ST. LOUIS — When Michael Brown’s body was finally laid to rest Monday afternoon it was only after three autopsies, national outrage over his death and a still-uncertain fate for the police officer who shot and killed him.
But for just a moment, as Brown’s black and gold casket emerged from the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church and into the scorching Missouri sun, the racket of the past two weeks since his death seemed to dim -- if only for a moment.
“Right now, today, this is about solidarity and healing,” said the Rev. Eric Hayes, as Brown’s casket was being ushered from the church. “Every day has been about healing. But the question now is, will his family get justice? Because you can’t have true healing without justice.”
Among the thousands who came out to pay respect to Brown, 18, who was fatally shot during an altercation with Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, and his family, were a stream of politicians, dignitaries and celebrities.
They were joined by the families of other young, unarmed black men who have been killed by police officers or white gunmen, including the families of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and Oscar Grant.
“There are so many black boys in heaven right now,” said Ron Davis, the father of Jordan Davis, who was shot and killed in Jacksonville, Florida over a dispute over loud music. “They are screaming out, when is enough, enough.”
Brown family attorney Benjamin Crump and Rev. Al Sharpton reiterated their calls for justice and that the world remember Brown’s name for more than just the rioting and looting that followed his death.
“Michael Brown must be remembered for more than disturbances. He must be remembered for ‘this is when they started changing what was going on,’” Sharpton said during his eulogy for Brown. “This is not about you. This is about justice, this is about fairness.”
"Michael Brown must be remembered for more than disturbances. He must be remembered for 'this is when they started changing what was going on.'"'
Sharpton called on Congress to implement guidelines on policing and for authorities across the country to remove the “bad apples” from law enforcement.
At least 4,500 attendees filled the pews of Friendly Temple, two overflow rooms and a separate smaller sanctuary across the street from the church where mourners watched the service on large monitors. Among the notable mourners were Martin Luther King III, Bishop T.D. Jakes of the Potter’s House, movie director Spike Lee and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Notably absent was Gov. Jay Nixon, who was criticized for his initial reaction to the shooting. He skipped the service “out of respect for the family,” said Scott Holste, his press secretary.
Many of the speakers were unflinching in their remarks.
“There is a cry being made from the ground, not just for Michael Brown, but for the Trayvon Martins, for those children in Sandy Hook Elementary School, for the Columbine massacre, for black-on-black crime,” said the Rev. Charles Ewing, an uncle of Brown’s.
Sharpton blistered those who responded with violence to Brown’s death and called for the black community to pull itself together. He also took a jab at local law enforcement authorities.
“Can you imagine their hearts broken, their son taken, disregarded and marginalized and they have to stop mourning to get you to control your anger, like you’re more angry than they are?” Sharpton said.
“There’s not time for ghetto pity parties,” he said. “We got to clean up our communities so we can clean up the United States.”
Ferguson’s police department has been angrily criticized for not releasing pertinent information in the Brown case, including not filing a detailed police report but choosing to release surveillance video of a theft allegedly involving Brown that took place shortly before the shooting but had nothing to do with the case.
“America, how do you think we look when the world can see you can’t come up with a police report, but you can find a video?” Sharpton said. “How do you think we look when young people march nonviolently asking for the land of the free and home of the brave to hear their cry and you put snipers on the roof and pointed guns at them?”
Brown’s funeral, on the heels of so much turmoil, could mark a turning point in the community and in the investigation into Brown’s death.
A grand jury began hearing evidence in the case late last week. The St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office says it could take until October before the grand jury concludes, ultimately determining whether Wilson will face charges in Brown’s death.
“The funeral is the beginning. The looting was the beginning for Ferguson, but today is the beginning for the family to begin to heal and seek closure,” said Adrian Laney, who watched the memorial service in the spillover sanctuary. “For the family it will still be a long process to healing and justice.”
More than anything, Laney said the fact that Brown was killed by a police officer cuts deepest.
“We are told as children to dial 911 in times of trouble or emergency. For a member of the police department to have taken her son’s life, I can’t even imagine the hurt,” she said. “I feel if the police officer is not brought to justice, arrested and sentenced, that point right there will determine the beginning of a whole new revolution, all over and not just the city of St. Louis.”
Officer Wilson, a six-year veteran of the Ferguson Police Department, fatally shot Brown more than two weeks ago during an altercation that began with orders for Brown and a friend to get out of the street and onto the sidewalk, but ended with Wilson shooting Brown at least six times.
The police say Wilson fired in self-defense after Brown tried to take his gun. But witnesses paint a different picture. At least three eyewitnesses, including one just feet away from the shooting when it occurred, say Wilson accosted Brown and that he fired one shot as Brown tried to pull away from Wilson’s grip and several more shots as Brown tried to flee. Brown’s body was found about 30 feet from Wilson’s patrol car where the incident began.
Since the shooting there have been massive protests, some rioting and looting. The police have been criticized for their violent response to mostly peaceful protesters and the case has captured the attention of the White House. The Department of Justice is investigating the case to determine the possibility that Brown’s rights may have been violated and has also dispatched dozens of FBI agents to Ferguson to interview witnesses. The Obama administration also sent officials to Brown’s funeral.
“This is a closure. I think we’re in the process of recovering. But it’s also a new beginning so that we don’t have to experience this kind of violence again and to ensure that young people’s rights are respected and abided by,” said Missouri state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal shortly after the service. “I think that the community can heal when violence from police officers stops. And we’re able to exercise our rights that we have without being limited in any way.”
Gloria Simpson, 84, said she has lived through a lot of ups and downs in the area and that she has never seen anything like the groundswell that rocked the city in the wake of Brown’s death.
“It’s just a sad situation,” Simpson said. “I think it’s going to stay sad until they catch that officer and arrest him.”
Shortly after the service and as thousands of people spilled onto Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard, Brown’s casket was ushered from the church, topped with red roses.
Cameras flashed as the family exited the church, followed by a procession of loved ones who pushed through the awaiting hoard to a pair of hearses. About two miles away at St. Peter’s Cemetery, a horse-drawn carriage would carry Brown’s body to its final resting place.
Mourners sang songs of praise and “We Shall Overcome” as Brown’s body was lowered into the ground.