MORAL MONDAYS at SU was founded by Seattle University staffer and 2010 alum Tyrone Brown in October 2014. The initiative is to advocate for SU as a place for the national conversation on the #BlackLivesMatter movement, race and police violence, as well as focusing on “the Black presence” at the university and how SU contributes to the problems and/or solutions facing black communities, according to a news release.
Lezley McSpadden has told the story of her son, Michael Brown, many times since the 18-year-old was fatally shot by a police officer two years ago in Ferguson, Missouri.
While painful, McSpadden said there came a time — amid the Black Lives Matter movement, riots and protests in Ferguson, and even artistic interpretations — that she realized a mother should speak for her son.
McSpadden was interviewed in front of hundreds of students and other attendees of the Oct. 17 MORAL MONDAYS at SU event by Vivian Philips,the director of marketing and communications for Seattle Theatre Group, chair of the Seattle Arts Commission and co-chair of the Historic Central Area Arts and Cultural District. The two spoke during an afternoon event and again in the evening.
Pregnant at 16, McSpadden said she was in and out of school, but eventually stopped attending, her mother telling her to get a job.
“I was 16 years old, but I wanted to make my parents happy too,” McSpadden said, “and I don’t think they were so proud of me for having a child so young.”
Michael Brown was her first of four children.
When Brown was in second grade, McSpadden said a school counselor thought her son had ADHD because he didn’t pay attention in class. She took him to see a doctor, who prescribed aderall.
“I just did it to say I would try it, but I had no intention of giving him the medication,” she said. Instead, she got Brown a tutor. “We all learn things differently.”
When Brown got in a fight during history class, his punishment was to write a reflection. McSpadden said her son wrote about Martin Luther King Jr. and unity, and it was so good that he was invited to read it in front of the Missouri Board of Education at Normandy High School in St. Louis.
“People liked to challenge Mike, because he was heavy with a light voice,” McSpadden said.
On Aug. 9, 2014, Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson responded to a reported robbery at a convenience store, where Brown and a friend had allegedly stolen several packages of cigarillos. Following an altercation between Brown and Wilson, who had been inside his patrol car, the two ended up facing each other in the street. Brown is alleged to have been walking toward Wilson when the officer fired at the black teen 12 times.
Brown’s death sparked weeks of civil unrest in Ferguson, which brought national attention to the Black Lives Matter movement and longtime claims of excessive force and biased policing by law enforcement against the black community.
“Everybody was watching as he was laying on the street,” McSpadden said of her son, “and they all formulated their own opinions without even knowing him.”
Brown had just graduated high school, which wasn’t a certainty earlier in the year, McSpadden said, but she pushed him because neither her nor his father had made it out of high school.
“He did a complete 360,” she said, “he got serious; he knew it was his senior year.”
Philips asked McSpadden about her being referred to as one of the mothers of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It was really hard not to be out there with the people that were out there with you,” McSpadden said.
She said she doesn’t understand how the federal prosecutor in the case didn’t see what a lack of accountability caused in Ferguson.
“What they tried to do was make me and my family responsible for everything that happened,” McSpadden said.
She read a passage about the grand jury decision not to prosecute Wilson from her book, “Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil, The Life, Legacy and Love of My Son Michael Brown,” which she cowrote with Lyah Beth LeFlore. McSpadden and her family had been at a Four Seasons hotel in St. Louis when she received the call. She knew there would be another state of emergency.
“My response was, ‘I’m going to Ferguson,’” she said, then recalling the atmosphere in the streets from supporters. “They didn’t know why I was hysterical and crying and upset. They didn’t know what the announcement was.”
Attorney General Eric Holder made the decision, she said, and a letter of apology from him to her is published in her book, which she believes makes it clear it was not a choice he wanted to make.
“They’re the spokesmen,” she said. “They have to speak to the masses.”
Holder was one of a number of White House officials that attended Brown’s funeral.
The Department of Justice released a report of its investigation into the Ferguson Police Department in March 2015, finding officers routinely discriminated against black people and violated residents’ constitutional rights.
The Brown family filed a lawsuit against former Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson, Wilson and the city of Ferguson in April 2015. Several motions were dismissed when the case moved to U.S. District Court, and a trial is slated for May 2017.
McSpadden founded the Michael O.D. Brown We Love Our Sons & Daughters Foundation, which she said focuses on economics, health, family and justice. She cooks meals for the Rainbow of Mothers, a support group for women who have lost a loved one, through either domestic violence, street violence, excessive police force or another unforeseen tragedy.
“A good meal brings people together,” she said.
Philips asked her if the support she received from Sybrina Fulton, whose son Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in Florida by George Zimmerman in 2012, inspired her.
McSpadden talked about being invited to Gallery Guichard in Chicago in 2015, where she thought she would just be speaking about her foundation. She did not know beforehand that New Orleans artist Ti-Rock Moore had on display a life-sized simulation of Brown’s body, lying face-down and surrounded by police tape and evidence cards.
“I said, ‘I do not want to see that,’” she said. “I did not want to see my son laying like that.”
McSpadden said she left and didn’t come back until the next night, when the art installation had been removed. She said she took time to explore the entire museum, to get a better understanding for what the artist was doing, and it helped her understand what she needed to do.
Seeing so many people trying to speak for her son, McSpadden said it was up to her to do it right.