Saturday, August 23, 2014

To Whom it May Concern...

To whom it may concern,

There is something weighing on my soul that’s been hard to put into words...until now.

You see, I've been stuck, paralyzed, disheartened, transported back to a time when “We shall Overcome”…"No Justice, No peace…” and “I am a Man…” were the pleas of “non-humans.”

A suppressed memory came back the other day. My father and I were walking on a downtown sidewalk. A white man came toward us and Sonny, my dad, stepped off the curb. No words were exchanged…but the look of shame in his eyes connected a son to the gut-wrenching story of a father born and broken in the Deep South.  

I’m angry at you for bringing that back. I’m hurt that you've reminded me that skin color is the equation of life or death. I’m saddened that my children and grandchildren will be burdened by the scars of our ancestors. You see, you may not realize it, but your ignorant, stupid, callous, inhumane, fucked up actions and reactions have set US ALL back decades.

How could you not feel? While gun smoke blended with afternoon air; while the echo of bullets rang through apartment hallways; while a mother screamed and dark, red blood slithered down the street like a newborn snake; while credits rolled on a life yet lived…

How could you not see that it was not the time for slathering dogs, M-16’s and red-faced orders to “BEHAVE?”

I write “to whom it may concern” because there’s no one person to blame. Honestly, I can’t say why an officer named Wilson decided to empty his gun into the body of an unarmed teen. And we will probably never know. A thick blue line of arrogance and brotherhood and superiority and hatred and FEAR blur and blunt the truth.

I do know that you had ONE, small, precious, irretrievable moment to make this almost right; to make the sting less agonizing; to leave dignity intact. You had an opening, an opportunity to say; “You are a mother; you are my neighbors, my friends…MY KIDS.”

But, no, Chief Jackson, you let it blow away like dandelions in a gusty, August wind. 

You and your comrades answered anger with armor; mourning with mounted weapons; tears with tear gas; swagger with SWAT teams; and fury with flash-bang grenades.  You seized the occasion to show off your new government-issued toys and brandish your old government-endorsed biases. You showed this smart-ass, uppity, young generation that they will never bring new meaning to the word…“NIGGA!”


You have betrayed our kids. You may see them as specters of your stereotypes; as pants-saggin’, hot-headed hoodlums; as pathetic piranhas devouring everything you deem “wholesome and dear”… but we made and molded them. We gave them poverty and Prada, Ghettos and Gucci; Hopelessness and HBO; We made the Walking Dead Expendable and told them to “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.”

We have sold them a big, hot, steaming bag of Americanized, homogenized horseshit and now…THEY KNOW IT!

We told them they can be whatever they want to be in this Great Land of ours; We told them they have the Constitutional right to peaceful protest; to vent out loud; to speak against wrong; to stand against injustice. We told them to “Trust Officer Friendly.”

We did not tell them that the boys we bred on the hot, dusty fields of Iraq and Afghanistan have returned with WAR seared into their psyches. We did not tell them that a bag of Skittles, a can of Arizona iced tea, a stolen pack of Cigarillos or simply walking on the sidewalk is the equivalent of bombs strapped to the bellies of the “ENEMY.”  We did not warn them that “BLACK” is the new code word for “TERRORIST” on American soil.

And don’t you dare be so smug; don’t let the darkness sooth you. For YOUR kids see YOU, too. Your kids have braved those lines. They've tasted your venom; witnessed your hypocrisy; been tased by your indifference and choked by your ambivalence. 

They've awakened from their social media haze to see monsters from history books smiling, sitting, rationalizing in their very own living rooms. With finger to lip, they are shushed, dismissed, told: “Hush…we’re listening to Rush.”

“To whom it may concern” is apropos…’cause, really, I don’t know. I speak not to one but many. I curse the addicted, the forgivers and enablers. I spit at an old evil…my father’s evil. I write to a mindset, an institution, a SYSTEM that should be long dead.  

I speak to RACISM, good ole “Uncle Ray.” I see his diseased, gnarly fingers, covering a wicked, defiant, smile of broken, yellow, razor-rat teeth.  A Southern pot belly stuffed with racial strife expands proudly, pushing red, white and blue suspenders beyond its elastic limit.

