the process of learning new things, meeting new people, and wondering what can expand my education.

It is back-to-school season, what are you excited about?

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Thing About Families

I returned last night from an epic road trip from St. Louis to Detroit.

It was my husband's family reunion.

They have been meeting together for 28 years.

The generations have expanded and grown, new faces, some have transitioned, others have grayed.  They have added branches previously unknown and continue to show the most love, care, and attention to their young people.

I was the inlaw, that put me in a wonderful position to absorb and observe.

For all the many, many years that I have been in this proud black family, it never ceases to amaze me how nurturing the men in the family are to the youth in the family.  It is a sight to see these fathers with their sons and daughters, some married, some widowed or divorced, some never married, all proud fathers.  There are men who have raised their children to adulthood with college graduates as the fruit of their labor.  They have grandchildren and some are raising other men's children.

It was the sight that struck me that the media never captures - these proud, tall, dark men all being fully present with their children.  All of them.

The ones without fathers were seen imparting wisdom to the children in a way that only an uncle can do.

I watched these men respect and honor the women in their lives.  They carried suitcases, brought drinks, held doors, and genuinely cherished the queens.

As I let the sun stream in through my bedroom patio and the day is greeting my children, their children, I had a thought about the power of the family. It is often the simple things that the rest of the country misses in their effort to create a false narrative about black men.  It was in this weekend in Detroit, watching these men that we wrote a different script. This family that has traced it's continuous heritage back to 1820.  This literate family, this connected family.  This family with the proud patriarch and matriarch that made sure their children had clothes, land, and education - even when one of the elders had to go to 11th grade twice because the racism of Jim Crow Mississippi refused to let a black person matriculate.

These black men are not the stereotype on the news media.  Yes, they partied, they danced, they even shared  cocktails with the other men, but they were not the caricature portrayed on the evening news.  They are men.  They are family men.  They are Americans. And This American Family is like a whole lot of Black American families.

And I am proud to be married to one.