Editor’s note: This story first posted three years ago:
If you haven’t seen it, there’s a video circulating of Mike Brown’s stepfather, Louis Head standing outside the Ferguson, Mo., police headquarters shouting “Burn this bitch down!” in an unbridled rage, which of course is exactly what those unsympathetic to his family’s ordeal needed to see. NewsOne was one of the outlets that caught his display on camera.
It’s not for us to determine if he’s sorry for his outburst when he heard that the killer of his stepson would not face state charges, and maybe he wishes in retrospect that he had chosen different words at the time. But to me, he said exactly the right thing.
Burn this b*tch down!
“Oh my God! Madison’s being soooo irresponsible.” I can already hear my critics murmuring. “He’s actually advocating violence. He’s saying it was right to torch all those buildings.” But in Head’s words, while others heard a call to lawlessness and chaos, I heard something markedly different. I heard what we all needed to hear.
So let me challenge you: There’s no difference in Head’s profane shouting than the chants of schoolchildren in Soweto 1976, who were simply tired being taught the “language of the oppressor,” to quote Desmond Tutu. Nor is there any difference between that and the strategic plans for a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 based on Rosa Parks refusal to give up her seat, some 59 years ago — which, in my view is one of the most important things Black people ever did in this country.
Ultimately, there’s no difference between saying “burn this bitch down!” and the frustration of a bunch of poor farmers scattered along the East Coast who were sick of the British taxtation and legal system and decided to take up arms against it in 1775, screaming “Give me liberty or give me death.” Stay with me, I’ll come back to this later.
When I heard Head say what he said, I heard a call to burn down a system that betrays equality and justice for all in favor of manipulative politicians and the elite. It’s clear that had the tables been turned and it was Mike Brown who had shot Darren Wilson to death, he’d be on trial with prosecutor Bob McCullough’s office zealously treading the quickest, easiest path to capital punishment — and he’d get it, no matter what a grand jury determined (if there were one). So if that’s justice, then why couldn’t McCullough attempt to get it for Brown’s family as he would have for any other?
In reading the testimony from released documents (and there are lots of them), you’ll find that McCullough really did not have much desire to pursue a case against Wilson. He didn’t even cross examine him. In the days since the grand jury decision, lots of legal analysts and pundits have repeated the barrister aphorism “you can indict a ham sandwich.” But the original meaning of that comes from New York State Chief Judge Sol Wachtler’s belief that a prosecutor could get a grand jury to do whatever he wanted them to do. And if that’s true, then that means McCullough either didn’t believe in or didn’t want the burden of presenting evidence to a trial jury.
And because of his lackluster effort, a family that may have had some faint hope that justice would be delivered to them by the state of Missouri must now forget that option.
While nobody can say whether or not people actually committed arson based on his outcry, torching buildings was not only the wrong response, it was far, far too weak. Although I agree with Martin Luther King that “a riot is the language of the unheard,” language can and always does evolve and can become more articulate.
What’s more, Mike Brown Sr.’s original call for keeping things calm and reacting with our heads, rather than our hearts was concrete. Nothing is going to come from wilding out on places where we shop and where we work.
If we want to burn something, the first thing that needs to be burned are policies enabling prosecutors to find ways out of pursuing charges against police abuses and excessive force. This is not to say that every cop should face trial in every shooting, when they are genuinely justified. But if prosecutors are too cozy with the police department, which many are in order to get convictions in other criminal cases, then special prosecutors should be used in cases such as Wilson’s to ensure that there is no bias against the victim.
But the main thing that needs to be burned overall are laws that we did not draft and simply do not benefit us. It’s no secret that African Americans have been historically subject to laws that benefited the haves and disenfranchised the have-nots, whose category Black folk have disproportionately fallen into over the years. Dating from the 1639 Virginia Slave Codes all the way to laws passed as a result of the “War on Drugs,” it’s clear that none of this was written to protect guys like Mike Brown.
Ironically (and maybe not) that same criminal justice infrastructure disproportionately imprisons Black males like Brown at staggering rates. That’s a subject far too vast for this essay, so I’ll refer you to Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow.”
Earlier, I mentioned the poor farmers whose uprisings morphed into the American Revolution in the latter 18th century. After they drove Great Britain’s King George III back across the pond, they began to craft laws and acts that were designed to benefit them socially and economically. The wealthy planter class, primarily symbolized by Thomas Jefferson and his peers, grew in their resources because they reaped the benefits of creating a system that favored them. Meanwhile, the enslaved, the newly manumitted and the indigenous were lucky if justice ever befell them.
That system, despite all our social advances, is still in place. What Mike Brown’s stepdad essentially called for was not the torching of buildings, but the replacement of inequality in our justice system with law that ensures that everyone will have equal access to a true redress of grievances with government. In the First Amendment, that means being able to petition government without fear of reprisal, but it should also mean being able to seek justice against the state when the state has wronged an individual.
Lastly, if we want to riot, we need to riot at the voting booth. Bob McCullough’s position as St. Louis County prosecutor is an elected position that he has held since 1991. The Democrat has run unopposed several times, but normally wins by wide margins when he does have an opponent. If there is anything the people of Ferguson need to throw a Molotov cocktail at is his tenure in office. Him and any other politician who does not work in favor of the people, but rather the government or the elite.
Voting in an election is like a party: It doesn’t really work if nobody comes. What’s more is on top of voting, people who are engaged in the political process, constantly on top of their representatives in their city councils, state legislatures and Congress can get laws drafted that work for them rather than against them. And policies can be set that force the hand of the legal and criminal justice system. When that happens, then the system changes to something that is truly For Us and By Us.
You don’t get what you want if you don’t act like an election is happy hour at the club – meaning voting consistently whenever you can. But those who would rather you didn’t get justice have no problem with our current political behavior. If you don’t take it to the polls, whether you wear a jacket and a bow tie or gold fronts and sagging pants, then more Mike Browns are virtually guaranteed.
The night the grand jury decision came down, Lesley McSpadden broke down in tears. She screamed in anguish, the way only a mother who lost her child could scream. In that moment, she suffered his death a second time. She says she does not regret being among the crowd of people awaiting the news, and she should not be judged for it.
At the same time I saw her, I saw Mamie Till. Also a grieving mother, she decided that the grotesquely maimed body of her son Emmitt, who was killed by a bunch of racists because of a remark he supposedly made to a white woman, should be openly displayed in his casket because she “wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.”
That incident sparked millions to “burn this bitch down” but with our feet and with our ballots and with our heads. Take your torches to the system and engulf it in flames until you get social, economic and environmental justice for all people regardless of background, ethnicity, gender, age or status.
So if that’s what the angered people in Ferguson meant with their furious shouts then I say: “Burn, Baby Burn.”
Madison J. Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multimedia journalist specializing in urban issues and criminal justice. He writes for NewsOne on the subject of Black males in America. Follow him on Twitter:@madisonjgray
SEE ALSO: NewsOne’s Coverage in #Ferguson