When 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., his father said he lost not only the son who bore his name, but also his best friend.
“He was the best man at my wedding,” Michael Brown Sr. told an audience at California State University, Sacramento, on Thursday night.
The younger Brown’s death at the hands of a white police officer on Aug. 9, 2014, led to demonstrations and launched the Black Lives Matter movement.
The senior Brown asked the people in the audience to close their eyes for few moments and imagine that their son or daughter has been killed and to ask themselves why this was happening to them and their family. Then imagine waking up and trying to move forward.
“That’s my reality,” he said.
Brown described going to the shooting scene and being turned away by police who wouldn’t let him see his son. His son’s covered body remained at the site for more than four hours while officers conducted their investigation.
Then came the sometimes violent demonstrations. The media, he said, ceased talking about his son, turning attention to protesters while linking his son’s name to the demonstrations.
“Me and my son were private people,” Brown told reporters before the lecture. “Ever since this happened, it’s opened me up like a book. My private life is over.”
A St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, who is white, in the young man’s shooting. The U.S. Justice Department also cleared the officer, concluding that evidence backed his claim that he shot Brown in self-defense after Brown tried to grab his gun during a struggle through the window of Wilson’s police vehicle, then came toward him threateningly after briefly running away.
But a federal investigation into the Ferguson police force found patterns of racial bias throughout the city’s criminal justice system. A Justice Department report in March 2015 found officers routinely used excessive force, issued petty citations and made baseless traffic stops in the city of about 21,000 residents, about two-thirds of whom are black.
Michael Brown Sr. said that after his son was killed, he decided to channel his grief into something positive. He founded the Michael Brown Foundation, which operates as Chosen for Change and aims to provide support for families who have lost loved ones due to police brutality or community violence.
Brown said he is particularly eager to help men cope with loss, noting that the public’s attention often focuses on grieving mothers.
“Not only women hurt. Fathers hurt too,” he said.
Brown said he shares a bond with other families who have lost loved ones in heavily publicized police shootings.
He said he was not familiar with the case of 50-year-old Joseph Mann, who was shot by Sacramento police July 11 after brandishing a knife and acting erratically, but he said he would be meeting with the family of Oscar Grant, who was shot by a BART police officer at Oakland’s Fruitvale station on New Year’s Day 2009.
The Sacramento State appearance is part of a tour of college campuses by Brown and his wife, Cal. Brown said he wants to tell people the truth about his son.
“It helps me be with him, talking about him in a positive way,” he said.
Brown said he aims to honor his son and help others through the foundation. The younger Michael Brown had a heart for homeless people, his father said. He helped feed the homeless and gave money to needy people he met on the street.
Through the foundation, Brown said, he has adopted a school in St. Louis that he and a group of men visit regularly to let the children know that someone loves them and to give them confidence.
During a question-and-answer session, several people in the audience told Brown that his experiences resonated with them. One woman said her husband was killed by police in 2013 and Thursday evening was the first time she had spoken publicly about it.
“I understand your pain and the cross that you bear,” she said.
Another woman said she was concerned about her brothers in their late teens and early 20s who treat it as a joke when she urged them to “shape up.” She asked Brown what she should do.
“Pray for them and spend as much time as you can with them,” Brown said. “They’re not babies anymore. You can’t hold their hand. Some people just have to be introduced to the real world.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.