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Michael Brown Spent Last Weeks Grappling With Problems and Promise



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Michael Brown Spent Last Weeks Grappling With Problems and Promise


By JOHN ELIGON

AUG. 24, 2014

NYTimes.com

FERGUSON, Mo. — It was 1 a.m. and Michael Brown Jr. called his father, his voice trembling. He had seen something overpowering. In the thick gray clouds that lingered from a passing storm this past June, he made out an angel. And he saw Satan chasing the angel and the angel running into the face of God. Mr. Brown was a prankster, so his father and stepmother chuckled at first.

“No, no, Dad! No!” the elder Mr. Brown remembered his son protesting. “I’m serious.”

And the black teenager from this suburb of St. Louis, who had just graduated from high school, sent his father and stepmother a picture of the sky from his cellphone. “Now I believe,” he told them.



In the weeks afterward, until his shooting death by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, on Aug. 9, they detected a change in him as he spoke seriously about religion and the Bible. He was grappling with life’s mysteries.
Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.

Photo

Brandon Lewis, right, says Michael Brown used his size to avoid confrontations.

At the same time, he regularly flashed a broad smile that endeared those around him. He overcame early struggles in school to graduate on time. He was pointed toward a trade college and a career and, his parents hoped, toward a successful life.

But then came the fatal encounter with Officer Wilson. Shortly after the confrontation in the convenience store, Mr. Brown and a friend were walking down the middle of a nearby street when Officer Wilson told them to get on the sidewalk. The police say Mr. Brown hit the officer and scuffled with him over his weapon, leading to his being shot.

Mr. Brown’s friend said he swung after the officer grabbed his neck and was shot after running away, hitting the ground with his hands raised in surrender. He was hit at least six times, twice in the head. His 6-foot-4 frame lay face down in the middle of the warm pavement for hours, a stream of blood flowing down the street.

Mr. Brown was born in May 1996 in the nearby town of Florissant. He was the first child of teenage parents, Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden. Growing up, he lived under one roof with his parents, paternal grandparents and, later, a younger sister.

As a boy, Michael was a handful. When his parents put up a security gate, he would try to climb it. When they left out pens and pencils, he would use them to write on the wall. He used to tap on the ground, so his parents got him a drum set; his father played the drums. He grew into a reserved young man around people he did not know, but joking and outgoing with those close to him.

After his parents split up, he stayed with his mother though he remained close to all of his family, who lived near one another in north St. Louis County.

In the ninth grade at McCluer High School in Florissant, Mr. Brown was accused of stealing an iPod. His mother said she went to the school, eventually showing a receipt to prove the iPod was his. He left McCluer and went to two other high schools before going to Normandy for most of his final two years.

When his mother moved out of the Normandy District, he moved in with his paternal grandmother so he could remain at that school. But he continued to alternate between his parents and maternal grandmother.



He did not have a criminal record as an adult, and his family said he never got in trouble with the law as a juvenile, either.

Photo

Lesley McSpadden, Mr. Brown’s mother, says she relied on family and friends, including a retired juvenile officer, to help mentor her son.CreditRichard Perry/The New York Times

“You may see him on a picture with some friends that may have been in a gang,” Ms. McSpadden said. “He wasn’t in a gang. He just knew how to adapt to his surroundings. Michael was so cool that he could just get along with anybody.”

Mr. Brown showed a rebellious streak. One time, his mother gave him her A.T.M. card so he could buy shoes, said Mr. Brown’s friend Brandon Lewis. Mr. Brown bought himself a PlayStation console. His mother made him give the system to his brother.

There were times when her son would talk back, Ms. McSpadden said. She relied on family and friends, including a retired juvenile officer, to help mentor her son.

Mr. Brown occasionally hinted at frustration with his family. Last August, he posted a message on Facebook that it was wrong “how yo own family dont wanna see you do good.” And just a week before he was shot dead, he commented that some of his friends treated him better than “my own family.”

Still, some of Mr. Brown’s closest confidants were family members. Mr. Brown’s uncle Bernard Ewing remembers talking to his nephew about how to interact with police officers.

