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date: 12 August 2020

Brown, Michael Jr. free

(20 May 1996–9 Aug. 2014),
  • Caryn E. Neumann

A version of this article originally appeared in African American National Biography.

a black teenager whose death at the hands of a white police officer sparked weeks of rioting in the St. Louis, Missouri suburb of Ferguson. The son of Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., Brown came from a poor background. He sold candy in middle school to make money. Brown attended the predominantly black Normandy High School in Wellston, St. Louis County in the large and poverty-stricken Normandy School District. In his freshman year he joined Junior ROTC. In his sophomore year, Brown played football along with some of his friends. For his junior year, Brown attended McCluer High School in the neighboring Ferguson-Florissant district before returning to Normandy. By the time that he finished high school, Brown stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed 292 pounds. Described by teachers as a “gentle giant,” Brown had no reputation for causing trouble. A quiet boy with a sharp sense of humor, he loved music and had begun to rap under the name of “Big Mike.” Like many of the other Normandy students, Brown needed some assistance to graduate. He spent time in a credit recovery program so that he could graduate on time. Brown successfully completed the program and received his degree on 22 May 2014 along with 114 classmates. He told a friend that he would get an education so that he would not wind up on the streets.

Two days after he died, Brown would have begun classes at the St. Louis branch of Vatterott Educational Center, a nationwide career training institute. He sought to become a heating and cooling engineer. Brown planned to own his own business to improve the quality of his life.

On a Saturday afternoon about noon, Brown died after a Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, shot him multiple times outside an apartment complex. The circumstances of his death are in dispute. Wilson drove up to Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, ordering them to move from the street to the sidewalk. Wilson drove his Chevrolet Tahoe forward then stopped, reversed, and halted near the two men. Johnson later reported that when Wilson opened the door of the SUV, it bounced off the bodies of the men, and closed back on the officer. Johnson stated that Wilson then grabbed Brown around the neck through the SUV's window. Brown tried to pull away from the officer rather than attack him. Wilson drew his weapon and threatened to shoot. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar stated that Brown tried to take the officer's gun during a struggle through the window of the SUV. The gun went off twice inside the police cruiser during the struggle, wounding Brown in the arm. Brown and Johnson fled with Johnson hiding behind a car. Wilson exited his vehicle, pursued Brown, fired multiple times, and struck Brown six times. Some observers reported that Brown had held up his hands, saying, “Don’t shoot me,” though what actually did happen is far from clear. Brown's pose and his words subsequently featured in many of the protests of his shooting. Brown died at the scene, with the entire encounter lasting three minutes from the time Wilson encountered Brown to his death. Brown was unarmed.

Friends of the Brown declared that the alleged behavior did not seem characteristic of him. Witness accounts have been conflicting. A few days after the shooting, the Ferguson police released a video of a convenience store robbery that showed Brown taking cigars and shoving a store employee who tried to block his exit. The timing of the video did little to quiet protests, as Brown's family and friends saw it as an attempt to discredit the deceased. Officer Wilson did not know of Brown's involvement in the robbery when he stopped the young man. Three autopsies of Brown have shown that he was shot six times, twice in the head with no shots to the back.

The protests that followed the Brown shooting reflected racial tensions in Ferguson, a predominantly black city policed by a predominantly white force, as well as frustration over the racial profiling of black men by police across the country. The heavily militarized police response to the first days of protests as well as the arrests of peaceful protesters and journalists garnered extremely unfavorable public attention. Brown became symbolic of the persistent poor treatment of black men by police. A St. Louis County grand jury cleared Wilson in November 2014. Wilson subsequently issued a statement stating that he had responded to Brown in accordance with his police training. He then resigned from the Ferguson police force. Meanwhile the grand jury decision led to protests throughout the nation, partly in response to the Brown case and partly out of frustration with a series of encounters between police and African Americans that led to the deaths of Trayvon Martin , Eric Garner , and other civilians. These killings—and the resulting frustration among African Americans—also played an important role in the emergence in 2013–2015 of the Black Lives Matters protests on social media, which have subsequently developed into the largest grass-roots human rights campaign in the United States since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

In March 2015 an investigation of the Brown case by the U.S. Department of Justice agreed with the 2014 St. Louis grand jury that “the facts do not support the filing of criminal charges against Officer Darren Wilson” (Eckholm and Apuzzo). Attorney General Eric Holder urged people who might feel otherwise to read the DOJ report in full. That report stated that while many witnesses disagreed on Michael Brown's precise movements, all agreed that he was moving toward Wilson when the police officer fired. The report also stated that claims that Brown had raised his arms in surrender were “not credible” and that there was “no evidence upon which prosecutors can rely to disprove Wilson's stated subjective belief that he feared for his safety” (Eckholm and Apuzzo). A separate DOJ report on the same date, however, demanded that the Ferguson, Missouri authorities overhaul its criminal justice system and policing procedures in light of the Brown case and clear evidence of past and continuing constitutional abuses of African American suspects’ civil rights by the Ferguson police. The New York Times noted that

in one example after another, the report described a city that used its police and courts as moneymaking ventures, a place where officers stopped and handcuffed people without probable cause, hurled racial slurs, used stun guns without provocation, and treated anyone as suspicious merely for questioning police tactics

(Apuzzo and Eligon).

In releasing the report Attorney General Holder stated that, “seen in this context—amid a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by illegal and misguided practices—it is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident [the killing of Michael Brown] set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg” (Apuzzo and Eligon).

Bibliography

  • Apuzzo, Matt, and John Eligon. “Ferguson Police Tainted by Bias, Justice Department Says.” New York Times, 4 Mar. 2015.
  • Balko, Radley. Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces (2013).
  • Birzer, Michael L. Racial Profiling: They Stopped Me Because I’m --------- (2012).
  • Eckholm, Erik, and Matt Apuzzo, “Darren Wilson Is Cleared of Rights Violations in Ferguson Shooting.” New York Times, 4 Mar. 2015.
  • Giegerich, Steve. “No Severance for Darren Wilson, Ferguson Mayor Says.” St. Louis Post Dispatch, 30 Nov. 2014, n.p.
  • Jonsson, Patrik. “Darren Wilson Testimony Raises Fresh Questions About Racial Perceptions.” Christian Science Monitor, 25 Nov. 2014, n.p.
  • “Major Characters and Timeline in the Michael Brown Case.” St Louis Post Dispatch, 25 Nov. 2014, A5.
  • Pistor, Nicholas J. C. “Officer Darren Wilson: All I Wanted To Do Is Live.” St. Louis Post Dispatch, 25 Nov. 2014, n.p.