By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter
The shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri has prompted LGBT organizations across the country to join others in raising questions around the circumstances of his death in the almost three weeks since the incident.
Brown, 18, was fatally shot by police Officer Darren Wilson around midday August 9. His bleeding body was left lying face-down, uncovered for a time, in the street for four hours while neighborhood residents, including children and Brown’s family members, looked on, horrified. According to news reports, at least six different bullets caused over a dozen different wounds including two through his head.
Police officials said Brown assaulted Wilson and a struggle for the officer’s gun ensued ending with Brown fatally shot. According to the Los Angeles Times, a handful of witnesses, including Dorian Johnson, who was walking alongside Brown when the incident began, negate Brown as the antagonizer and place Wilson as the aggressor, ultimately shooting and killing Brown while he was either surrendering or running from Wilson’s first shots.
In the subsequent days, protests to the shooting erupted in Ferguson, a working-class predominantly African American suburb of St. Louis. Fueled by the nature of the shooting, the treatment of Brown’s body, and the police department preserving Wilson’s anonymity until nine days after the shooting, Ferguson residents called attention back to one of America’s largest problems – racism.
During the first week, demonstrators were met with police in riot gear, armored vehicles, K-9 units, assault rifles, smoke grenades, stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Scattered reports of looting and property damage surfaced, as did accounts of press censorship and police brutality.
But Ferguson hasn’t been alone. Expressions of solidarity have ranged far and wide. On August 15, Palestinian groups and individuals signed a letter expressing solidarity with Brown’s family and the people of Ferguson. The same day, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda publicly called for justice and extended condolences to Brown’s family. On August 19, OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates released a statement naming racial profiling as central to Brown’s death and denounced the state’s treatment of Ferguson demonstrators. The same week, the National Domestic Workers Alliance extended support to Brown’s family, condemned racialized state-sanctioned violence, and demanded justice.
On August 12, three days after Brown’s death, a letter signed by 17 social justice and LGBT organizations was released stating the “[LGBT] community cannot be silent at this moment … because all movements of equality are connected.” The letter called Brown’s death one of countless “racialized killings that have marred this nation since the beginning of its history.” The letter’s signatories has grown to 68, the San Francisco LGBT Community Center among the most recent.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights was among the first to sign the letter. And, as Executive Director Kate Kendell said, after signing, it still felt important for NCLR to draft an individual statement. But the words didn’t come from Kendell herself; her 18-year-old African American son, Julian Holmes, and mentor to both Holmes and Kendell, African American civil rights lawyer Eva Paterson, wrote them.
“Rather than me write something decrying the events in Ferguson,” Kendell told the Bay Area Reporter, “I thought the real power might come from an intergenerational piece by a longtime civil rights lawyer and my son who is coming-of-age in a country that still has deep, deep racism and racial tension.”
In his statement, Holmes reflects on the devaluation of black lives:
“It is obvious that the justice system is not set up to protect people that look like Michael and me,” he wrote. “There has been something rooted into the system, something rooted into our minds as human beings that makes this acceptable. Something that tells police officers with guns that they can fire them off at will just because they have a badge … They are perfectly fine with having another black boy’s blood on their hands … This story of Michael Brown’s death is tragic. Not only does it make me angry, it makes me sad. Because with every story like this I see my body lying in the street where Michael’s was.”
Growing up with same-sex parents, Holmes told the Bay Area Reporter that he “has one foot in the LGBT community and one foot in the black community,” and it’s especially important for marginalized communities to support each other.
“When people decide not to speak up about an issue, that’s how things get worse,” Holmes said. “Complacency is just as bad as supporting racism. If you assume we live in a colorblind society because it’s 2014, that’s when things get swept under the rug.”
Last weekend, Gay-Straight Alliance Network released a statement drawing the connection between systematic racism and the criminalization of young people like Brown, and called for GSAs across the country to commit to addressing the criminalization of young people in their communities.
The Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project has been the only explicitly local LGBT organization to release a public statement. On August 22, the organization expressed solidarity with the Brown family and the people of Ferguson in the face of “unspeakable human rights abuses at the hands of law enforcement.” While no other local LGBT organizations have released their own public statements, Norio Umezu of Community United Against Violence said the organization’s internal discussion about whether or not to do so was ongoing.
Rebecca Rolfe, executive director of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, said the center did not release its own letter citing public statements as “not a strategy we’ve had the resources to pursue on a regular basis.” Similarly, the executive director of the Pacific Center in Berkeley, Leslie Ewing, cited “lack of organizational bandwidth and capacity” as reason for the same. Brown Boi Project was also contacted but could not be reached for comment.
The weekend of August 16, San Francisco hosted the annual American Sociological Association meeting. A group of sociologists, many from San Francisco State University, drafted a statement titled: “Sociologists Issue Statement on Ferguson: 400 Sociologists Demand Justice and Change in Policing Communities of Color.” To date, over 1,400 sociologists have signed the letter.
SFSU sociology Professor Andreana Clay, a self-identified queer woman of color and black feminist, was central to the statement’s making. Her participation, she said, was rooted in her work as a sociologist and her upbringing – Clay grew up in Missouri and spent summers in St. Louis near Ferguson.
The statement addresses police brutality, racialized policing, institutional racism, and anti-blackness as an epidemic in this country and central to Brown’s death. It is timely, Clay emphasized, for allies to speak out, which should include the LGBT community.
“It’s a real opportunity for LGBT organizations to address the violence that continues to happen on marginalized bodies,” Clay said, “and link, not equate, but link the violence targeted upon black bodies to the violence targeted toward queer bodies, specifically trans women of color. It’s an opportunity to talk about how violence is used to surveil queer and racialized bodies; often times those are the same bodies. Just because the ongoing targeting of black bodies, both male and female, in society is what we see at this moment, the mainstream gay community is never far behind.”
The letter also endorses Black Lives Matter, a nonprofit initiative committed to using social engagement to end state sanctioned violence against black people. Currently, 16 states have Black Lives Matter contingents organizing rides to Ferguson to sustain ground-level action. Made up of various professionals, specialists, and organizers, the Bay Area has its own Black Life Matters Ride scheduled to depart August 28.