“I let him know like, if the police ever get on you, I don’t care what you doing, give it up,” Mr. Ewing said. “Because if you do one wrong move, they’ll shoot you. They’ll kill you.”

Mr. Lewis said he recalled Mr. Brown getting into one fight. A contemporary they knew from the neighborhood was upset with Mr. Brown because of something Mr. Brown had said to the young man’s girlfriend. So one day the fellow, who was much smaller than Mr. Brown, took a swing at him. Mr. Brown backed up and pushed him back in the face.

“I don’t think Mike ever threw a real punch,” said Mr. Lewis, 19.

The young man’s father confronted Mr. Brown, Mr. Lewis recalled, asking him why he put his hands on his son. Mr. Brown’s father got involved, Mr. Lewis said, and they settled the dispute and went their separate ways. Mr. Brown rarely got into physical confrontations, Mr. Lewis said, because he was so big that nobody really wanted to test him. Mr. Brown tended to use his size to scare away potential trouble, Mr. Lewis said.

“He’ll swell up like, ‘I’m mad,’ and you’ll back off,” he said.


Mr. Brown was not the best student. “His grades were kind of edgy,” Michael Brown Sr. said. “That’s why I said I had to keep my foot on his neck to keep him on track.”

In his senior year, Mr. Brown was a few credits short. He was enrolled in the school’s credit recovery program, which allows students to work at their own pace to try to catch up.

“It seemed like Mike was probably the person that was the most serious in that class about getting out of Normandy, about graduating,” said Terrence Hamilton, the Normandy athletic director.

After graduating in May, Mr. Brown talked to Mr. Lewis about getting a job at the grocery store where Mr. Lewis worked. He also planned to pursue heating and cooling technician courses at a technical college.

He was an avid video game player. His favorite games were Call of Duty Zombies and PlayStation Home, a simulation game in which he created an avatar and a city. He was deft with technology and his hands. Once, when his cousin’s PlayStation broke because a disc was stuck in it, Mr. Brown took it apart, fixed it and reassembled it.

Mr. Brown, who constantly wore his Beats by Dre headphones, also was a big fan of rap music. He knew of Kendrick Lamar before he became famous. His favorite group was Migos. And within the past year, he began producing rap songs with friends.

The content varied. He collaborated on songs that included lyrics such as “My favorite part is when the bodies hit the ground.” But he also derided fathers who “don’t pay child support” and rapped glowingly about his stepmother.

He occasionally smoked marijuana and drank alcohol, according to friends. But for his music he adopted a persona to appeal to hip-hop fans, said his cousin, Bryan Douglas, a music producer who was going to help Mr. Brown pursue his music career.

Mr. Brown was sometimes philosophical, as he showed in his final hours.

“Everything happen for a reason,” he posted to Facebook the night before he was shot. “Just start putting 2 n 2 together. You’ll see it.”



Correction: August 27, 2014 



An article on Monday about the life of Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., misstated the surname of Mr. Brown’s uncle, who recalled talking to his nephew about how to interact with police officers. He is Bernard Ewing, not Ewings.

Michael Brown's Unremarkable Humanity

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

The New York Times has a feature today looking at the brief life of Michael Brown, informing us that he was "no angel." The reasons for this are many. Brown smoked marijuana. He lived in a community that "had rough patches." He wrote rap songs that were "by turns contemplative and vulgar." He shoplifted and pushed a store clerk who tried to stop him. These details certainly paint a portrait of a young man who failed to be angelic. That is because no person is angelic—least of all teenagers—and there is very little in this piece that distinguishes Brown from any other kid his age.

What horrifies a lot of us beholding the spectacle of Ferguson, beholding the spectacle of Sanford, ofJacksonville, is how easily we could see ourselves in these kids. I shudder to think of my reaction, at 17, to some strange dude following me through my own housing development. I shudder to think of my reaction, at 17, to some other strange dude pulling up next to me and telling me to turn down my music.

