Lezley McSpadden Is Still Fighting

Six years ago, her son Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. The officer has faced no charges.

Photo: Vanessa Charlot
Photo: Vanessa Charlot

Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown around this time of year, when the high summer sun in Missouri heats the pavement to temperatures that sear the skin. There are concerts, and at night the riverfront lights up with fireworks. Around this time, Lezley McSpadden’s mind usually turns to the logistics of honoring her late son, whom she called “Mike Mike.” Usually, she is planning an annual foundation gala to benefit mothers who have lost children to violence or preparing a visit to Brown’s grave site on the anniversary of his death, August 9.

But this summer brought with it a new climate, with protesters calling out the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and, still, Mike Brown. Seeing indictments of officers, a police department disbanded, and decades-old laws overturned in other states, McSpadden, 40, can’t help but think that the moment has come for the officer who killed her son to face a reckoning too. After some time out of the spotlight, and another infuriating interaction with the legal system, McSpadden has returned to her public fight.

“I respect time,” she told me in late July. “And I just knew that there was no way that this person would get away with this, you know, this cold killing of my son in broad daylight in front of so many people.” She got out the words “I just knew he wouldn’t get away with it” for a second time before emotion welled up. Sitting in a bright room in the house where she lives with her husband and three children in Florissant, one town over from the St. Louis suburb Ferguson, she paused. “Time showed us otherwise.” Behind her was a bureau topped with artwork featuring her son. His oval face appeared in miniature next to hers on my screen. She wore her hair up in braids, horn-rimmed glasses, hoop earrings, a thin gold chain with a cross, and a red T-shirt that showed her son’s eyes silhouetted in black against her chest. “It hadn’t reached that time for us as people.” She gathered her thoughts. “Equality was still not present.”

Her family’s story is now American history: On August 9, 2014, Brown and a friend were walking in the middle of Canfield Drive, a short, two-lane street. Wilson, a white police officer, ordered the young men to use the sidewalk. The interaction grew heated when they refused. Wilson, who later claimed that Brown approached his car and punched him in the face, pulled out his weapon and fired. He said Brown took on the look of a demon and fled. The officer later testified that Brown turned around and reached under his waistband as if to remove a weapon. Some witnesses claimed that Brown had his hands up. Wilson shot Brown, who was in fact unarmed, in the head. In the aftermath, cops investigating the shooting left Brown’s body on the hot asphalt for more than four hours as McSpadden and Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., moved through a furious and growing crowd of onlookers, unable to push past police to get close to their son. Television cameras and phones filmed as Brown’s body lay there under a sheet.

The next day, people took to the streets, many marching peacefully while others set cars and a gas station ablaze. Ferguson police responded with military-like force. Within days, Black Lives Matter, the hashtag that emerged after Trayvon Martin’s death, became a burgeoning movement. But a St. Louis County grand jury convened by Bob McCulloch—a law-and-order prosecutor in office for almost 30 years whose father was a police officer killed in the line of duty—declined to file charges against Wilson.

Months later, a federal investigation by Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department found that Ferguson had a “pattern of unconstitutional policing” and practices that “reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias,” but that Brown’s killing did not constitute a federal civil-rights violation. “Witness accounts suggesting that Brown was standing still with his hands raised in an unambiguous signal of surrender when Wilson shot Brown are inconsistent with the physical evidence, are otherwise not credible because of internal inconsistencies, or are not credible because of inconsistencies with other credible evidence,” the Justice Department reported.

“And so we fast-forward, six years later,” McSpadden said, bringing us back to the present, “and there’ve been numerous accounts of police brutality that have been recorded and played and there’s still no justice; there was still no conviction. And then Ahmaud comes up, Breonna comes up, and George comes up, and we see a different movement in this moment of time. So maybe now is the time.”

The door to a new prosecution cracked open for McSpadden in 2018. Wesley Bell, a Black lawyer and city councilman, ran against McCulloch, campaigning on a progressive platform to end cash bail and provide alternatives to incarceration. Bell won the Democratic primary, effectively winning the election and becoming the county’s first Black prosecutor. The victory is part of a tide of change since Brown’s death, in which many African-American and reformist prosecutors have won elections nationwide. And Ferguson, the majority-Black city that in 2014 had a white mayor and a six-person city council with one Black member, now has a Black mayor and a council that’s 50 percent Black. McSpadden ran for city council last year, attempting to be part of that change from inside the government, but lost to another community activist. “Campaigning was scary,” she told me. “I had to knock on all those doors. I had to listen to people saying they weren’t going to vote for me. But it was important to me to go back for those who absolutely did support me, supported me when I couldn’t even support myself.”

When Bell took office, he fired the assistant prosecutor who presented evidence to the grand-jury investigation. But he demurred on questions about whether he would charge Wilson. This time last year, Brown’s father demanded that Bell file charges, but Bell gave his usual response, a prepared statement: “Our office is doing everything we can to understand the underlying issues that contributed to the tragic death of Michael Brown.”

His reticence frustrated McSpadden. “So Wesley, as a St. Louisan and as a Black man who is supposed to be a representation of us here who elected him—it is his oath to do the right thing,” she said. “And I’m begging him to do that. And we know that he can do that. He needs no one else to give him approval. We gave him approval when we elected him.”

Then, on July 30, Bell met separately with McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. to tell them what he would announce at a news conference later that afternoon: He had reviewed the investigation into Brown’s death and reached the same conclusion as McCulloch. “Although this case represents one of the most significant moments in St. Louis’s history, the question for this office was a simple one: Could we prove beyond a reasonable doubt that when Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown he committed murder or manslaughter under Missouri law?” Mr. Bell said. “We cannot prove that he did.”

Bell added, “This case also exposes the limits of the law.”

McSpadden isn’t giving up. Together with her lawyers Benjamin Crump and Jerryl Christmas, she launched a petition to gather support for indicting Wilson and has planned a rally for this Sunday in front of Bell’s office in St. Louis County.

“For a moment, for a long moment, I was beating myself up in not being the best that I could be for my other children,” she said. Those other children seemed to be watching our conversation just outside the frame, and she gestured to them occasionally as she spoke. McSpadden has leaned on several mothers who also lost children to police killings. She’s spoken to Tamir Rice’s mother “maybe two or three times a day, every day. And our conversations were very emotional. One day, she told me, ‘You know, you have to talk to someone.’ I got with my team of ladies that I work with now, my foundation, and I decided to go and see a therapist. And I’ve been seeing her now for over two years, maybe close to three. And she has helped me with learning how to express a lot of my emotions.” She said she is moving through the stages of grief.

It has been a little while since McSpadden was in touch with the other mothers. “We try to reach out to one another close to the anniversary dates.” And she has kept her distance from the recent protests. “I know what that feels like and I have to preserve myself for this part of my journey,” pressuring Bell to move forward with the case.

“I think now is the time, and that’s what we are seeing,” McSpadden said. “And I’m so grateful to be alive during this time.”

*A version of this article appears in the August 3, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Lezley McSpadden Is Still Fighting