I arrive in St. Louis a month after the Darren Wilson verdict tore the lid off the facade of peaceful race relations in America. The last person to look Michael Brown in the face, speak to him, walks free as I tread the streets of my hometown and take in what’s left of Ferguson.
It’s the first time I’ve been home in one year. The holidays are still the holidays: turkey dinners, family gatherings, and houses adorned with Christmas lights. But the festive air veils a ghastly tension that can’t be ignored or downplayed.
I expected to tear up when the pilot announced our descent. I pictured running into my mother’s arms, surrounded by photographs of the demonstrations defining the city for the past few months.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t cry; I’m too wired on coffee and peanuts given to me on the plane. The same pictures of the Arch and other St. Louis historic landmarks align the airport’s walls.
Police cars don’t circle the premises, and protesters aren’t sprawled on the ground in the middle of the latest die-in. There’s no snarling mouths pressed against bullhorns or raised fists pounding the air.
Instead, I’m greeted with a stale sadness. The entire city is like a body coming out of shock after a major traumatic event. All the signs are there: confusion, anxiety, hopelessness, fatigue. From flashing cameras and burning buildings to celebrity and activists’ cameos, every trace of the summer’s explosive events are long gone, leaving only a rage choked off by sorrow.
I meet the eyes of people who, like me, have quietly drawn the same conclusion: our city is like many places in this county in that it is—has always been—culturally scarred. The tragedy that took place on August 9 was merely another protective scab torn off the wounds inflicted by years of injustice and police brutality. And, like a keloid being sliced open by a razor, the city’s secrets exploded, spewing onto the streets like blood over skin.
Seeing the aftermath of a wound reopened brings mixed emotions. There’s no longer several states to separate me from the reality of what’s transpired. It’s not the first time I’ve been close to the center of this nature of injustice; in 2009, the tragic murder of Oscar Grant occurred just a subway stop away from where I live in Oakland. But nothing with this amount of national and international backlash.
Even dead, Michael Brown is powerful. At 6’4”, his body dominates the famous photo of him lying face down in a pool of his own blood near the entrance of his apartment complex. The image infuriated viewers of all backgrounds and made me wonder why Black bodies are only allowed to take up space when pulseless and horizontal.
Driving down some of Ferguson’s streets awakens the need to have this question addressed. A patchwork of crushed brick, fallen beams, spray painted boards, and scattered debris have turned a once-thriving neighborhood into the likeness of a landfill.
I park inside Brown’s apartment complex and walk into a cluster of young men with stony faces guarding the makeshift memorial created by residents. My stomach is in knots as I ask one of them, a brawny dark-skinned guy with shoulder-length dreadlocks, if I can take photos of the site.
“Go ahead, sis,” he says, nodding toward the mound of flowers and stuffed animals in the middle of the street. He explains that he and his friends are keeping watch over the area after a group of intruders tried to destroy the memorial in the middle of the night.
He continues surveying the grounds behind me, but his voice is warm and welcoming. While talking to him, I learn the other face of the aftermath. Even after enduring such a loss, people in the community seem more careful with each other. Their actions are tender and encouraging. With long smiles and attentive eyes, they say, ‘I’ve got you. Let’s heal each other.’
I never imagined my hometown would one day be at the heart of a debate on race relations, or that Michael Brown’s person would be thrown on America’s growing mural of minorities who’ve fallen victim to police brutality. Now that the worst has happened, the way forward involves never forgetting, embracing dialogue on these atrocities, willing our wellness, and firmly standing for peace.
Lyndsey Ellis is Social Inclusion Campaign Assistant for Peers Envisioning and Engaging Recovery Services (PEERS). PEERS is a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, Calif. that advocates for mental health awareness and ending mental health stigma.