“Face down in the street….in the ghetto…and a momma cried.” Those words from the eerily familiar song made famous by Elvis Presley bring to mind the images of Michael Brown’s body lying for hours in the middle of a narrow slice of asphalt in America’s heartland, an easy seven hour road trip east of Lebanon, Kansas, the geographical center of the contiguous 48 states.
Everyone knows the story of Michael Brown, Darren Wilson and the night their lives intersected. There’s no use now to reflect on how the situation got this bad. Nothing good will come from playing Monday morning quarterback.
The police apologists will continue to show their white bread ignorance of the circumstances in America that led up to this tragedy. They’ll justify the militarization of the police by admitting there may be a few “bad seeds” in law enforcement. They’ll ignore the growing trend of a paramilitary law enforcement by claiming that the term “militarization of law enforcement” is merely semantics. When their vauge attempts to justify police murdering unarmed men fail pathetically, they fall back and say, “Let’s agree to disagree.” The poloice apologists show by their words their ignorance of life as millions of blacks see it every year.
One question that has haunted me is, “Why Michael Brown?” I don’t mean why was he the latest victim of a police force too quick to act and to slow to change policies. I mean why does Michael Brown’s death trigger such an outpouring of anger and unrest?
The answer may be found in another song, “Strange Fruit.”
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Michael Brown’s death, while tragic, is sadly typical and ordinary in the confluence of police and blacks. African-Americans deal with the problem constantly. The list of unarmed black men killed by police in the past ten years is chilling.
Timothy Stansbury, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Aaron Campbell, Alonzo Ashley, Wendell Allen, Jonathan Ferrell, Eric Garner. From 2006 until 2012 a white police officer shot and killed a black person at least twice a week — every week. That means the killing of an unarmed black male by a white police officer is business-as-usual. So if it’s open season on unarmed black males, why is Michael Brown’s death standing out.
The image that sticks out in many people’s minds is the depiction of Michael Brown’s body lying in the street for over four hours. The people in the community not only saw the shooting, they were subsequently forced to look at Michael Brown’s bullet-torn body, bloodied and rotting in the sun on a narrow strip of asphalt just outside of St Louis.
It’s no different than Henry Simmons’ body being hung from a tree in Palm Beach, Florida in 1923. William Turner was hung, then cut down before being hung again. Turner was then cut down once more and his body burned in a bonfire in Helena, Arkansas in 1921. People in Camilla, Georgia, remember Jim Roland who was shot and killed by a mob after he refused to dance for a white man in 1921.
These men were lynched. They were killed and displayed for the amusement of the lynch mobs and white folks. They were displayed as trophies so that other blacks would “remember their place.”
While the Ferguson police didn’t hang Michael Brown, they did make a public display of his killing. His body was left, uncovered, in the middle of the street. The police’s decision will wear on a community’s psyche.
It brings to mind the words once huskily sung by Billie Holiday:
“Southern trees bear strange fruit/ blood on the leaves and blood at the root…/ here is a fruit for the crows to pluck/ for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck.”
For Michael Brown and his neighbors in Ferguson, the poplar trees were replaced with that piece of asphalt. It is an injustice that Michael Brown was killed. Injustice, by itself, doesn’t rally people to action. Michael Brown’s body lying in the street is the closest this generation has come to seeing, up close and personal, the strange fruit sung about by Billie Holiday.
That’s an image that won’t go away no matter how hard you close your eyes or try to excuse, and justify, the police.
Jerry Nelson is an internationally known freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer from America. On assignment now, Jerry is always interested in discussing future work assignments that combine his dual passions: social justice and photography. Contact Jerry today.