Michael Brown: From Tragic Moment to Triumphant Movement by Toby Thompkins

Like Michael Brown, I have been over 6-feet tall and 300-pounds since I was 18-years-old. I know what it means to be the “Big Black Man” in the wrong place at the wrong time. The tragic death of Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old, 6’4, 300-plus-pound, black male exposed America’s deepest fault line. It has raised questions about many complex social problems such as, police militarization and white anxiety. Michael’s death fractured a commonly held belief that America strives to be a just and fair society that protects all of its citizens, especially its young. Yet it appears our basic bundle of social protections are more secure for mainstream American communities than they are for the most vulnerable among us.  Under this reality even the most passive American community will reach its breaking point.

America’s deepest fault line, the scary notion that the lives and livelihoods of non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-native English speaking, non-Christian, or non-rich Americans simply do not matter is a reality that lives in many marginalized communities across this nation. This fault line is most poignant in the daily interactions between socially powerful authority figures and less powerful young men and boys of color in America. At the center of these social interactions is a dangerous equation that combines implicit bias with the tacit assumption of innocence in our society that is conferred upon Americans because of their occupation, age, gender, race, class and physical appearance.  Together they unjustly ignite social contracts like “Shoot first and ask questions later” and “Stand Your Ground,” which pose a growing threat to all communities.

In black America mothers and fathers of men and boys in communities like Ferguson experience fear and anxiety about how their boys will be treated by their community’s authority figures. Can we assume that people who hold positions of social power and authority over America’s youth of color are more skilled at and committed to identifying, challenging and disengaging their social power and implicit bias when engaging with marginalized youth? If not, then America has a problem that we must work together to solve.

On the night of my high school prom, my father came home enraged because a local white business owner from our hometown confronted him and said “Your son has been stealing from my store and if he comes in here again I am going to have him sent to jail!” My father summoned me, ordered me to get into his car and drove me to the business owner’s store.  Upon seeing me the white male owner said, “Oh… I confused him with another negro boy.” Enraged, my father stormed out of the store and strictly forbid me from ever going into that store. Oddly enough, I had never visited the store prior to that evening. It wasn’t until that night that I got a glimpse into the fear that my father carried everyday for my safe and fair treatment in our society. After all I am his first-born son and only child.

I learned a very important lesson about being black in America that night.  Any person in a position of social authority in the public sphere possesses the power to falsely accuse, judge, and sentence me for a crime that I did not commit, especially if they are licensed to carry a gun. As a man of color, there is very little I can do to defend myself.

My story rings true for many young men and boys of color today, especially the bigger and darker ones like me. My lived experience is more the norm than the exception in communities besieged with the kinds of race and class based structural inequities and anxieties that we are learning are a significant part of the everyday lives of black and white Americans in Ferguson.

While our hearts and minds try to make sense of Michael’s untimely death, let’s not forget that gun related deaths of black and brown youth at the hands of armed police officers is a relatively small percentage of the total gun related deaths that occur against black and brown youth in our society today. However, studies point to a much larger issue of psychic and emotional violence which creates unsafe environments that are fertile ground for fear-based aggression against black and brown men and boys.  It is evident in how they are treated as 4-year-olds in America’s public school systems , how they are profiled by business owners while shopping, and of course, how they are targeted and exploited as part of American media’s misrepresentation and messaging about black and brown women, men, and children in our society. If what happened in Ferguson feels like an exception, can we also acknowledge that it is a normal state of being for many underserved black and brown people in America today? In order to move beyond the reactionary thinking of tragic moments like this we must embrace multiple perspectives and lived experiences. This is an emotional mountain that we must climb together if we want to create real change that moves toward a better future for everyone.

What’s sorely needed in our society is a cross-community, long-view strategy for social transformation. I am talking about a window for transformation that lasts a minimum of two presidential electoral cycles to one generation. To address the social realities that create our greatest race-related challenges we must work across transitions in political power, intergenerational values, and demographic shifts.  Short-term decisions like hiring a black American police chief or forming a community review board to monitor police behaviors in Ferguson, Missouri are low-risk starting points that don’t adequately address the structural and policy changes that must occur at all levels of our government. We can’t stop there if we hope to bring about real and enduring transformation.

