No justice in America: Why promises of change were too slow for Mike Brown

Like so many others before them, Mike Brown's family was denied not just justice -- but fairness

Published November 25, 2014 4:15PM (EST)

Parents of Michael Brown, Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden          (AP/Charlie Riedel)
Parents of Michael Brown, Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden (AP/Charlie Riedel)

There is no such thing as justice for a dead 18-year-old kid. Justice, to borrow from Mychal Denzel Smith, would mean Mike Brown gets home on that sweltering summer day. Justice would mean a future for Brown, a long stream of years to be spent however he would have spent them.

The possibility of justice for Mike Brown died with him back in August.

What we had before us with the grand jury hearing was the prospect of fairness, imperfectly defined in a terribly broken and racist system. And here that would have meant a white police officer standing trial for killing an unarmed black kid. It would have meant that 12 people walked into a room and decided, together, that an 18-year-old did not deserve to die because a cop told him to get on the sidewalk, and that Darren Wilson deserved to face a jury of his peers for putting six bullets into Brown’s arms and head.

Justice is always elusive in this system. What continues to shock, even the cynical, is how the appearance of fairness is often too much to ask. It’s more than likely that Wilson would have escaped a conviction had he gone to trial, but an indictment would have been a sign, meager as it was, that the system recognized the value of Mike Brown’s life. An acknowledgment that putting Wilson on paid administrative leave or a desk position or an orchestrated resignation was not an appropriate response to an officer killing an unarmed teenager.

I thought again of fairness and justice and how our system overwhelmingly fails black Americans on both counts when Marissa Alexander agreed to a plea deal that would grant her release from jail come January. Alexander, who was arrested and jailed after firing a warning shot to ward off the man who had a history of abusing her and had threatened to kill her, likely took the deal because the alternative was 60 years in prison. Alexander pleaded guilty to three charges of aggravated assault and was sentenced to three years, including the time she had already served.

Accepting the plea was likely a choice between death and death. Alexander has already spent 1,030 days in jail. Submitting to the will of the court maybe seemed like a burden worth shouldering if it meant getting outside the system that has only vilified her, brought her suffering and cruelty.

Alexander wanted justice when she defended herself against her abusive husband. She was arrested for having such an ambition. Once at trial, she expected fairness. The state of Florida denied her that, too.

And so it goes for Mike Brown’s family. In a statement after the news from the grand jury came down, Brown's parents called for continued action to fix the unjust system that let Wilson walk and said only, “We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions.”

The killer of their child will not face the consequence of his actions. Even the modest consequence of having to stand before a jury that in all likelihood would have let him walk.

I’m not sure what happens next. Protests have kept the nation’s attention on Ferguson for months, and the people organizing there and elsewhere will likely strengthen in the wake of the grand jury’s refusal to indict. Their activism has fostered a national and international conversation, one growing from the roots up, about police violence, about the racism of the criminal justice system, about a culture of white supremacy, about who gets to fear for their lives.

And Brown's parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., were right to remind us that, even through their pain, "We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen." Because a Wilson indictment would have been important -- a victory for fairness, of the system working how we're told that it should. But justice for McSpadden and Brown might just be having their son's name on the nation's lips as a movement pushes for a system that can hold officers to account when they kill with impunity.

As the body count rises, as the names of the young black kids whose lives have been stolen from them are uttered during marches and across kitchen tables, momentum is building. Change is coming.

But it’s too slow. Too slow for Mike Brown. Too slow for Tamir Rice. Too slow for Akai Gurley. Too slow for Marissa Alexander. Too slow.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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