On the eve of Thanksgiving, I think of a boy I once knew. He was 17 years old. He was tall. He still had a baby face. He stopped smiling if you noticed. He was trying as hard as he could to look tough, to be tough. He was like lots of other kids in that way. But, in many other ways, he was just himself—goofy, empathetic.
Then one day, he became like too many American sons. He was shot down in his neighborhood. His brother was being shot, and he saved him. His honorable end was still that—an end.
So many years later, looking at Michael Brown’s face, I can’t help but think of my student. Certainly, Michael Brown’s story has many turns that were quite different. But, in both situations, a young man stood on a street and found a violent end thanks to the violent path of a bullet.
Since the announcement of the lack of an indictment, I have realized that for me this is a reminder of my student. I keep remembering the terrible feeling of looking down into that coffin, and seeing his baby face lying so peacefully there. I remember the whole community of people stuffed into that church on a desolate Cleveland street. I remember the scores of kids who testified to the great times they had. The sea of black coats all trembling quietly in the pews.
I remember feeling sick then, more sick than I feel now. Now, I feel terribly, awfully resigned. We are at a moment, half a century after the civil rights movement, where gun violence is one of the greatest public health risks in our cities. There are young African-American men, children, really, who are shot daily. The shooter’s race is sort of irrelevant to me. Our sons, our students, our friends are dying. Certainly, there are mitigating factors, drugs, poverty, education, nutrition…But, at its core, my student’s mother has had one less son to hug on Thanksgiving. He was not sick. He was living in a country that is sick with gun violence.