FERGUSON, Missouri — Michael Brown Sr. steps out of a white Yukon at the Top Notch Barber and Beauty salon on Chambers Road. He’s here for his weekly trim.
Everyone knows him, including the customers, and even if they didn’t, they’d recognize him instantly. He cuts an imposing figure, tall like the 6-foot-4 son whose death propelled him unwittingly into the headlines.
Through the necessary niceties and greetings, Brown, 38, rarely lets a smile slip. When he does, the florescent glare of the overhead lights glints off his grill.
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“Hey, hey,” he says, shaking the hand of barbershop owner Gregg Davis. Another friend asks if Brown wants a drink.
“Snapple,” he says.
Barber Anthony Mallory has been cutting Brown’s hair for years, since Brown was 13. These days, Mallory makes sure his client’s clean-shaven head stays shiny; the trickier task is trimming around Brown’s beard, long and thick enough to pass muster in the most conservative mosque.
“My strength is in my beard,” Brown says. “It’s almost 1 year old.”
He stopped cutting it on August 9, 2014 — the day his son died.
“Every strand of hair means something,” he says, settling into the barber’s chair.
Mallory drapes a black and white printed cape over Brown, covering up his red T-shirt with his son’s face emblazoned across the front. The back reads “Chosen For Change,” the nonprofit he launched in his son’s memory to empower black youth.
The barber gets into a groove, electric clippers gliding back and forth over Brown’s head, before I ask about the upcoming anniversary.
The question takes Brown back to that August day when it was hot and sticky as it is this evening, the haze so thick that the air-conditioning vents are blowing puffy clouds.
He had stood waiting, numb, about half a mile from here on Canfield Drive, with his wife of three weeks, Calvina. He rushed there after the police called him and his son’s mother, Lesley McSpadden. They all stood before a body covered by a sheet, surrounded by police cars, flashing lights, yellow crime scene tape and a crowd that grew larger by the minute.
He was there for four hours and 32 minutes before the sheet was lifted and he saw his son, and what he did not want to believe was confirmed. His 18-year-old boy, named after him, had been shot dead by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson.
One year later, Brown utters the same words he uttered then: “I should have been there to protect him.”
From the afternoon of August 9 to the funeral of “Mike Mike” 16 days later, Brown felt as though he were in a trance. On the funeral program, he wrote:
“I think of you day and night and just wish I was there to save you from harm. I always told you I would never let anything happen to you. And that’s why it hurts sooooo much. I will never let you die in my heart.”
When the casket was finally lowered into the ground at St. Peter’s Cemetery, Brown let out a pitched scream of anguish.
No more jokes. No more smiles. No more tussling with his big, burly son. No more talk of the future.
That’s how every day has been since. Empty.
Empty through the months of anguish and protest and violence in Ferguson, through a grand jury decision not to indict Wilson, a scathing Department of Justice investigation report and the deaths of other black men across America. Empty as he led marchers on the streets and watched a movement blossom around the memory of his son.
He is thankful his son’s death was not in vainm, that Mike Mike launched a discussion for the ages that perhaps will lead to the change he thinks is needed in America. Perhaps one day, black parents won’t have to have difficult talks with their sons — like he did — about how to behave in front of police.
This is a topic burning in the forefront of Brown’s mind but especially so now, a few days after returning from protests in Chicago and a meeting of the Black Lives Matter movement in Cleveland. He has traveled to other cities as well, including a pilgrimage to Selma, Alabama, earlier this year on the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.”
Selma gave him chills. “You can feel all that in your soul,” he says.
He stood and listened to Barack Obama give what many believe was the President’s most powerful speech to date. In it, the President acknowledged the nation had a long way to go to defeat racism but also noted the many gains that had been hard won.
“What happened in Ferguson may not be unique,” Obama said, “but it’s no longer endemic. It’s no longer sanctioned by law or custom, and before the civil rights movement, it most surely was.”
That may be true but in Brown’s view, the law failed him and his family. And other black families. That’s why he keeps going from city to city, from protest to protest.
He’s kept busy but the loss is acute.
“I think of him every single day.”
The foundation he established has been at the forefront of organizing events to commemorate Mike Mike’s death, including 4.5 minutes of silence that will be observed August 9, symbolizing the hours his body lay in the road. Others who have lost sons are planning to join. They include the parents of Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old black teenager shot to death at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida, by a white man who was later sentenced to life in prison.
“It’s a parade of lost souls,” Brown says. “We are in a fraternity, for real. You can’t understand it if you haven’t lost a son.”
He knows many people will come to Ferguson to mark the anniversary and that, once again, his son’s face will be all over the news. He appreciates the support and says his son’s death, like so many others, could easily have gone unnoticed by the larger public.
“Everything is rewinding in my head,” he says. “I’m trying to look at the good but this is going to be hard.”
He tells me about the jolt he got in Chicago a few weeks ago when he learned of an art exhibit on the South Side. Artist Ti-Rock Moore had constructed a life-size replica of his son, lying face down on the floor, just as he had been on Canfield Drive after Wilson shot him. Moore called his art “Confronting Truths: Wake Up!”
Brown didn’t step inside the gallery; he just saw it from the street and was upset. He couldn’t understand why the artist had not consulted him. He thought it was disrespectful to the memory of his son. On that Chicago street, August 9 came rushing back.
“Hey, you picked it out yet?” Brown asks Mallory, the barber, about his beard. Mallory takes the cue and grabs a metal Afro comb.
Then he hands Brown a mirror and awaits approval.
“You keep bringing it down, Fat Daddy,” Brown says about Mallory’s trim job on his ‘stache. “You messing up my mo.”
The two men study Brown’s moustache and beard in the mirror.
That beard glistened in the water at his baptism last November. He had planned for his whole family to renew their faith together at Calvary West Missionary Baptist Church. But his son wasn’t there with him as he emerged from the water in shorts and a white undershirt.
Mallory flicks the hair from Brown’s neck and shoulders and takes the cape off. I spot a small medallion hanging from a silver chain around his neck. On one side is the face of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. On the other is an inscription of King’s words: “Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”
Brown reaches for a pack of Kools and heads out of the barber shop.
As vocal as he has been in the year since his son was killed, he tells me there are lots of things he can’t say. Things that stem from the anger and sorrow.
“Everything I can’t say is here,” he says, grabbing his beard with his right hand.
He’ll cut it, he says, when he sees signs of justice. His prediction: That his beard will grow longer.