FERGUSON, Mo. – Michael Brown Sr. stood alone in the center of the narrow street where the blood of his namesake son still stained the gray pavement, two days after the 18-year-old was shot dead by a police officer. He straightened a waist-high wooden cross and re-lit the candles erected as part of a makeshift memorial.
“Big Mike,” as some of his friends called Michael Brown Jr., wasn’t the type to fight, though he lived in a restless neighborhood where police were on frequent patrol. His parents and neighbors described him as a good-hearted kid with an easy smile who certainly wouldn’t have condoned the violence and looting that spread though his north St. Louis suburb following his death.
“He was funny, silly, he would make you laugh,” his father said, and when there was “any problem going on, any situation, there wasn’t nothing that he couldn’t solve. He could bring people back together.”
Brown, who was unarmed, was shot Saturday by a Ferguson police officer while walking with a friend down the center of the street. Police have said a scuffle broke out after the officer asked the boys to move to the side. Witnesses say Brown’s arms were in the air – in a sign of surrender – as a white policeman repeatedly shot the black youth.
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After a vigil Sunday night, an angry crowd looted stores, and a night later police in Ferguson fired tear gas in an attempt to disperse protesters. The U.S. Justice Department has announced that its civil rights division was opening an investigation, and Brown’s family retained the same lawyer who had represented relatives of Trayvon Martin – the Florida teen killed in a racially charged 2012 shooting. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton was to meet with Brown’s family on Tuesday as tensions remained high.
Brown, who had recently graduated from Normandy High School, had been staying at his grandmother’s apartment, where he would often hang out in the parking lot tossing a football with friends, said Markese Mull, a neighbor whose 17-year-old-son was one of Brown’s closer friends.
Brown was an aspiring rapper, though it was more of a hobby. This week, he was supposed to start college in pursuit of a career as a heating and air conditioning engineer. On the day of this death, Brown had walked with another friend to a nearby convenience store. Mull saw them in the street and honked his horn to say to “hi” – just minutes before the police officer came by.
“He was never a person who liked confrontation,” Mull said. “His smile was going to make you smile.”
Neighbors described Brown as quiet and respectful – a “good boy,” who “was never in trouble,” said Sharon Johnson, 58, who lives just a little ways down the street. Johnson said Brown would frequently stop to chat.
“We talked about how when you turn yourself to the Lord you feel so good – and good things come your way,” Johnson said. “He had a more mature mind than a little boy’s mind.”
On Monday, Johnson was standing at the side of the street where Brown was shot as a woman who had driven in from a nearby community preached loudly to anyone willing to listen about the importance of peaceful protests and parental discipline for teenagers.
A passing car stopped, letting out a man wearing a newly made black T-shirt bearing Brown’s baby picture and the words “NO JUSTICE NO PEACE.”
“I’m his father,” he said somberly, eliciting hugs.
The older Brown picked up a piece of cardboard that had been lying on the ground. “End police brutality,” it read. He placed it on a pile of toy animals stacked by a streetlight pole, then set about straightening up his son’s mid-street memorial.
He had just returned to the grass when a gunshot rang out. Then another. And another. It was time to go.