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A Conversation on Ferguson, 4 Years Later

Hosted in the forum of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, “The Movement for Black Lives: Justice for Michael Brown 4 Years Later” set the stage for a discussion about the events of Aug. 9, 2014: the day that Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo. It featured Lezley McSpadden, Brown’s mother; Benjamin Crump, lawyer for the families of Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Stephon Clark; Jason Pollock, director of Stranger Fruit, a documentary exploring the details of the case; and Jasmine Rand, attorney for the families of Brown and Martin.

The panel, held on Monday at 6 p.m., was preceded by a screening of Stranger Fruit—the conversation that followed often turned back to the film that aimed to explore the story that Pollock felt wasn’t receiving enough attention. Moderator Khalil Muhammad, professor of history, race, and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, began the discussion by asking Pollock what inspired him to leave his home of Los Angeles to travel to Ferguson and begin investigating this story. Pollock explained that although the story had sparked major media attention, he felt that the right story wasn’t being covered.

“I didn’t see anyone talking about Michael Brown,” the director said.

When he arrived in Missouri, Pollock worked for four months before meeting with McSpadden—when he did finally establish a time to meet with her, Pollock said that he was slightly nervous to show her his work. Once she saw the trailer, however, McSpadden was sold on his commitment to the project and gave permission for it to progress. They began to work in tandem in June of 2015 and have been for the three years since. As Pollock spoke these words, McSpadden nodded.

“Three long years,” she said. “Thank you, Jason.”

At the time that he was killed, Brown was 18 years old. Since the loss of her son, McSpadden has been working to prevent the loss of life of another young, unarmed black man. McSpadden feels that speaking out about her son’s death is something she is called to do: Wilson, the officer that shot Brown, has never been jailed for the incident.

“The Department of Justice told me that I have to carry the burden,” she said in regard to the failure to prosecute Wilson.

Here, Pollock interjected that McSpadden is no way needs to be here—she doesn’t get much out of speaking about her son’s death to strangers around the country. The pain that she bears serves to educate the audience about the personal repercussions that follow the death of a citizen at the hands of the police. This connection is one that Pollock believes is missing from the social movements of today.

“I think a lot of people see the hashtag, but they don’t realize how much of a human story there is behind this, and how much pain there is,” he said.

Crump furthered this discussion later on, calling on the lack of words in the English language to describe what it means to be a person who has to bury a child. He explained that we have “widow” for someone who has lost a spouse, and “orphan” for those whose parents have died, but there is nothing for a mother who experiences the loss of her son. He said that although a conviction of the person responsible can’t bring back the victim, it might help in the healing process.

“To lose a child is so against the natural order of things, we can’t even name it,” he said. “If we can convict them, maybe there will be less holes in less hearts of black mothers.”

He emphasized that just because something is legal, doesn’t mean it’s right. Crump said that despite the pain being faced right now, he has faith that in the future, police brutality will be something of the past.

“I don’t get discouraged, because we overcame slavery and if we could overcome that, we can overcome police brutality,” Crump explained.

Rand spoke of the way she hopes to achieve this: through her students. She encourages them to take the skills that they have been blessed with and use them to ensure that today’s civil rights issues do not remain when we leave the earth. She said whether that means being a doctor who serves an underprivileged neighborhood or a filmmaker like Pollock telling a story people may not hear otherwise, we can use our gifts for change.

She spoke about the consistency with which officers being investigated for shootings of civilians claim that the victim was reaching for a gun. This was the case with Brown, although Stranger Fruit has looked to disprove Wilson’s accusation that Brown was reaching with his bloodied hand, that had already been shot, into his waistband to withdraw a nonexistent gun.

“Police brutality doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” she said. “It happens because we systemically devalue black life in every aspect of society.”

After the panel, the group fielded questions from the audience about what steps people can take to prevent this from happening again, how students who have never experienced police brutality can talk about it, the semantics surrounding the topics, and an invitation from one audience member to Pollock to shed light on the injustice that some Native Americans face on their reservations.

Throughout the panel, McSpadden was often looked to with admiration. Last year, she earned her high school degree alongside her daughter, Deja Brown. She also authored a book, Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil: The Life, Legacy, and Love of My Son Michael Brown, and announced Monday evening that she is planning to run for Ferguson City Council. Crump noted that, if elected, McSpadden will be supervising the same police department that was responsible for her son’s death.

Featured Image by Colleen Martin / Heights Editor

April 26, 2018