After he was gunned down, left to bake on the hot cement for hours and then autopsied by the St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s Office, the body of 18-year-old Michael Brown was finally returned to his family Wednesday.
That body was 6 feet, 4 inches tall and weighed 300 pounds. That body, on top of having an imposing stature, happened to be young, black and male, making it something to be feared, to be policed.
What he was doing, where he was going, who he was, all immaterial. He could have been a gang member or a Rhodes Scholar. If you are a black youth in America, innocence or respectability will not protect you. All environments are hostile and crosshairs are trained on you for simply existing.
Protests are still rocking the Missouri suburb of Ferguson as black families and their allies ask questions that the police and society at large don’t seem to have good answers for. They are the same questions that echoed in my mind when I saw the tear-stained face of Lesley McSpadden, Brown’s mother, plead for justice. Her anguished visage blended with those of other grief-stricken mothers: Sabrina Fulton, Lucia McBath, Gwen Carr and Wanda Johnson, a ceaseless streak of violent disregard for black life. It is a fear that is endemic in black parenting when a mother’s deepest desire is to keep their children safe and to protect them from pain.
What happens to black women when they feel they’ve lost the right to see their children become adults? What does that mean for the reproductive freedom of black women if black motherhood is seen as a “fool’s errand” as Stacia Brown so eloquently put it?
So much of the reproductive rights movement centers on abortion, birth control and family planning that it can sometimes erase the spectrum of realities faced by mothers of color. A black man is shot to death by the police or a “vigilante” every 28 hours in the U.S. Sometimes, there isn’t any outrage left, and fatigue sets in as black mothers resign themselves to the fact that their sons and daughters are seen by America as deserving targets for abuse and murder.
Hannah Giorgis over at The Frisky wrote:
Is it not an assault on Black people’s reproductive rights to brutally and systematically deny us the opportunity to raise children who will grow to adulthood, who can experience the world with childlike wonder? Is it not an assault on Black people’s reproductive rights to tell us we give birth to future criminals and not innocent children, to murder one of us every 28 hours and leave a family in mourning? … Any force that systematically and unapologetically turns unconsenting Black wombs into graveyards is a reproductive justice issue.
The police officer who fatally shot Brown has been placed on administrative leave, and he wasn’t named until today. The name of Michael Brown, however, has already been seared into the collective consciousness of black mothers across the country, joining the names of countless slain youth. Mothers who are tired of bringing children into a world that unjustly executes them are mobilizing, holding protests, marches and vigils. Thousands of people rallied in more than 100 communities yesterday, pressing for justice. Peaceful protestors in Missouri were met with tear gas and rubber bullets after they refused to disperse, while condemnation swirled on social media over the heavy-handed force used by a predominantly white police department on a predominantly black community.
With scrutiny coming from everyone from President Obama to Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, the ire only seems to be escalating. One can only hope the national attention given to this tragedy will result in justice for Brown’s family and greater awareness of the sort of police brutality that so easily snuffs out young lives. Mothers of color deserve to live with the knowledge that their children are worthy of being defended and protected. They deserve to know that their children have a right to exist without being terrorized.
Photo of Michael Brown rally taken from the @feministcampus Twitter feed
Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.