By Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
His teenage body lay cooking in the August heat as the world watched. Michael Brown, 18, was dead on the street of Ferguson, Missouri, shot by Police Officer Darren Wilson. This image from 2014 has never left me. The deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and thousands of others killed by white people, with impunity, led me to write articles, essays, books and then a stage-play titled “SHOT.”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I wanted to do my part to bring justice to America’s criminal justice system. When broadcast media called me, I accepted every offer. My quotes in print media were pervasive but inadequacy haunted me. I felt too few were listening, feeling the pain. News cycles came and went. The next shooting, suffocation or beating further numbed the press and the country. Each death had to be more shocking, have pictures, video or else it would be ignored by most major networks. Police could kill with abandon without paying for their crimes. Yet, America is without any national criminal justice reform.
My career began as a civil rights attorney. Then, I became a professor of constitutional law and legal correspondent. I did not prefer one career over another. Instead, I was looking for the best way to change the world. Civil rights work was a choice made early. But the legal standards favored police. Journalists are supposed to be dispassionate and neutral. Yet, I had sleepless nights over the murder of Black people by police. Throughout I was always a writer, and theater was a vital part of my life. As a young person, I was influenced by James Baldwin, the novelist, playwright as well as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Zora Neale Hurston. All three were journalists and activists who wrote across genres.
Nothing prepared me for the helplessness. Black people were being massacred. It was genocide. About which liberals felt bad and conservatives blamed the victims. Cops excused other cops. Prosecutors turned their backs on justice. Protesters rose to action. Legislators held press conferences. But Black men, women and children continued to die at the hands of police. Officers claimed they feared for their lives. Some may have. Under law, deadly force requires proof for civilians as well as police. There were few instances in which officers were forced to prove it.
Even Black unarmed Americans were killed. While white anti-police factions grew in power. The same summer Michael Brown was killed, a white couple, Jerad, 31, and Amanda Miller, 22, both anti-government vigilantes, killed two white police officers in Las Vegas. In September of that year, Eric Frein, 37, of New Jersey, ambushed and executed Pennsylvania State Trooper Bryon Dickson and wounded, Alex Douglass, his partner. After a 48-day national manhunt, Frein was captured, alive. He was not gunned down. White murderers, even mass murderers, rarely die at the hands of law enforcement. Frein lived to be judged in a court of law.
In 2020, the murder of George Floyd, 46, sparked mass protests around the world. In America, protesters challenged Floyd’s murder and that of other police-involved civilian deaths. In Washington, D.C., U.S. Attorney General William Barr ordered a militarized attack on peaceful protesters. “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) and others were viewed as threats to the government. The deployment of the National Guard, 82nd Airborne and Infantry regiments against widespread protests was the largest military operation other than war in U.S. history, according to the National Guard Media.
BLM protesters were over-profiled. But it was thousands of angry whites who, on Jan. 6, attacked the Capitol to stop the lawful inauguration of President-elect Joseph Biden. Incited by President Donald Trump, they broke through barricades and smashed windows. Some constructed gallows to hang Vice-President Michael Pence. The Senate chamber was breached. A Capitol officer killed. Blood thirsty marauders wandered the halls of the House of Representatives searching for Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House. They found her office, empty. Among the massive mob were white supremacists, members of the Ku Klux Klan and off-duty police officers. Few arrests were made. One female rioter was killed. A similar scenario with Black protesters would be unimaginable.
This attack on the Capitol took place in the same week that District Attorney Michael Graveley, in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, decided not to prosecute white Police Officer Rusten Sheskey. On Aug. 25, 2020, Sheskey shot Jacob Blake, 29, an unarmed Black man, seven times in the back, with Blake’s three sons in the car. Blake is now paralyzed for life. Graveley said he would not seek charges against Sheskey. It is not enough for prosecutors to sabotage their own cases against police officers. Some prosecutors, like Graveley, are not even asking a Grand Jury to look at evidence. They refuse to go to trial. Victims in cases like Breonna Taylor, murdered by police in Louisville, Kentucky, may never receive justice from America’s criminal injustice system.
As a constitutional law professor this unfairness haunts me. I wrote about the history of America’s lynch mobs in my books “She Took Justice: The Black Woman, Law, and Power” and “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present.” As early as 1669, in the Virginia Colony, whites who killed Africans would not be charged with a felony. Thousands of Black men, women, and children have been lynched in America without arrest or prosecution. Law enforcement agents were in the lynch mobs or complicit in inciting them back then. Those lynch mobs looked very much like the one that attacked our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6.
Only theater could speak to my combination of sadness and anger. Racism is not logical. There was no rational basis for the disparities in treatment within America’s criminal justice system. It is a system born in slavery where Black people are still over-policed and crushingly prosecuted. For me, only a stage-play could capture the racial hypocrisy of a nation of laws turning its back on justice. Prosecutors failing to prosecute. Police killing American citizens. News media bored with telling these tragic stories while African Americans, like myself, push equality under law.
“SHOT” is my activism in writing. I call the style of “SHOT” spiritual realism. One audience member who saw it said she liked that both sides of the story were told. Another attendee of “SHOT” was taken by Kareem’s teenage innocence. As with all my plays, and this is the seventh, I allow the characters to tell their own stories through me. This is a stage-play about a murdered Black teen, Kareem, whose soul cannot ascend until he has answers – why did he do it? Kareem haunts Officer O’Donald who is white.
In “SHOT” there are no witnesses. Did Officer O’Donald kill because he could get away with it? Like Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor and thousands of lives taken by police, this fictional Black victim must find justice in the afterlife because there is none in our courts. My fight for justice requires the use of all of my God-given talents. Only after I wrote “SHOT,” placing Kareem’s ghostly weight on Officer O’Donald, did I feel my own burden shift. My deepest feelings about police brutality were expressed through theater. Feelings and thoughts that reached beyond the power of journalism and law.
View the enhanced version of “SHOT: Caught a Soul.” here: https://vimeo.com/496755244
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall is a writer, professor of constitutional law, award-winning legal correspondent and playwright. Her recent book is “She Took Justice: The Black Woman, Law, and Power.” Her play “SHOT: Caught a Soul” was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.