“Bring it!” “I will fucking kill you!"


“Write through it,” Maya would say…

...but the feelings are too strong; the list is too long: It’s the ugly and unkind, the Post and the posters and those who've lost their goddamn minds; it’s the One-Percenters, the perpetrators, the Po-Po, the President and the press with its shitty lies; it's the apologists, the procrastinators and people who've taken their eyes off the PRIZE.

“Write through it,” ghostly scribes say… there is still so much to learn…

So this is for you...

To whom it may concern....

Monday, August 18, 2014

My Apology to Black Leaders: It’s Not You; It’s Me

Photo from protest scene / August 14, 2014-SBJ
I owe an apology to local black leaders involved with the ongoing activities since the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson Policeman.  When this tragedy jumped off, I responded with a bit of prose called “Now, you see me (see below).” The piece spoke to older generations and black leaders in general who are either drive-by motivators or those who have left black neighborhoods, like Ferguson, behind:

“Like absentee parents, you revisit the nightmare you abandoned to chase “the Dream.”  Where were you while poverty and unemployment mounted…while they packed the children of your parent’s parents in prisons, herded your kin into Gateway ghettos and stereotyped us all into irrelevance? Your impotent call for calm is too late, even though my blaze validates your worth.”

When asked about the essay during a KMOX Radio interview, I added that I’m waiting for “the best and the brightest” to return and commence with the hard work of saving youth, creating jobs and reclaiming and rebuilding communities.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the comment didn't go over very well.
“You sounded like a white man,” a long-time acquaintance and member of the Nation of Islam told me when I visited the protest site on Thursday.
I’m not sure if legendary comedian/activist/health guru, Dick Gregory’s comments were related to my essay or not but during our brief discussion that day, he bluntly asked: “What are you doing?” I tried to hand him my card and explain that I had started a program, the Sweet Potato Project, aimed at teaching black youth to be entrepreneurs in their own neighborhoods, but Gregory just waved me off:
“Never heard of it!” he said before curtly walking away.

“You sounded like a white man...”

My good friend, entrepreneur Sterling Moody, who is well-connected with the well-connected, called to warn me: “Man, they’re pissed at you.”
I get it. Who am I to criticize well-meaning local and national black folk who are simply doing what they do best-which is to bring attention to crisesThe symbolic hands-up response to police brutality that’s been adopted internationally is simply brilliant. Although my frustrations weren't necessarily aimed at any specific individual, I can see how my comments could be deemed rude and dismissive.

Who am I to criticize well-meaning local and national black folk who are simply doing what they do best-which is to bring attention to crises?

Here’s the deal; it’s not you, black leaders; it’s me. I’m a journalistic dinosaur who’s been covering police brutality cases and the region’s reaction to them for more than 25 years. Metaphorically speaking; I've seen this movie too many times. As the publisher of a monthly magazine, my wife and I covered the 1997 adaptation where a gang of St. Louis Police officers severely beat Gregory Bell, a mentally retarded teen in his own home.  We explored the 1999 case of Julius Thurman, a young man who died from massive head injuries inflicted by police after they caught him burglarizing a pawnshop. Then there was the 2001 case where undercover drug officers fired 21 shots into the bodies of low-level drug dealers on a Jack-in-the-Box parking lot. In 2012 two St. Louis police officers shot a fleeing felon, Cary Ball, 21 times. Ball, who had led police on a car chase, did indeed have a gun but witnesses say he threw it aside and had surrendered before officers opened fire.
I guess I've become a curmudgeon who’s grown tired of writing about our collective negative condition and decided to do something about it. I believe that our salvation is in the hands of the young people we’re allowing to drop out of school and drop into nefarious lifestyles. We've watched our kids mercilessly herded into our nation’s prisons for decades. If we don't provide sustenance, employment and opportunities for disenfranchised youth, who will?
Don’t get me wrong, I recognize the power of celebrities and their ability to eloquently speak to our pain, draw crowds and amplify our frustrations. I’m particularly impressed with Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson. His actions and words have brought much-needed respect and humanity to atmospheres of disrespect and inhumanity. Yet, days after taking control, we still see armored trucks, canisters of tear gas hurled at crowds and aggressive police in military gear.
Johnson’s a good man but he’s a part of a system that limits his power. He can't oppose the governor’s curfew. He cannot repair the damage of city and county police forces that have failed to hire and/or promote officers of color, who are charged with maintaining order in majority black communities. He cannot undo the psychological damage of National Guard, Highway Patrol or militarized police personnel who have allowed “race” to blur their distinction between US citizens and foreign terrorists.

