October 20th 2018
“Y’all wanna go to Ferguson?” says Ngosa’s longtime friend, Dre. He has a deep voice and a lovely drawl that my ear takes a moment to adjust to.
“My cousin wants to go” explains Ngosa.
My dude genuinely doesn’t understand. “So your cousin…” Dre clarifies, “came to visit all the way from Canada, and she wants to go to Ferguson? There ain’t nothing to see there!”
I get on the phone and introduce myself to Dre. He is not at all shy about expressing his utter disbelief. “You’re better off sitting at the airport watching the planes take off” he says. “It’ll be way more interesting than going to Ferguson.”
Then he asks, “ What, you wanna go to the spot where Mike Brown died at?”
I say, “That’s exactly where I wanna go.”
Dre is incredibly confused. But he’s loyal. When we arrive in St. Louis County, and meet up with him, his partner, Jalisha and Ngosa’s friend, Irv, it’s Dre who offers to drive us to the memorial. He says we’ll check out where the action was. Before long, we exit off of the highway and find ourselves driving down quiet streets. A cream sign reads, “Ferguson”.
Upon first impression, Ferguson is...cute. It has a population of only 21,000 people. Two thirds of this population is Black. Irv told us several times. “It’s not that bad…it’s just that one thing that happened but other than that it’s pretty boring”. He might be right. It seems like a quiet city. And it’s very green. I take in lush lawns, and mature trees. I see houses that look older, but well loved. I stare at a school zone sign, and maybe for the first time contemplate the fact that children live in Ferguson. Of course children live here, I think. It’s a city….but then I think of the images I’ve seen of Ferguson: the protests, the military tanks, the burning buildings, and I’m horrified. How did parents and teachers explain that? Are the children as divided about whether or not Michael deserved to die as their parents are? Do all the children of this school even know of Michael Brown? Is that a stupid question? I learn that Missouri is a constitutional carry state, which means that you don’t require a permit to carry a firearm, so a lot of people here have guns. On them. Like all the time. I’m shook, but Ngosa explains that this is normal. I think of children and guns together, and all the things that could mean.
I shake my head in hopes that these thoughts might tumble out of my ears and leave me in peace. I stare out the window. I can’t believe I’m here and I can’t believe how ordinary the city appears.
Jalisha used to live in Ferguson. She has an abundance of information about Michael Brown’s murder, both the circumstances leading up to it, and the chaos that followed. The demonstrations I experienced through news reports and social media while I sat in my home in Calgary? She was actually there.
We drive to the police station and park across the street. I step outside the car to take this photo. Ngosa asks if I’d like to get closer, but I feel the grossest energy just looking at this building. It feels like my skin is hot and my chest is crawling.
When I saw this exact police station on TV, there were tons of people standing in front of it. Demonstrations. Tension. Google “Ferguson Police Station Protest” and you will a very different image of this exact building. Now, the streets are strangely empty. It’s a Saturday afternoon at exactly 4:30. Apart from the occasional car driving past, it seems deserted. I don’t need to get closer.
We drive through the city. Jalisha shows me the Ferguson Market convenience store that the police claimed Michael had robbed before he was shot by the Officer Darren Wilson (even though, police later said Wilson stopped Michael and his friend Dorian Wilson because they were jaywalking). She tells me about attending peaceful protests, and how protests escalated. She explains to me which streets she saw the tanks on. I hear about how police officers wouldn’t let people walk on the street, saying that they had to walk on the sidewalk. Then we drive on the street where the military tanks were!!! She, Dre and Irv all point out buildings that were destroyed and burned down during the protests. There’s no sign of that now, as things have been rebuilt. The infamous QuikTrip that was looted and burned is now a Salvation Army, apparently in honour of Michael Brown. If it’s in honour of him why isn’t his name on it? Anyway.
We are soon at the memorial for Mike on Canfield Drive. “Memorial?” “Crime scene?” What’s the right word? This is the street where he was shot six times, including twice in the head. Here is where he lay bleeding and lifeless for four hours - on display for his mother, grandmother, and neighbors, and friends, and the children of the neighborhood to see. The more I think through the details that followed his death, the more inclined I am to use the word “lynching”.
I thought that when I came to where Michael died, I would feel a similar energy to that of the police station, but I’m surprised at a sense of peace. This moment is quiet. I don’t see a single person on the street. I look at the empty, green space behind me. Michael was shot in the middle of the street. After his body was moved, residents of the neighborhood lay roses, candles, teddy bears on top of the blood stained asphalt. That memorial was run over by a car. When another was created on the sidewalk, it was burned to ashes in the early morning.
But people just made another one. I guess there is actually a lot of love on this piece of earth, because even though it is the place where he took his last breaths, it is also the place where his community refused to let him and his story be erased. I must be connecting with that energy - that of the candles and the flowers and the teddy bears as symbols that this young man was cared for, and that he matters. It’s the energy of the people who planted a tree in his memorial, and then replanted another one after the first tree was cut down. It’s the energy of those who still visit and decorate the plaque, while the internet has an abundance of photoshopped pictures of the plaque to have wording that I won’t repeat. It’s the spirit of a community that has the audacity to fight for and love a lost son in a country that is incredibly hostile to those of African descent. It is resilience. And at the root of this resilience? Love. Okay.
I say a short prayer for Mike. I thank him for letting me come to this place.
After we leave the memorial, Jalisha points out Michael’s mom’s workplace at the time. She tells us that when his mom heard that he had been killed, she immediately started running towards the Canfield Green apartments where her son was killed. It’s not close. Apparently a friend picked her up part way and gave her a ride.
I learned a lot that day, and throughout it all, I was composed. But reliving the image of a mom running down a main road to get to her baby...? It fucks with me. We end the day at a restaurant. While Ngosa, Irv and Dre make fun of each other, Jalisha and I connect one on one. I thank her for her time and her generosity in showing me around Ferguson and giving me the tea through her perspective. I came here to connect with perspectives like hers, so I am so grateful that she was willing to share with me. We laugh at the guys because of how much they drag each other. She and I smile at these three friends who met in their first year of college. Each of them studied something they are still passionate about. They all graduated and have jobs in their respective fields. “They are Black excellence” Jalisha tells me.
I completely agree.
And by the way, Black excellence for me is not about formal education, although it is excellent that they all prioritized education and succeeded. Black excellence is about living a life with purpose and making things happen for yourself. It’s about finding your own independence and joy. It’s about joy.
Trying to encapsulate what I learned in Ferguson in a single blog post is hard. I learned about a city with unbelievable racial tension, but what I connected with most in the moment was the laughter, love and joy. I don’t say that to take away from the seriousness of Michael’s murder, or to pretend that this not a space with incredible racial tension. Rather, as I reflect and look at the draft of my play, the lesson becomes clear: Yes, I am writing about a Black American experience, and a lot of that collective experience involves immeasurable pain and injustice, insult and deadly injury. But in the spaces where there the pain is so present that it is palpable, I am amazed that there is still an ability to find moments of genuine lightness, to show and share love, and to laugh. This makes me feel that there is hope.
The plaque at Michael Brown’s memorial reads: “I would like the memory of Michael Brown to be a happy one. He left an afterglow of smiles when life was done. He leaves an echo whispering softly down the ways, of happy and loving times and bright and sunny days. He’d like the tears of those who grieve, to dry before the sun of happy memories that he left behind when life was done.”
So, here’s to Michael Brown, to afterglows of smiles, to the ability to create happy memories despite... and to my single day in Ferguson, Missouri.