How Michael Brown's Death Affects the Way Black Parents Talk to Their Children About Racism

Mike Brown was killed two years ago today, but his death still informs how black parents talk about police brutality.

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Complex Original

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For Shannon Gibney, author of See No Color, a novel about a biracial girl adopted by a white family, Michael Brown's death in Ferguson two years ago created an increased awareness not just for Black parents but for society in general. Even with her children’s white aunts and uncles (they have a multi-racial family), Gibney says that the Black Lives Matter movement has made it possible for white people to see the reality of living in the world as a Black person.

Recently, Gibney was on a family trip and her 6-year-old son received a camping kit as a gift from a family member. The kit included a plastic knife that Gibney wouldn't let him keep, and it started a conversation about how someone might think the knife was real. “He didn’t understand it,” she explains. “But the next day, we were in the car listening to MPR, and there was an update on Tamir Rice. And he said ‘Mom, I know why you didn’t want me to take that knife.” That realization by her young child shows the crux of some decisions parents of Black children have to make. “You want them to have their innocence. You don’t want them to be scared, but there’s this added layer of stuff if you have a Black child.”

Unarmed teenager Michael Brown was killed two years ago, and the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, that resulted from his death, the non-indictment of the officer that killed him, and systemic racism and violence against people of color has continued to headline national dialogue. 

The Black Lives Matter movement—which existed before Michael Brown's death—grew and burst into public discourse in August, 2014. Brown was just 18 years old when he was shot by officer Darren Wilson in the predominantly black town of Ferguson, Missouri. His young age and manner of death fueled a public awakening. While any parent of Black children will tell you that the dangers of living in a Black body aren't new, it's an issue that can no longer be ignored since the advent of camera phones and social media. We spoke with parents of Black children about how Michael Brown's death still affects conversations about police brutality today.

⚡️ "The Birth of A Movement, Ferguson 2014 #MikeBrown" by @deray

In the wake of Ferguson, Minnesota-based singer-songwriter Jayanthi Kyle wrote the protest anthem “Hand in Hand” out of grief after Wilson's non-indictment. She also co-founded the Million Artist Movement, which seeks to unite artists to "dismantle oppressive racist systems." Member Shá Cage says she doesn’t try to shield her sons, aged 5 and 7, from conversations about police or racism or violence. “I try not to separate them from the world I move through,” she says. “I expose them to events and conversations that I’m having.”

Fellow artist Kenna-Camara Cottman says that as a parent, she must do more than simply tell her children about the dangers of police. That's because her 18-year-old daughter is active in the Black Lives Matter movement. “She’s a revolutionary,” Cottman says. “She’s been arrested, she’s shut down freeways, she’s been shot by rubber bullets. She’s been in all these occupations and I’m terrified for her because she’s doing all this stuff in response to police brutality, and she herself is being brutalized by the police.” Meanwhile, Cottman’s 10-year-old son has gone from wanting to be a police officer to being scared of police, and ultimately hating the police based on his experiences, like seeing his elderly next door neighbors raided for no reason. 

Zell Miller III, an Austin, Texas-based storyteller and spoken word artist, addresses the realities his children face as black people in his one man show currently playing at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. On the anniversary of Michael Brown's death, Miller says he's able to find hope. “I am encouraged by the unity that began to gather in that community,” he says.

While he’s not one to necessarily go on marches or carry signs, Miller considers himself organically a part of the Black Lives Matter movement because of who he is. When he was 18 years old, Miller was driving with his friend in his friend’s mother’s Mercedes Benz on their graduation night when they were pulled over by a cop. The cop took their keys, and threw them off the high ledge of the freeway I35. A few years later, when he was a business student in Austin, Miller was running to the bus when two officers tried to arrest him, slammed him against the cop car, kicked him, and scattered his books on the ground. When they realized that he wasn’t actually the burglary suspect they had been looking for, they laughed and told him to pick up his stuff before they gave him a ticket.

Despite these experiences, Miller doesn’t want to live in fear and let his oppressors win. "I equip them the best way I can," he says of his children. "I don't want them living in fear, either."

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