And if Michael Brown was not angelic, I was practically demonic. I had my first drink when I was 11. I once brawled in the cafeteria after getting hit in the head with a steel trash can. In my junior year I failed five out of seven classes. By the time I graduated from high school, I had been arrested for assaulting a teacher and been kicked out of school (twice.) And yet no one who knew me thought I had the least bit of thug in me. That is because I also read a lot of books, loved my Commodore 64, and ghostwrote love notes for my friends. In other words, I was a human being. A large number of American teenagers live exactly like Michael Brown. Very few of them are shot in the head and left to bake on the pavement.

The "angelic" standard was not one created by the reporter. It was created by a society that cannot face itself, and thus must employ a dubious "morality" to hide its sins. It is reinforced by people who have embraced the notion of "twice as good" while avoiding the circumstances which gave that notion birth. Consider how easily living in a community "with rough patches" becomes part of a list of ostensible sins. Consider how easily "black-on-black crime" becomes not a marker of a shameful legacy of segregation but a moral failing.



We've been through this before. We will almost certainly go through it again.

SundayReview | OPINION



Why Reconstruction Matters

By ERIC FONER MARCH 28, 2015
THE surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, 150 years ago next month, effectively ended the Civil War. Preoccupied with the challenges of our own time, Americans will probably devote little attention to the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, the turbulent era that followed the conflict. This is unfortunate, for if any historical period deserves the label “relevant,” it is Reconstruction.
Issues that agitate American politics today — access to citizenship and voting rights, the relative powers of the national and state governments, the relationship between political and economic democracy, the proper response to terrorism — all of these are Reconstruction questions. But that era has long been misunderstood.
Reconstruction refers to the period, generally dated from 1865 to 1877, during which the nation’s laws and Constitution were rewritten to guarantee the basic rights of the former slaves, and biracial governments came to power throughout the defeated Confederacy. For decades, these years were widely seen as the nadir in the saga of American democracy.
According to this view, Radical Republicans in Congress, bent on punishing defeated Confederates, established corrupt Southern governments presided over by carpetbaggers (unscrupulous Northerners who ventured south to reap the spoils of office), scalawags (Southern whites who supported the new regimes) and freed African-Americans, unfit to exercise democratic rights. The heroes of the story were the self-styled Redeemers, who restored white supremacy to the South.
This portrait, which received scholarly expression in the early-20th- century works of William A. Dunning and his students at Columbia University, was popularized by the 1915 film “Birth of A Nation” and by Claude Bowers’s 1929 best-selling history, “The Tragic Era.” It provided an intellectual foundation for the system of segregation and black disenfranchisement that followed Reconstruction. Any effort to restore the rights of Southern blacks, it implied, would lead to a repeat of the alleged horrors of Reconstruction.
HISTORIANS have long since rejected this lurid account, although it retains a stubborn hold on the popular imagination. Today, scholars believe that if the era was “tragic,” it was not because Reconstruction was attempted but because it failed.
Reconstruction actually began in December 1863, when Abraham Lincoln announced a plan to establish governments in the South loyal to the Union. Lincoln granted amnesty to most Confederates so long as they accepted the abolition of slavery, but said nothing about rights for freed blacks. Rather than a blueprint for the postwar South, this was a war measure, an effort to detach whites from the Confederacy. On Reconstruction, as on other questions, Lincoln’s ideas evolved. At the end of his life, he called for limited black suffrage in the postwar South, singling out the “very intelligent” (prewar free blacks) and “those who serve our cause as soldiers” as most worthy.
Lincoln did not live to preside over Reconstruction. That task fell to his successor, Andrew Johnson. Once lionized as a heroic defender of the Constitution against Radical Republicans, Johnson today is viewed by historians as one of the worst presidents to occupy the White House. He was incorrigibly racist, unwilling to listen to criticism and unable to work with Congress. Johnson set up new Southern governments controlled by ex- Confederates. They quickly enacted the Black Codes, laws that severely limited the freed people’s rights and sought, through vagrancy regulations, to force them back to work on the plantations. But these measures aroused bitter protests among blacks, and convinced Northerners that the white South was trying to restore slavery in all but name.
There followed a momentous political clash, the struggle between Johnson and the Republican majority (not just the Radicals) in Congress. Over Johnson’s veto, Congress enacted one of the most important laws in American history, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, still on the books today. It affirmed the citizenship of everyone born in the United States, regardless of race (except Indians, still considered members of tribal sovereignties). This principle, birthright citizenship, is increasingly rare in today’s world and deeply contested in our own contemporary politics, because it applies to the American-born children of undocumented immigrants.
