Gasping for Air: Letter from Sarah Edwards to Michael Brown
Aug. 9, 2014
Your death freed me.
I believed in hope; that one not-so-distant morning, we would rise and meet the day, warmed with the knowledge that we had, as a country, overcome.
I believed the swollen tide of racism would recede, that empathy would triumph over quick and cruel judgment.
I believed excuses like “fiscal conservative” would melt away as fully funded public libraries and schools—with music and arts programs—would sprout up.
And not just in Kirkwood, Clayton and Ladue. But in St. Louis City, University City and Ferguson, too.
I don’t believe these things anymore.
Racism rears its head as a burning cross or a lynching in one generation; and voter ID laws and stop-and-frisk in another. Along the way, we score a legislative victory or meet a diversity quota and cheer that the world is changing.
But that change didn’t save you.
It didn’t save the unknown gunned down before your death, and it didn’t save Tamir Rice or Walter Scott or Tony Robinson after your life was stolen away.
When I watched the fires spread across my city the night of your murder, I had hope.
We had seen too many black men die by execution: A judge wielding the all-too-mighty power of lethal injection; a police officer armed with his gun, his power and his fear; and the everyday man who decides your black skin and your loud music and your wardrobe are offenses that carry a sentence of aim, point and shoot.
Before your death, there were racial justice marches. Community policing panel discussions. Get-out-the-vote rallies. Anti-racism campaigns.
In the deaf ears of White America, there was only silence.
Until they saw flames.
I was standing at baggage claim in the Washington, D.C., airport when I received the text from my mother:
It was nearly 11 p.m. on the East Coast and I felt wholly and desperately alone. Other passengers gathered around the dozen or so flat screen TVs in the terminal, all showing the Saints get clobbered by the Ravens in another humiliating loss.
Didn’t they know? Didn’t they care?
Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed you on a hot August afternoon last year, did more than take your life. He used his testimony to take away your humanity, too—and for that, he was rewarded.
He played to the deeply held fears of some people in our city, in our country and most certainly in our institutions, that young black men like you are justifiably people to fear. That you are unnaturally and unforgivingly violent.
Wilson told the grand jury that “it look[ed] like a demon.” You were degraded to a caricature, an “it.” He explained his actions as following a rule familiar in some white circles, a rule even I—a white woman from a St. Louis suburb—learned at a young age: err on the side of fear. Especially in a “bad” neighborhood.
Wilson escaped indictment from the Grand Jury, but your murder didn’t escape St. Louisans. For the second time after your death, the city erupted with chants, fire and tear gas.
Protesters gathered; the National Guard gathered. Us against them.
I was 700 miles away in New Orleans. Facebook friends of mine complained about the rioting, and then complained about the peaceful shutdown of traffic on St. Louis’ main streets and highways: It was inconvenient. Disrespectful. Dangerous.
I read pleading questions about the destruction of a community that was never inclusive of the black community: “Why would they harm their own city?”
What I did not read as often was: “Why is Michael Brown dead?” Few of my friends questioned the circumstances of your death, or asked why your body was left in the street for hours.
Was it a warning?
Some white people did not want to see injustice before Ferguson. Now, we have their attention.
But that isn’t enough.
For every congressional hearing and hashtag campaign that advances the conversation on racial discrimination, there is more applause for a presidential candidate’s hateful, racist language—or worse, another fatal police shooting.
History is a tug-of-war of tensions. It never seems to stop; we never seem to learn.
Over a year after your death, students at Mizzou organized for justice. The media says the murmurs of protest began with Ferguson—a now historic moment—and flooded over after a series of racist incidents on campus fall semester.
The latter part may be true. But we know those protests didn’t begin with Ferguson. They’re older than the university itself—they’re as old as the wrongs, as old as the racism.
Anonymous threats were made against black students on campus. White students in pickup trucks were reported to be zooming through Columbia, shouting racial epithets, terrorizing protesters. The news turned my feed toxic. Turned my blood cold.
The violence of it shocked me back to the first days of unrest after your death. I was so fearful, Michael. I was fearful of what some white people in our town would do in response to the protests.
Rattled out of their comfort, shaken from their pedestal, people are vengeful. And that vengeance has an edge—one so frighteningly sharp, it could kill. It has killed. Can we stop them from killing again?
Behind the smokescreen of white silence is rage. Rage and retaliation.
But I don’t have to tell you that.
Your death freed me, Michael.
Your death freed me from ignorant optimism. I no longer confuse tolerance among tolerant people with hope for all.
Your death freed me from cowardice. I no longer accept false narratives about why more people of color are harassed, hurt or locked up by those in power. It is slavery evolved—nothing less.
Your death freed me from fear. I no longer shy away from my own prejudice or the prejudice of others. I want to confront, own and overcome bias—and its destructions— with effort and honesty.
Michael, you didn’t deserve to die, contrary to the Grand Jury decision and the Department of Justice investigation. I wrote earlier in this letter that I no longer believe we—all of us, humanity—can overcome.