If you really knew Ferguson, Mo., teen Michael Brown like family, you didn’t call him “Big Mike.”
So says his maternal cousin Eric Davis Sr., a salesman in St. Louis who quickly emerged as a prominent voice for Brown’s family after the unarmed 18-year-old was slain by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.
As widely reported, Wilson encountered Brown and a friend, Dorian Johnson, walking in the street and told them to get onto the sidewalk. A scuffle between Brown and Wilson ended with the teen being shot multiple times by the officer. Since that fatal encounter, people across the globe know of Brown and his family’s demand that Wilson be held accountable for Brown’s death. Many have taken to social media with discussions bearing hashtags such as #HandsUpDontShoot, #Ferguson and, yes, #BigMike. Indeed, Brown was 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 292 pounds at the time of his death.
News reports that his family used that nickname, however, aren’t accurate, Davis insists. “That might be what some of his friends called him—Big Mike—but the family called him ‘Mike-Mike,’” Davis told The Root in an interview.
This distinction matters to Davis because of the narrative that emerged of Brown as a large, dangerous thug after the Ferguson Police Department released a video of what it described as a “strong-arm robbery” of a convenience store by the teen—he allegedly took cigars—shortly before his fatal encounter with Wilson. Officials later admitted that Wilson had no idea that Brown was a suspect when he stopped him, but the narrative had taken hold.
“Big Mike” was also the name that Brown used as an amateur rapper. That’s certainly not an unusual hobby for American teens, but filtered through the events of Aug. 9, his moniker and the bravado heard in his recordings are seen by some as relevant to his state of mind during the struggle with Wilson: one of menace. The viewpoint echoes the mindset that led to Jordan Davis’ killing by a man who hated the loud “thug music” he heard coming from the speakers of the 17-year-old Floridian’s vehicle.
Implicit in Eric Davis’ concern that we understand that Brown wasn’t “Big Mike” to those who knew him best is an awareness of the image war that factors strongly in his family’s quest for justice. It’s all over if you stop seeing Michael Brown as an unarmed 18-year-old shooting victim and start seeing him as the stereotypical big, scary black man who was a threat to be neutralized.
“As big as Michael was, when he opened his mouth he was very soft-spoken. Always smiling. Always joking. He was a typical teenager who liked to play video games and hang out with his cousins,” said Davis.
As for video from the convenience store: “I’m shocked, because it’s totally out of his character.” Its release has Davis “outraged,” because the police chief “released a video as an attempt to smear my cousin’s reputation at the same time that he released the name of the officer. He also, at the same time, had a copy of the cellphone video that showed the officer on tape standing around my cousin’s body, which was laying in the street for over [four] hours. That was totally ridiculous, totally unacceptable.”
Getting back to Brown’s size, there is one aspect that Davis finds germane to the case. Referring to an independent autopsy commissioned by his family, which concluded that the fatal shot was to the top of Brown’s head, Davis said, “Michael was a big guy—6 feet 4—and how can you shoot a 6-feet-4 guy on the top of his head if [he’s] standing up? That’s a question that I would like to have answered.” Brown-family attorneys have observed that the position of that bullet wound is consistent with witness accounts that he was surrendering when killed.
Still early into the grieving process (“You know it was very sudden, so it’s been hard,” Davis said), Davis remembers the “Mike-Mike” who played the Madden NFL video game with Davis’ own sons, ages 17 and 15. “Often he would come over to my house and spend the night. They would play video games and eat pizza, and often they would call me up to play video games with them.
“You know, I’m from the generation where we had a joystick and one button,” Davis continued. “Now you have video games with buttons for both hands and both fingers, and they’d both take turns beating me up on the video games, and laughing at me when I couldn’t do something. They would just pass me around, one at a time, saying ‘Hey, you play him next,’ and they would just enjoy whoopin’ on me pretty bad,” Davis recalled.
The last time he saw “Mike-Mike” was just a couple of weeks ago. “My sons, myself and one of our other relatives were about go to do some yard work at my mom’s house, and Michael came out of the door to say hi.”
Davis enjoys those memories, but like the rest of the family, his focus is on the battle ahead. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch announced Wednesday that a grand jury would begin hearing evidence to see if there is enough to merit charges and might not hear it all until October.
Brown-family attorney Benjamin Crump told The Root that he thought going the grand jury route was a bad idea. “It’s a secret process. If they come back with no indictment, people are going to lose it,” he observed, adding, “It’s terrible to have a secret proceeding when there’s so much distrust in the community, and [one] can argue that it’s not transparent.”
The family believes there is already enough evidence for at least an arrest. “Arresting this man and making him accountable for his actions; that’s justice,” Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, told ABC News on Monday.
McCulloch shouldn’t be in charge of the case in the first place, Davis said. “McCulloch’s father was a police officer, and his father was also killed in the line of duty. And he pretty much falls in line with the police officers [in his sympathies]. So I would like to see the federal government step in and take the case out of the county prosecutor’s hands.” That action would be even more important than Attorney General Eric Holder’s visit to Ferguson on Wednesday, he noted.
As they grapple with such questions, his family also hopes for something more. “Not only for Michael Brown,” he said, “but we would like to have a day of remembrance across this country for all of the young African-American men that have been killed by police without merit.” Citing Eric Garner and Jordan Davis, he said, “So it’s not just something that’s happening in St. Louis, that is happening in Ferguson. This is something that is happening all across the country to young African-American men.”
Funeral services for Michael Brown are scheduled for Monday at the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis. The Rev. Al Sharpton is among those scheduled to speak.
Sheryl Huggins Salomon is senior editor-at-large of The Root and a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based editorial consultant. Follow her on Twitter.