Commentary: Michael Brown's Dream Deferred in Ferguson

Another unarmed Black teenager was killed by a police officer over the weekend.

Posted: 08/11/2014 02:56 PM EDT

Of all the tragic deaths of Black teenagers in the past two years, the killing of Michael Brown this weekend in Ferguson, Missouri, struck me the most.

I grew up just a few miles away from the 2900 block of Canfield Drive, where the unarmed 18-year-old was gunned down by a police officer on Saturday. I bought back-to-school clothes with my mom at the Famous Barr department store at the old Northland Shopping Center near Brown's house. I played football and ran track against Normandy High School, where Brown graduated. I never met Michael Brown, but I feel connected to his story.

In recent years, I've written about the shooting deaths of unarmed teens Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and Renisha McBride. Now I must add Michael Brown to this sad list. Today would have been his first day in college.

But today's news coverage about Brown didn't focus on what might have been the start of his adult life and the ongoing investigation into his death. Instead, the story changed Sunday evening as a day of peaceful protests in Ferguson turned into a night of violence and looting.

Most of the demonstrators did not participate in the mayhem, but the few who did captured the headlines. Thirty-two people were arrested and two police officers suffered minor injures in the incident. By Monday morning, two huge photos of fire and looting on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch eclipsed the tiny, grainy portrait of Brown under a 1-column headline that called him a "gentle giant."

As a native St. Louisan, I was surprised by the expression of outrage in Ferguson this weekend. That's because residents in my hometown have no real history of big protests, much less rioting. When major cities erupted in riots after Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, St. Louis wasn't one of them. And while nearby East St. Louis, Illinois, has a famous history of rioting, I don't remember hearing about or seeing similar incidents in St. Louis.

For a long time, Black St. Louisans struck me as timid. Once when I was younger, I asked an aunt if we could go to the fourth of July Veiled Prophet Fair under the Arch downtown. "No," she told me. "Them white folks ain't gonna let us go there." From my experience, St. Louis was a segregated collection of communities where people just knew "their place." That is, until this weekend.

Part of what surprised me about the protest in Ferguson is that Black residents would stand up against their own, presumably, Black city government. After all, Ferguson is a mostly Black municipality. But I learned today that the city's racial composition is not necessarily reflected in its government and its institutions.

Although 67 percent of Ferguson residents are Black, most of the local cops shown on television were white. Perhaps this racial imbalance explains why Black drivers in Ferguson are twice as likely to be searched and twice as likely to be arrested compared to white drivers. And their disparities don't end at the police department. From the looks of the city's own web site, the city council of this mostly Black city appears to be overwhelmingly white as well.

When the police and elected representatives don't reflect the population, it's not surprising that residents would lack faith in their institutions in times of turmoil. And since county police are also facing a racial profiling lawsuit, they can't be trusted either to lead the investigation into Brown's death.

Still, violence is not the answer.

"I'm absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt," Dr. King told an audience in Michigan a few weeks before his own assassination would spark riots across the country.

But Dr. King didn't place all the burden on rioters to follow his nonviolent ways. A riot is "the language of the unheard," King warned. "As long as justice is postponed, we always stand on the verge of these darker nights of social disruption."

Just as Dr. King had a dream for a better America, Michael Brown had a dream that he could go to college and make a better life for himself. Perhaps no one else understood his dream more than his mother, Lesley McSpadden.

"You know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate?" she told a reporter. "You know how many Black men graduate? Not many!" she said. "Because you bring them down to this type of level where they feel they don't got nothing to live for anyway."

Police shootings of unarmed civilians are still relatively rare in our country, but they often seem to happen to Black men. How many more Michael Browns, Eric Garners, Oscar Grants, Sean Bells, or Amadou Diallos does it take before Black men just can't take it anymore? That is the ongoing question here, not the story of one night of rioting.

It was Langston Hughes, a famous Missouri native, who once asked what happens to a dream deferred. "Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" he wondered. Does it sag "like a heavy load?" he asked.

"Or does it explode?"

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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