The Baptism of Michael Brown Sr. and Ferguson’s Baptism by Fire
When Michael Brown Sr. joined nearly a dozen members of his family to be baptized Sunday, his son was supposed to be there. For reasons that might never be known, Michael Brown instead lay in a grave in the city of Ferguson, as the family and the world waited to hear whether the officer who killed him would be indicted.
Brown Sr. walked into a 400-gallon pool at Calvary West Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, soaking his white undershirt and gray shorts, water dripping off his long, jet black beard. When he emerged, the lights overhead glinted off Brown’s gold front teeth, exposed and gleaming from a wide grin.
“In the Christian faith a person can be baptized whenever they decide to, and Michael Brown Sr. decided this was the right time,” Rev. Carlton Lee said. “It had nothing to do with the grand jury decision. It was something the family was going to do before this situation came into play—before their son was murdered.”
The occasion marked the second time Brown Sr. has committed to Christ—a pledge he intended to make with his 18-year-old son.
“To see him make that commitment, and then the fact that he wanted to make sure his kids were baptized, speaks volumes,” Lee said.
A little more than 24 hours after the ceremony, Brown would join the rest of the world in hearing the grand jury’s decision: His son’s killer, Darren Wilson, would not be indicted.
Within the 12 hours that followed, Lee’s brother, the Rev. Henry Logan, would watch the Heal STL office where he worked burn to the ground. By Wednesday morning, Lee’s church sat in ruins, itself the target of an apparent arson.
“Right now we’re trying to just find… we have yet to figure that out,” Lee said with a pause, trying to come up with the words to express the loss of his church and the coming search for a new one. “Wherever it is, it will be in Ferguson.”
“We are committed to this community and this cause,” he said. “We are committed to continue the fight for justice. We just have to figure out where to go from here.”
Lee’s remarks mirror the opinion of many in Ferguson, where Mike Brown is seen mostly as an innocent victim of an overbearing cop. His death—the result of a 90-second interaction with Wilson—eventually exploded into an international news event that began on Canfield Drive, where the teen went down, and where his father was seen in hysterics as his son’s blood dried on the asphalt.
With little information being provided by the cops, Brown’s legend grew. Social media pushed rumors and misinformation, videos, witnesses, leads, angles, the wrong cop’s name, alternative stories—anything and everything that comes as a result of a chaotic situation. By the time looting began the next night, Brown’s son had unwittingly and tragically taken his father’s name farther than the St. Louis-area native likely ever would.
As 8 o’clock came and went Monday night, the crowd outside Ferguson Police headquarters became increasingly reckless. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch was late to his own press conference, one he apparently scheduled for the cold of late evening. The move drew criticism from TV pundits and protesters alike.
“It don’t take this long to be put in the back of a police car,” quipped one man who leaned on the trunk of a car with the radio cranked and surrounded by people waiting for the decision.
Sitting on the roof was Sabrina Webb, Mike Brown’s cousin. She would eventually be joined by Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, and her husband, Louis Head. What happened following the announcement, which didn’t come until closer to 8:30, after McCulloch took turns explaining the grand jury process, running over some of the evidence, and blaming media—social and traditional—made headlines worldwide. As McSpadden wailed in grief, Head climbed on the hood of the car to console her. After a brief hug, he turned to the crowd.
“Burn this motherfucker down!” he shouted.
“Burn this bitch down! Burn this bitch down!”
There you have it, cable news proclaimed. Head’s words provided a convenient explanation for the looting and burning that followed McCulloch’s announcement that Wilson wouldn’t be charged.
Pastor Henry Logan was on top of that very same car.
“People thought, he’s standing on a car, so he’s got a voice. But a lot of people had a voice, you know? A lot of people we’re saying ‘We’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that. F the police. Burn it down,’ all kinds of stuff,” said Logan. “What makes me mad with media is that they take excerpts.”
That’s exactly what it was. While the video clip has been repeated on TV hundreds of times in the past few days, Head’s brief call for violence in the jam-packed street that night was just a few words out of many screamed in a crowd. For quite a few there, not only were Head’s remarks difficult if not impossible to hear, but the man himself wasn’t even recognized by most, Logan said. Besides, after months of waiting for what many knew would be a disappointing outcome, Head’s cry was simply a caught-on-camera admission of what an entire section of the community felt.
“My stance on it is: We all say things in the heat of the moment that we may not think through and mean at the time. I refuse to judge him on what he said,” Logan said. “That’s just how he felt at that moment. That’s not what he wanted to happen.”
It’s not what Logan wanted, either. For months, he and other clergy members have been working as mediators between protesters and the police, only to see that relationship fall apart just a few days before the announcement was made. Logan was especially incensed at comments made Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol following Monday night’s inferno.
“Don’t believe that crock of bull that clergy was not there on the front lines,” Logan wrote on his Facebook page. “Are you crazy?”
Religious leaders were there, Logan said, but not all of them were dressed in typical preacher garb. In addition to blending in with the crowd, Logan and his religious allies had to contend with their newfound shunning by some groups of protesters.
“We had been working with them, with police, trying to get charges reduced or dropped when people were arrested. Getting bail reduced, that sort of thing,” he said. “But then the protesters just said ‘We don’t need you anymore. We want to be on our own now.’”
That didn’t mean Logan left. Just after Michael Brown’s stepfather called for the fires that would consume much of Ferguson, Logan joined him on top of the car. You can see him in the video, jamming his headphones into the pocket of his black trenchcoat.
He hopped up there in an attempt to shield McSpadden from the cameras, which were yielded not by television crews but by fellow protesters.
“Before I even got on the hood, I was putting my hand out, asking people to stop recording for the simple reason that this is a mother who is distraught right now.”
What’s more frustrating for Logan, though, is the failure and demise of Heal STL office where he spent a lot of his time prior to Monday.
The organization, founded by St. Louis Alderman Antonio French and State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal, was formed, in part, to drive up voter registration in Ferguson and surrounding towns. Initial reports that 3,000 people had registered to vote in the six weeks following Brown’s death were pulled back. The true figure was a dismal 128. What’s more, McCulloch, who ran unopposed on Nov. 4, faced only 1,000 write-ins when about half of Ferguson’s population went to the polls that day.
Then Heal STL was burned down Monday like a moribund body for cremation.
“We were on the target lists,” Logan said. “I was told by some of the more extreme protesters, ‘This city going burn and Heal STL is going with it.’”
Still, Logan was able to remain positive, even lighthearted.
“I shouldn’t be laughing, but it was not a shock to hear that Heal STL was on fire,” he said. “I did not think that it would go to the extent it did, but our office was not shocked.”
Heal STL was destroyed, as were several other shops and offices contained in the building that went up in smoke Monday night. They joined 11 structures that will have to be completely rebuilt—if at all—as Ferguson gets back on its feet. You can add one more building to that list: Pastor Lee’s Flood Christian Church. The feds are investigating the fire and suspect arson. Lee was in good spirits Wednesday night. Optimism must run in the family.
“That was one little punch,” he said. “But we weren’t knocked down.”