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A public display of dignified grief

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Attorney Ben Crump, right, and Khalil Ferebee, centre, the son of Andrew Brown Jr, speak outside the Pasquotank County Public Safety building on Monday. Brown was shot and killed by officers last week when they confronted him in his car (Photograph by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

The family of Andrew Brown Jr have gathered outside the Pasquotank County Public Safety building in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, multiple times over the past week to put their grief and anger on display in front of the media and supporters. They laid out their anguish for public consumption in a number of chaotic news conferences because this is what families must do when a loved one is killed during an encounter with police and they are in search of the truth.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts

Brown was shot and killed by officers last week when they confronted him in his car with a search warrant and an arrest warrant on felony drug charges. The family believe that the circumstances of Brown's death are suspicious and that the truth lies in the police body-camera video. They have made public pleas demanding to see it, expressed their outrage over how little of it they have been allowed to see so far and seethed over revelations from an independent autopsy that showed Brown was ultimately killed by a single bullet to the back of his head.

This public unspooling of grief is one of the rituals for families like the Browns — people of colour whose relatives have died because of police violence. These regular folks never look comfortable in that bright spotlight. They rarely look as though they are fully prepared for what they will face — for the avalanche of questions, the suspicions, the expectations that their relative be perfect because simply being human isn't enough.

On Monday, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a protective huddle behind a single lectern that was dwarfed by the sheer number of people who had come to bear witness. In these early days, they often speak haltingly and in sentences that are spare. Their grief is deep and rough. It pulls you in like a rip tide.

"It's like we against all odds in this world," said Khalil Ferebee, Brown's son. "He got executed. It ain't right. It ain't right at all."

The family are controlled. The tears are tasteful and quiet. They came for answers and they received nothing. Still, they close their news conference with a prayer. They join their hands and bow their heads.

The family are dignified because that's what the country expects of them. That's what the country needs. And one wishes that for once, a family faced with such horror could be unashamedly, cathartically undignified. One wishes they could scream and cry and throw things against a wall if that's what they wanted to do, if that would make them feel better. If they would not be judged.

The family wear their casual clothes and the lawyers come in sober suits. It's a team of attorneys these days because that's what's required to navigate the inevitable quagmire of governmental rulings and bureaucratic intransigence, media interviews and grassroots protesting. The lawyers are part of the grieving process, part of the ministry for the living.

In Elizabeth City, the lawyers explained that state law requires a court order to release the police video. They reminded the public that simply having a warrant issued for one's arrest does not constitute guilt and that real life is not a police procedural drama in which an officer's gut feeling is the rule of law.

The lawyer Ben Crump, who has stood with many of these families, points out Brown's daughter. And the camera zooms in on the little girl, her hair in pigtails, her face expressionless. Her gaze remains steady in the manner of a child without inhibitions, a child who simply stares until she has absorbed all there is to see. It's the public's gaze that's tested. Can it bear to look this child in the eyes? Her grief is pure. Her grief is invaluable.

Brown's family have spent much of their time in public trying to gain access to the video of his death. And on Monday, they were allowed to see only 20 seconds of it. These limitations enraged their lawyers, who characterised the refusal as a sign of disrespect to the family.

This tiny snippet of video also raised the lawyers' suspicions about what was missing, what was hidden from view. The lack of transparency has quickly transformed this case into a stage play of America's policing at its gothic worst. It already includes tales of a county attorney declaring, with an expletive for emphasis, that he wouldn't be bullied into doing what he did not want to do. Out-of-state lawyers have faced suspicions from the locals about their motives and credentials. And the sheriff's office released a video statement in which he and his deputy promise transparency and then proceed to explain their narrow definition of transparency and finish with “thank you and God bless”.

For the family, even those few seconds of video were horrifying. They described seeing Brown with his hands on the steering wheel of his car. They believe that they saw a man trying to flee the police, a man who was not a threat but rather was trying to escape one.

The family digest all this in real time. They saw the video and then stood before the microphones. Repeated the details into video cameras. The public feed on the family's grief and trauma. It helps to fuel righteous outrage at the system; it keeps protesters pressing for change. It calls out to our moral centre and makes us feel better simply for noticing their pain. Isn't that the first step towards alleviating it? Their grief propels the very words that you're reading.

By yesterday, the independent autopsy report had become another gory chapter in this story. An attorney for the family explained that Brown had been shot four times in the arm, but it was the fifth shot — fired at midrange into the back of his head — that proved fatal. They explain this as if they're in a courtroom, with diagrams and analysis. Kerbside litigation might be all that they get.

These families could choose to sit quietly at home and mourn, to reserve their tears and memories for friends. But if they did so, they rightfully fear that they will never know the truth, they will never know who should be held accountable, they will not have contributed to the slow crawl towards . . . something better.

As lawyer Bakari Sellers noted, a specific request is always put to these men and women. "Can the family tell everyone to be calm and peaceful?" The families not only must bear their burden, they're asked to bear society's as well.

But “that onus is not on this family”, Sellers said. “That onus is on the people who are hiding information.”

This family will not take responsibility for chaos. Or unrest. That is not their load. The family will be dignified. They will allow the country their grief. And that is more than enough.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press

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Published April 28, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated April 27, 2021 at 8:37 pm)

A public display of dignified grief

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