With his rounded cheeks and cocoa brown skin, 11-year-old Braylon Murray could be a younger version of Michael Brown Jr., the unarmed black teenager that was shot to death by white police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. in Ferguson, Missouri.
While he is not related to the slain teenager, Murray asked his parents to bring him to “The Community Speaks,” a town hall forum that tied the killing of Brown, the grand jury’s decision to not indict Wilson, and the case at-large to the greater issue of racial profiling and discrimination targeted to communities of color. The forum, which was held at Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia on Monday night, featured United States Attorney General Eric Holder, civil rights luminaries Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rev. Bernice King and other community activists.
“I wanted to let my voice be heard,” says Murray, who was one of several young people who stood in a long line to speak at the forum. “We should protest in peace and stay calm and do what Martin Luther King Jr. did. I thought it was awful that [Brown] was shot down and that he was shot so many times.”
Ebenezer was the first stop for Holder who will be meeting with law enforcement, civic, and community leaders around the country. He embraced the gravity of the space he stood in by invoking the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he spoke to the standing room only sanctuary. “It was here at Ebenezer Baptist, well over half a century ago, that our nation’s greatest advocate for justice, for peace, and for righteousness began the work that would help to transform the nation – and usher in decades of extraordinary, once-unimaginable progress,” Holder said. “It was here that Dr. King set out not merely to change our laws, but to change the world – and to pull the country he loved ever closer to its founding principles.” He also thanked Dr. King for impacting his own life. “I stand here today as the result of the work he did. Who would have thought 50 years ago that a black attorney general would be serving a black president?”
However, Holder did not confine his speech to ruminations about the past, he laid out specific plans for the future. “While the grand jury proceeding in St. Louis County has concluded, I can report this evening that the Justice Department’s investigation into the shooting death of Michael Brown, as well as our investigation into allegations of unconstitutional policing patterns or practices by the Ferguson Police Department, remain ongoing and active.”
Even as he pledged to see these investigations through, protesters in the audience spontaneously interrupted his speech, shouting, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom! We have nothing to lose but our chains! No justice, No peace!”
Holder did not seem bothered by the outburst, stating, “What we saw there was a genuine expression of concern and involvement.” And then for a moment he threw off his professional veneer and invoked the late Tupac Shakur saying, “I ain’t mad at cha,” to the hearty applause of the audience.
He continued his speech laying out several steps President Obama will be taking to foster better relations between local police and the communities they serve: an exhaustive review of the distribution of military hardware to state and local police, a commitment of $263 million to support a three-year initiative that will invest in body-worn cameras and expand training for law enforcement agencies and updated Justice Department guidance regarding profiling by federal law enforcement. Finally, Holder said President Obama created a new task force on 21st Century Policing, a body composed of law enforcement executives and community leaders from around the country.
While the forum was a community conversation, it also seemed to be a changing of the guards for the civil rights community who honored the groundswell of young protesters that have mobilized in the wake of the Ferguson shooting. Rev. King, Dr. King’s youngest child and CEO of the King Center said, “I’m standing here as a representative of the King legacy to say congratulations and thank you to a new generation.”
Vivian said the “pent up passion” of these protesters was reminiscent of what Vivian and his generation of protesters felt. “We don’t mind listening to you so come on up and tell us.”
Various attendees were invited to share their perspectives including nine-year-old Ashli C. Clark, who spoke for children. She spoke about the contributions of Dr. King, Andrew Young, and President Obama saying, “What kind of gifts and talents will be buried if our lives our cut down too short. Next week I will be 10 years old. I don’t want to be considered a danger because I’m black. I want to grow up to be respected because I’m a child of God.”
Although not officially on the program, a Morehouse College student implored the audience to have their “undivided attention” several times before asking Holder to investigate the Atlanta Police Department as he said he was wrongfully arrested while protesting the grand jury decision in Atlanta last week. Holder responded by walking out of the sanctuary with the student.
Still there were some who were dissatisfied with the format of the forum which included nearly an hour of gospel music selections and prolonged speeches at times.
“I hoped to see more of a back and forth conversation instead of a church service so I am a little disappointed,” said Khristian Baker-Wilder, a Weslyan College student who drove up from Macon to be at the forum.
And while the audience was mostly black, there were people of other races in the audience including 24-year-old Tyler Pennington-Russell, who is white. “I don’t think [Brown] was racially profiled, but it wasn’t fair that he died for no apparent reason. I really don’t know what happened.”
Even as the forum continued late into the night, an impromptu gathering of young protesters gathered outside of the sanctuary in the dark unfettered by the official program and rules of engagement mandated inside. The leader, who stood in the circle of chanters, declared with a bullhorn, “They want us to be complacent, but we won’t.”