الأحد , يونيو 7 2020

Buried beside Michael Brown

Michael Brown
In St Peter's Cemetary in north St Louis County, Michael Brown is buried alongside many other young, black victims of violence. Their lives mattered, too.

There is still no headstone in the place where 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr is buried.

Those who wish to pay their respects have to ask for a map inside the office at St Peter’s Cemetery, a verdant swatch surrounded by a low stone wall in the middle of urban north St Louis County. From the gates, visitors go straight, down a slight slope, make a right at the flower planter, pull over and walk a few short paces to section 10, block F, lot 12, grave number four, where the dirt has settled over the past 12 months and the grass is beginning to take root.

There’s a cement base on the spot with the initials “MB” spray-painted on it in orange. The permanent monument is supposed to be installed any day now.

One year ago this August, former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot Brown, who was unarmed, six times. His body lay in the street for four hours. In November, the St Louis County prosecutor announced there would be no charges for Wilson. In response, protesters hit the streets and vandals torched local businesses.

The movement that rose around Brown’s death was held together by the idea that “black lives matter” – that the lives of African Americans not be so easily snuffed out, and that their deaths should not go unpunished.

Directly across from Brown’s grave is another that, according to the small stone marker, belongs to Jarris Brown. Michael and Jarris are not related. However, some quick arithmetic reveals that Jarris, like Michael, also died young, at just 16 years old.

The two boys are buried feet to feet, facing each other across their row. Jarris Brown’s gravestone is embedded with a colour photograph of him – he’s beaming, with a thin moustache and black hair to his shoulders.

“Loving son and brother,” the inscription reads.

Photographs on monuments, either computer etched or pressed into ceramic, became a popular trend here about eight years ago, according to the superintendent of St Peter’s.

If one walks in any direction away from grave number four, there are many more pictures of black men and women who died in their teens or early 20s. Some are grinning in school portraits, or giving the camera their most serious expression. Some stones include a baby picture, or a composite photo of the deceased with their children. One marker is etched with a photo of the young man’s beloved truck.

Within a roughly 30-metre radius of Michael’s grave there are at least 15 homicide victims. The youngest was a 15-year-old. Most of them were shot. There are also deaths by suicide, cancer, car accidents, but for those under the age of 30, the predominant cause of death is homicide.

Jarris Brown’s death was an accident – a friend told police that he found a gun tossed in an alley, then playfully pointed it at the younger boy’s head.

The friend went with him to hospital, and so his is one of the rare cases police closed. Most of the homicide victims lying here still have open files with St Louis’ city or county police departments.

No-one has been charged. There’s almost no information about what happened beyond a couple of lines in the local newspaper.

Oshay Safari Caves has one of those photos in his headstone – a black and white picture of him with dark eyes and thick brows, a slight afro puff, grinning with a mobile phone up to his ear.

His mother, Marie Ann, picked it because she says he loved to talk on the phone. He was only 21 when someone shot him in the head just a half a block from her house. His killers were never caught.

“I just wish justice would be served, because this right here is hurting me real bad,” she says. “Every day I think about Oshay. It’s hard for me to deal with. I go to the cemetery every chance I get.”

Both Oshay Caves and Michael Brown were young, black men living in north St Louis County. They both dreamed of becoming famous rappers. And according to Marie Ann, Oshay also laid in the street for hours before an ambulance finally took his body away. She, too, remembers a trail of blood on the pavement.

In the early days after Brown’s death, social media focused on the notion Brown had been trying to surrender, that he had had his hands up or been running away when the shots were fired. The injustice seemed clear, a young man, recklessly gunned down, his killer unpunished – on paid administrative leave, in fact.

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