If They Gunned Me Down


R.L. Nave

To the best of my knowledge, I never met Michael Brown, but I know him well.

On Aug. 9, Brown was shot multiple times by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., a working-class majority-black suburb of St. Louis. The circumstances of his death are as clear as they are important.

What is clear is that Brown went to visit his grandmother in Ferguson and was confronted by police in the Canfield Green Apartments after visiting a nearby QuikTrip gas station and convenience store. He was unarmed and shot from about 35 feet away from a police car.

Disputed is what interaction Brown, who was unarmed, had with police. Eyewitness reports appearing in local and national media indicate that Brown was trying to surrender, arms raised. Police have said there was a struggle that involved Brown attempting to wrestle an officer's service weapon away. In one of the first photos to circulate following the shooting, Brown's body lay uncovered on the steamy sidewalk for hours before it was taken away.

Again, what happened doesn't really matter. No media have reported that Brown harmed anyone that day, so whatever his actual or accused transgression, the people of Ferguson believe—and people around the world agree—that deadly force was unnecessary.

The day after his death, supporters marched peacefully to call for justice. Later that evening was less peaceful. After the rally, people vandalized and looted stores along West Florissant Avenue, a major artery that starts in north St. Louis city and stretches northward into the county. The QuikTrip store, where everything started, burned to the ground.

Despite social-media hysteria and misreporting, no one was badly injured. At the end of both nights of protest—they reignited on Monday night—the only person who was killed was Brown, at the hands of police.

I know Michael Brown because we occupied the same world. Back in the day, when I got haircuts regularly, my barbershop was right across the street. A few doors up from QuikTrip is Northland Chop Suey, one of the best Chinese food joints in the city. Growing up, my mother worked for the police chief of one of the tiny municipalities that dot St. Louis County.

Sometimes during summers I went to work with my mom, and the guys would order Northland for lunch. I got to ride with them in a squad car to go pick up the food. It was always funny to see people stealthily fasten their seat belts when a police car pulled up next to them at a red light.

Just north of the gas station is where my grandmother lives, in a quiet, all-black neighborhood. When I visit, I always make a point to fill up at the QuikTrip because the gas is usually a few pennies cheaper than at the gas stations right off the interstate, and their fountain drinks are cheap in the summer.

At 18 when he died, Michael Brown is the same age as my brother. Also, like my brother, Brown was scheduled to start college this month; the Monday after his death would have been his first day in trade school. Brown graduated from Normandy High School, my high school's longtime rival where I once interviewed for a job and is in the district where my great aunt taught for many years.

I also had my share of casual run-ins with police in that area. During summers in high school and college, my friends and I used to hang out at a park at the other end of West Florissant. It's a popular spot, and trouble sometimes breaks out. In order to gain entry to the park, we submitted to police pat-downs and vehicle searches. Police summoned us at their whim.

Once, a police officer called me over to the patrol where he was sitting with his partner, maybe 100 yards away, to inspect the can of Arizona tea—the same brand Trayvon Martin had gone to the store to buy before he was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer—presumably to make sure I, a minor at the time, wasn't sipping on a tallboy of Bud Light.

At the time, I thought if the cop was curious about the contents of my beverage, he should have approached me instead of making me walk halfway up the street so he didn't have to get up off his ass. But we were happy to forgo a few of our civil liberties to listen to music and look at girls.

Another time, after a fight broke out at a party I attended, a police officer summoned me to his squad car because the color of my shirt matched the color of the shirt of the alleged instigator of the fight.

I wasn't scared at the time, but in light of recent events, it occurs to me that one wrong, sudden move could have been the end of me.

The night of the Ferguson protests, after I called to check on my grandmother, a friend who is white and was also following the news, sent a message on Facebook that said she worried about me because I am a black man in Mississippi and reporter covering things that powerful people would rather I did not write about.

I don't worry about these things. I can't. And it's not because I am fearless, but because, like most black men in this country, I resigned myself long ago to the fact that hate could kill me at any moment.

That hate could come in the form of any number of policemen I've encountered in my life. Or it could come in the form of any white-supremacy-minded person who simply objects to my right to exist. It may, like it does for so many black men, come in the form of another black man who also challenges my right my right to life and for the same reasons white supremacy might.

I have the personal cell phone numbers of Jackson's mayor, chief of police and the local sheriff, and I do not operate under the assumption that any of that means a cop or anyone else can't take my life whenever they feel like it.

That sounds fatalistic, but it's actually pretty liberating.

After all, if a quick trip to the store could mean the end of one's life, what more is there left to fear?

See the JFP's full archive of Ferguson coverage here.


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