Michael Brown: A Life for A Box of Cigars

Outrage In Missouri Town After Police Shooting Of 18-Yr-Old Man

Brown skin, still warm from the Missouri heat
lying, lifeless, on the asphalt
only the swarms of unwanted flies
show any concern for this young boy’s body.

“Get the fuck on the sidewalk”
These all too familiar words
spat thoughtlessly out at the boys
from behind the badge of authority.

Such a fateful moment when one
decided to treat another as less than.
One moment where disobedience
snatched the breath from a young boys lungs.

One shot rang out above the buzz of midday summer
a warning, an assertion
of power, of disgust.
A shot that changed protector into aggressor.

Hands raised in surrender
like he learned to do since boyhood.
screams of “I don’t have a gun”
filled the thick, questioning air.

For his body before it lay, lifeless on
the cracked, burning asphalt
was enough of a weapon, enough of a threat
to warrant suspicion, assumption, death.

For the police officer was not what killed him
this boy lay crushed under years of hate
years of injustice, years of suspicion.
This boy was born with this crushing fate.

Brown skin, still warm from the Missouri heat.
A boy, dead, abandoned, hunted over a box of cigars.
Fifty dollars is the price of this boy’s life.
And for this price this black body was sold to the Missouri asphalt.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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The Cup of Endurance, It Surely Will Spill

“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”  As I read these words that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote decades ago from the Birmingham jail, I couldn’t help but think of their continued relevance today.  Racism, racial inequality, and even institutionalized segregation continue to plague cities throughout America, especially my beloved city of Chicago and yet many times when these issues are brought to the surface, by brown, black, or even white organizers, we are told to stop being controversial or “playing the race card” or, most outrageously, that this country has moved beyond racism and, for some extreme few, even beyond any discussion of race.  Well I think the time has come and “the cup of endurance” is surely and swiftly spilling over in neighborhoods were the hope of getting out of the cycle of poverty has yet to be seen or experienced. 

When you read the headlines of another man of color being shot, killed, arrested, or imprisoned, unfortunately we tend to not even think twice about these instances because this devaluing of black men has become the tragic norm.  The chilling and piercing words of MLK Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail remind me that this norm has a historical foundation that far extends my own lifetime.  My question is, what will it take for this issue to change? Maybe Sharon Welch is right when she writes in her book After Empire that those of us that work for peace and justice are “content to denounce the structures we see causing harm,” but are unable to use “creativity” to imagine a tangible world that functioned any differently. The fact very well may be that even myself who is dating a black man, has a black nephew, and calls myself an activist for racial equality can’t even imagine a real, tangible world outside of the “tout autre,” or ideal, that would include structures that would fully foster racial reconciliation and equality.  While I think that theory could very well be true, since it is easier to critique something while leaving no suggestions for future action, I do not know if that was is holding our country back from racial equality, which has improved only slightly from when King wrote his iconic letter.

What I see as one of the major setbacks in reaching a more racially just society is the apathy, indifference and even discomfort of a growing majority of Americans, even those working within the church and community organizations to have hard discussions of racism of the past and present. King calls the “white moderate… the greatest stumbling block” for the cause of racial justice at that time and I would echo King’s point for the present situation. In fact, it has gotten even worse in some ways because racism is often hidden within institutions and structures as opposed to the obvious segregation.  Therefore, this increased subtly has allowed a growing indifference or even refusal to acknowledge the issue to fester within the American public. For at least those on the extreme ends of this dialogue of race are within the dialogue, but those that fall somewhere in the middle would many times prefer to end the conversation altogether because they prefer, like King states, “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”  For, I believe, it will take living and working within such a tension for real change or advancement to begin happening.

Justice will begin once all parties are engaged in a conversation and understand the impact that such conversations have on themselves and fellow human beings. Just like Alice Walker spoke of in a short video clip of everyone needing to allow one’s identity to be molded by a story different than white privilege or middle class success, like indentured servitude or working class poverty, in order to even begin to understand the history and perspective of people of color in America.  Do not get me wrong, having such conversations will take perseverance and determination. This open dialogue about race and struggle will force people to be honest about bias, privilege and prejudice, which can be extremely uncomfortable and vulnerable, but King preaches that such “injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” For no human should be forced, like many black Americans both today and in the past, to accept despair and hopelessness as his or her lot in life. My prayer for this continued work for justice is that we all would begin to live uncomfortably within a healthy tension not necessarily for the end goal of destroying all racism (which would be the ideal, obviously) but to recognize more and more each day that we are united in our humanness or what Welch calls the “the ‘vibrantly imperfect’ possible.”

Omar

Every time I try to write this my hand won’t let me
won’t let my pen solidify in ink, which seems more permanent now than ever,
the fact you are no longer here.
Each word I try to suppress like the tears that I won’t let myself cry for you
but as my pen now confesses the truth that we all know
tears fall with aimless rhythm.
And I finally let myself cry
because you were a child
because you were a child
because you were [in some ways] for a year my child
———————
I wouldn’t let myself write for each word etched into
the tightly woven fabric of a page
felt like drops of your blood now forever confined within the concrete
the asphalt, black as death.
———————-
No I won’t let myself write because it can’t be real
but every time I pass that corner I’m forced to remember
It is reality. For this whole city. It is reality.
You are gone, ok? You are gone.
———————-
But I won’t let myself think of your face
the one that looked at me most of the time with the
assuming suspicion of an outsider.
It takes all of me not to wonder
if those same eyes that once looked at me
stared down the boy that held that gun.
———————
But I won’t let myself remember you that way.
You were a boy full of promise with a smile that everyone
everyone, felt like they knew.
Yet, you were the streets that raised you
and you learned too soon from that unforgiving parent that
a young man of color must put on toughness and resolve
in the same swift motion
that he instinctively lifts his hand to his hat
tilting it ever so slightly to the appropriate side
because a mistake with either instinct
summons a most definite punishment.
No, but you didn’t deserve that life…
No boy, no child ever does.
————————–
I won’t let myself believe differently
I do believe though that with these streets as your parents
like any obedient, loving child
you would have died
you did die
for them.
just like your brother that night
raised by the same streets would kill for them.
Your harsh and unrelenting parents
these concrete guardians
would be proud
but if only you were here to see it.
See, that’s the problem…
You gave your life to these dark streets,
your blood flows through the cracks in the poorly paved asphalt
your brothers mark you as a local hero
but, see, the problem is next summer
this memorial will be paved over fresh.
Fresh for a new boy’s blood to be offered to these streets
———————-
But I will not let myself forget you, brother
for when blood is shed
and at too young of an age
there must be more to the story
we must stop paving over the memorials of these boys
because I know one day in the place where the
bloodstained asphalt is the darkest
a flower will sprout its way through an unseen crack
And I won’t let myself stop looking for this hope
———————-
I saw a boy walking the other day
and I thought it was you.
Before I said anything, I slammed my lips together
so that my voice couldn’t form your name
because I remembered, it’s real…
you’re gone.
As I watched, the boy walked across that same
fatal, fateful street
your street
and with each step he took I prayed
that those feet would tread respectfully on that pavement
aware of any sprouting flowers
hopes or dreams
for on it Omar Castel, forever a dreamer
lost, gave, lived his precious hope-filled life.
RIP Omar Castel (1995-2013)

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