Don’t get me wrong, I recognize the power of celebrities and their ability to eloquently speak to our pain, draw crowds and amplify our frustrations.

So, forgive me dear leaders, I’m just looking for a different kind of leadership. I’m looking for a do-for-self, sustainable economic and social plan that will finally get us past generational, race-based poverty and immune to stubborn racial prejudice.
Since the protesters made national news, national leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King III have come to town. They've waxed poetically about “injustice” and demilitarizing the nation’s police forces but those issues were made glaringly important before they arrived by Brown's shooting, outraged protesters and organizations created to abolish harsh police tactics. 
Are they spokesmen or leaders? If the latter, where are they leading us?
Remember back in 2010 when Sharpton and PBS commentator Tavis Smiley almost came to blows over the issue of Obama mentioning a "black agenda"…or not? It was Sharpton who promised that he and his National Action Network (NAN) would hold the Administration accountable. He vowed to develop a real agenda for Black America. Well, that's been almost five years ago. Where is the agenda, Reverend? This is what I was looking for when you spoke at Greater Grace Church on Sunday.
We need leaders who can go beyond the simplistic demand that white people act right and black people vote more. For decades, we've had black aldermen, local, state and national legislators and now, we have a black president. But what good is all this if Obama can’t even speak to the disproportionate predicament of black people without being tagged a “racist?” With the poverty and unemployment rates among African Americans basically unchanged in 45 years, where is the incentive to invest more time, more energy or more hope into politics or politicians?

We need leaders who can go beyond the simplistic demand that white people act right and black people vote more. 

I've learned from the young people I work with these past three years. We can capture their imaginations with programs that address their immediate needs. Talk to them about your “Rebuild Ferguson” plan created to employ youth who'll restore damaged businesses and neighborhoods. Excite potential young entrepreneurs with a County-sponsored plan that will allow them to join the businesses along the ever-bustling Florissant strip in Ferguson and adjoining municipalities. How about designating land in the area where they can grow food that consumers, restaurants and grocers can purchase? These are immediate ways to reduce the tension, empower the disenfranchised and include them in the regional economic mainstream.
So again, I apologize. I’m a guy who’s grown tired of waiting for racism to die. I’m an old dude who’s come to the conclusion that it’s up to those of us who've lived long enough to create new, sustainable, alternative systems that will finally address the inadequacies of our institutionalized current systems.
Perhaps I’m just a killjoy or a black guy "who sounds like a white guy" (whatever that means). The death of Michael Brown and the ensuing protests have given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for real, significant long-lasting change. Tweeting, posting, posturing and pontificating black politicians and speakers is all well and good but we need more. We need a solution, we need final economic resolution...
We need a plan.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Monday, August 11, 2014

Now, You See Me:

Reflections on the Police Shooting of Michael Brown-18


Now, for this brief moment, you see me.

As we gather in throngs, angrily, defiantly, desperately confronting your apathy, your arrogance, your utter disdain…you see me.

Now, after killing me; shooting me down like a rabid pup, leaving my body on the cold, cold ground for hours, like garbage…you hear me.

As my 18-year-old blood soaks into our concrete detention, you fear me.

Now, as I once again face German Sheppard’s and M-16’s held in the shaky, sweaty hands of mentally pubescent, conditioned “heroes”.…you feel me.

I am the subject of “Today’s News”; the analysis of stale analysis, the giant awakened by a blast of unrestrained, unnoticed and unchecked indifference.

And you…now, you've come home…if only for the moment.

Like absentee parents, you revisit the nightmare you abandoned to chase “the Dream.”  Where were you while poverty and unemployment mounted…while they packed the children of your parent’s parents in prisons, herded your kin into Gateway ghettos and stereotyped us all into irrelevance?

Your impotent call for calm is too late, even though my blaze validates your worth.