Lessons From Laramie

Such was the case with the tragic death of Matthew Shepard, the gay, white, American male who was kidnapped, tortured, and left to die by two straight, young, white American males on October 6, 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming simply because he was gay. Matthew has been elevated to become an American icon and a constant reminder that every American has a responsibility to make sure that crimes against American citizens based on sexual orientation and identity are not just unacceptable, they are un-American. Most importantly, justice was served. Local residents Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, both 21 at the time, were charged with Shepard's murder. To avoid the possibility of receiving the death penalty, Henderson pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping and received two consecutive life terms in prison. McKinney was convicted of felony murder, aggravated robbery and kidnapping. Before the jury was about to decide his sentence, he, too, reached a deal that allowed him to avoid a possible death penalty.

Amidst the trauma and rage that followed that brutal and unjust moment, a “preferred future” was born. A collective consensus and commitment to structural changes in our national ecosystem that would hold American citizens accountable for crimes rooted in hate against LGBT people was conceived. Matthew’s young life sparked the implementation of a long-view strategy for social transformation that lead to the passing of federal hate crimes legislation based on sexual orientation in 2009, 11 years after his untimely death. What will America hold true for Michael Brown?

Linked Graphic: From Tragedy to Triumph

Although the graphic linked above provides just a peek into some of the critical events that drove the social transformation for LGBT hate crimes legislation, many actions were taken by multiple community actors to move America forward. The LGBT civil rights movement has done something even more important.  It has transformed the American ecosystem in such a way that an identity shift is occurring in the lives of straight and LGBT American citizens. Regardless of sexuality, gay people became people too, not so different from the rest of us and thereby entitled to the same protections that we experience. Personal transformation had to happen on both sides of this human equation. How can we ensure that the same thing happens for young men and boys of color in America, regardless of size, age, class, language, or swagger?

Real social change, the kind of change that lasts beyond a lifetime, requires an orchestrated cacophony comprised of:

  1. Political will and leadership
  2. Sustainable movement infrastructure
  3. Cultural narrative realignment
  4. Cross-community engagement
  5. Grassroots activism

We can learn a lot from the 11-year journey to the passing of federal legislation against hate crimes in 2009 as we think about the path forward for the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri and other young men and boys of color. Matthew Shepard’s tragic death became the catalyst for structural, systemic, and policy changes that protect LGBT people of future generations by enabling them to fully participate in a safe, just and equitable society.  As funders and donors we continue to play an important role in creating positive and sustainable change by providing the financial, technical and leadership support to ensure that justice is served when bad things happen to LGBT youth. Now we have the opportunity to do the same for black and brown men and boys.  Will you join us?  Here are some things that we can do:

Everyone Matters

  • Build, fund, develop and appropriately resource a vigilant collective of cross-community, cross-culture, and cross-class actors who will help Ferguson’s forward thinking leaders to identify the political, economic, cultural, environmental and social assets that can be used to create a community in Ferguson where every life and livelihood matters, none more or less than the other.

Fund The Future

  • Adopt and fund the development of a long-term view (two electoral cycles to one generation), rooted in a deep and structural analysis that is owned and supportively messaged by the most impacted members of a community. Conduct a power analysis that makes sure the old and new power structures are committed to and held accountable for leveraging the community’s assets to achieve their preferred future.

Focus on Success Indicators

  • Fund the identification, tracking, monitoring and reporting of success indicators and metrics which demonstrate progress against a long-term plan that is owned by and accountable to the leaders and others members of the most impacted communities. Then provide ongoing performance linked funding based upon the achievement of sustainable goals that are rooted by community consensus and a realistic timeline.

At Tides, our work with communities is rooted in the creation of a shared future where every livelihood matters. Learn more about our new process for transforming communities by downloading a free copy of The New Majority Opportunity: Creating A Future Where Everyone Matters.

Acknowledgements:   Special thanks to my colleagues Kriss Deiglmeier, Amanda Keton, Kim Sarnecki, and Kathryn Snyder for their contributions to this article.

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