The act went on to mandate that all citizens enjoy basic civil rights in the same manner “enjoyed by white persons.” Johnson’s veto message denounced the law for what today is called reverse discrimination: “The distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race.” Indeed, in the idea that expanding the rights of nonwhites somehow punishes the white majority, the ghost of Andrew Johnson still haunts our discussions of race.
Soon after, Congress incorporated birthright citizenship and legal equality into the Constitution via the 14th Amendment. In recent decades, the courts have used this amendment to expand the legal rights of numerous groups — most recently, gay men and women. As the Republican editor George William Curtis wrote, the 14th Amendment changed a Constitution “for white men” to one “for mankind.” It also marked a significant change in the federal balance of power, empowering the national government to protect the rights of citizens against violations by the states.
In 1867 Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, again over Johnson’s veto. These set in motion the establishment of new governments in the South, empowered Southern black men to vote and temporarily barred several thousand leading Confederates from the ballot. Soon after, the 15th Amendment extended black male suffrage to the entire nation.
The Reconstruction Acts inaugurated the period of Radical Reconstruction, when a politically mobilized black community, with its white allies, brought the Republican Party to power throughout the South. For the first time, African-Americans voted in large numbers and held public office at every level of government. It was a remarkable, unprecedented effort to build an interracial democracy on the ashes of slavery.
Most offices remained in the hands of white Republicans. But the advent of African-Americans in positions of political power aroused bitter hostility from Reconstruction’s opponents. They spread another myth — that the new officials were propertyless, illiterate and incompetent. As late as 1947, the Southern historian E. Merton Coulter wrote that of the various aspects of Reconstruction, black officeholding was “longest to be remembered, shuddered at, and execrated.”
There was corruption in the postwar South, although given the scandals of New York’s Tweed Ring and President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, black suffrage could hardly be blamed. In fact, the new governments had a solid record of accomplishment. They established the South’s first state-funded public school systems, sought to strengthen the bargaining power of plantation laborers, made taxation more equitable and outlawed racial discrimination in transportation and public accommodations. They offered aid to railroads and other enterprises in the hope of creating a New South whose economic expansion would benefit black and white alike.
Reconstruction also made possible the consolidation of black families, so often divided by sale during slavery, and the establishment of the independent black church as the core institution of the emerging black community. But the failure to respond to the former slaves’ desire for land left most with no choice but to work for their former owners.
It was not economic dependency, however, but widespread violence, coupled with a Northern retreat from the ideal of equality, that doomed Reconstruction. The Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups began a campaign of murder, assault and arson that can only be described as homegrown American terrorism. Meanwhile, as the Northern Republican Party became more conservative, Reconstruction came to be seen as a misguided attempt to uplift the lower classes of society.
One by one, the Reconstruction governments fell. As a result of a bargain after the disputed presidential election of 1876, the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes assumed the Oval Office and disavowed further national efforts to enforce the rights of black citizens, while white Democrats controlled the South.
By the turn of the century, with the acquiescence of the Supreme Court, a comprehensive system of racial, political and economic inequality, summarized in the phrase Jim Crow, had come into being across the South. At the same time, the supposed horrors of Reconstruction were invoked as far away as South Africa and Australia to demonstrate the necessity of excluding nonwhite peoples from political rights. This is why W.E.B. Du Bois, in his great 1935 work “Black Reconstruction in America,” saw the end of Reconstruction as a tragedy for democracy, not just in the United States but around the globe.
While violated with impunity, however, the 14th and 15th Amendments remained on the books. Decades later they would provide the legal basis for the civil rights revolution, sometimes called the Second Reconstruction.
Citizenship, rights, democracy — as long as these remain contested, so will the necessity of an accurate understanding of Reconstruction. More than most historical subjects, how we think about this era truly matters, for it forces us to think about what kind of society we wish America to be.






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