This is the “fire next time.” It is St. Louis finally claiming its 1960’s moment. It is the vomit that spews after a centuries-long diet of naked injustice. It is the protruding pus from a rancid, untreated wound. It is the communal outcry to the manifesto of systemized, antiseptic assassination.

Now, as I run your streets, trashing your QuikTrips and looting your Taco Bells; as I gag on tear gas and defiantly await rubber to turn to lead, you see me as you've always projected me: angry, reckless, violent, out-of-control, in need of restraint.

I am different…but not.

If only, in this brief moment, you can really see the “me” that is us, that is we.

Sylvester Brown, Jr. / August 10, 2014


Photo by AP newswire

Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Remembering Mama

On this day-one set aside to honor our mothers-I think of mine. Rereading this piece I wrote while employed at the Post-Dispatch gave me measures of sorrow and comfort. Hope you enjoy. 

"Mother's passing": Finality of words proved stunning 

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"I'll see you tomorrow, Bug."

When she was in a good mood, she called me Junior, Junebug or simply . . . Bug. When she was upset, I was called by my father's name. The day before her operation, she called me Bug. She was feeling good.

My mother, Evalena Brown, had been in the hospital for eight weeks. What started as complications from diabetes spiraled into a multitude of other life-threatening problems. To the surprise of her doctors, she battled her way back from each threat.

Mama was scheduled for surgery on Wednesday last week to repair a defective valve in her heart. The tests looked good, and the doctors felt confident about her operation and recovery. The day before the surgery, she told my sister that the "cute surgeon took her breath away." She was her old self. She was strong. She was in a good mood. She called me Bug.

"Your mother's passing."

Those words seemed foreign. "Mother" and "passing" wouldn't register in my mind. The operation was moved up five hours. No one in my family was notified until it was already under way.

After arriving at the hospital, we were ushered into the intensive care unit. A lunch tray outside my mother's door contradicted the doctor's ominous prediction. She was supposed to be eating, not "passing." The words made no sense.

"Do something!" my heart pleaded.

But there was nothing to be done. The operation had been successful, but her blood wouldn't cooperate. It was too thin. It wouldn't clot. My mother left strict orders based on her religious belief: no blood transfusions. She held fast to her convictions. But that was little comfort. She was "passing," and there was nothing anyone could do.

Mama was 68 and she was gone.

At least six people I know have lost a parent recently. If I had known this pain, this emptiness, I would have said more than, "I'm sorry." I would have offered a shoulder, held a hand or tried to tend a broken spirit.

Pain is expected. What's unexpected is the foggy feeling of disconnect. My life's quilt now has a gaping hole in the center. My knees buckle when the words, "Mama's gone," echo in my mind.

Images vividly come to me. I see Mama's nut-brown hand making me a malted at the drugstore where she worked. Mama's friends remember her as a "stylish dresser." I recall the hats, how she loved her colorful hats. She also loved to dance. We kids had to be careful walking into a room when one of Mama's favorite tunes was playing. When the mood struck, she'd grab whoever was near for an impromptu dance. I remember how she rocked to B.B. King's guitar and swooned to Johnny Taylor's jukebox blues.

My fondest memory is the day I came home for lunch with a busted lip. Mama didn't ask who did it. She didn't send me back to school. She just hugged me, and we spent the rest of the day together. I'd gladly trade a busted lip for another day like that.

Evalena Brown had 11 children. She married and stood by a man addicted to alcohol. She shouldered all the responsibilities of parenthood. Some assumed that ours was a family of poverty. In reality, our home was one of laughter, good food, music and contentment. Mama made it that way.

I am in awe of how she managed. She didn't believe in giving up or giving in. By example, she taught us to take what we have and make it better. With a bag of beans, cornmeal and flour, she'd make a meal. If there was sugar, there was dessert. Mama remembered and created our favorite dishes. She supported our individual dreams at the same time.

I wonder if she knew she was passing. A few weeks ago, she told my sister she was at peace. Over the years, Mama and I were at odds over things I've written. In our last conversations, she spoke only of being proud.

Maybe Mama really did know. Maybe she just wanted to let me know it was OK. Maybe that's why she called me Bug.