I never met Mike Brown, but he changed my life forever.
January 25, 2019
My entire life changed the day Mike Brown, 18, died in Ferguson, Mo. A police officer shot and killed him minutes away from my home on a Saturday afternoon. I wasn’t home. I was with my fiancé taking engagement pictures in front of his father’s megachurch in north St. Louis. I was wearing a white dress and blue heels as I walked around the old and decrepit hood that I hoped to one day rebuild. My fiancé could care less about the pictures, but he wanted to make me happy. So he watched as I worked with the photographer to create a vibe. That’s when my college sweetheart noticed a picture on Instagram that had the internet buzzing.A father was holding a sign saying a police officer had shot and killed his unarmed son. I had a feeling something was wrong, and I knew to trust my feelings. I am afterall, the daughter of two police investigators. My mother is the first woman in St. Louis named lieutenant colonel, a rank just below police chief. She gave me my instincts, so I followed them when I looked on Instagram Aug. 9, 2014. I called my weekend producer and asked if she needed my help.Reporting on Ferguson before it was a national story: I left my engagement shoot to go back to work. I was tired. I worked the 6 p.m. news shift the day before, and the 5 a.m. show the same Saturday Brown was shot. It was part of my normal schedule because I was at the bottom of the totem pole. I was desperate to prove that I belonged on the Monday-Friday team. I was unprepared to work. My reporting bag was at home, but my producer knew where another reporter hid her earpiece. I took it and left with an investigative photographer who was called in to help me. I had never ever seen so many police cars at a shooting scene. At one point, I counted at least 50 police vehicles. Something wasn’t right. I can’t count how many shootings I’ve covered in my career, but the number of people still standing around in absolute shock on West Florissant concerned me. I started asking questions. I used Instagram to report the story. It was my followers that wanted to know what happened, and we didn’t have a 6 p.m. show that day because a sports game was more important. I asked someone to hold my phone to block the face of the person I interviewed. “Did the boy do anything wrong,” I asked. The person responded: “They say he took something out of QuikTrip, but I don’t care. He didn’t have a gun. He threw his hands up. When the police ran over his feet, he threw his hands up, and the police shot him. The boy fell, and then he shot him some more.” Even though Brown was still laying in the street hours after the shooting, I could not get close to the scene. The police had about a mile of the area completely blocked off. Being from St. Louis, I knew some of the people outside that day.I connected with a young photographer and asked him if he could go find Brown’s mom and bring her to me.
Interviewing Mike Brown’s mom: That’s when I met Lesley McSpadden, a Ladue graduate. Ladue is the top public school district in the area, and it’s surrounded by million-dollar homes in the most affluent suburb in St. Louis. But that didn’t come to light when McSpadden spoke. She spoke as a mother who had just learned about her son’s death. “You are doing too much,” she said of police. “You don’t do a dog like that. You didn’t have to shoot him eight times.“If he was doing something to you and you were trying to stop him, where are police supposed to shoot you,” McSpadden asked. She answered herself. “In the leg. But you just shot all through my baby’s body,” she said. My photographer, incredible at his craft, noticed me talking to the mom and began filming. That’s not something I normally agree to — shooting an interview without being clear with the person — but she was so passionate, I didn’t want to stop her. “You took my son away from me,” McSpadden said. “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? “Do you know how many black men graduate,” she asked. “Not many because you bring them down to this type of level where they feel like they don’t have nothing to live for anyway. They’re going to try to take me out anyway.” We were standing in the middle of a major street in north St. Louis County, where a crowd began forming a prayer circle around Brown’s family. They laid hands on his mom and began praying as she sobbed in the middle of the circle. Then, police left, providing no information to the people in the community.
After police left the scene: My photographer and I got in our live truck to get closer to the scene, and we began driving down Canfield Drive. When we found a spot, we set up for the 10 p.m. show in a parking lot. My photographer was outside working to get a signal while I began writing. Day turned into night, and people became angry. You could hear a group of men yelling and begging people to join in. I believe they were with the Black Panther Party, which was founded in 1966 to protect black communities from police brutality. I was OK, but I didn’t want to put my photographer in a compromising position. At the time, we both chose to stay in the area of the action, but then we noticed a fire. Someone lit the complex trash can and it was ablaze. I told the photographer we needed to find a safer spot to go live. We broke everything down and began to drive further into the neighborhood. We would soon learn there is only one way in and one way out of it. I believe I emailed the newsroom an update, and my executive producer, who was concerned for our safety, reached out. We’re fine, I told her , but I need to talk to police. When I got an interview with the Ferguson police chief: I knew Chief Tom Jackson not only because I lived in the neighborhood but because he knew my mother for her work in the city. I called him on his cell and asked him what he was going to do to control the crowds. I knew he couldn’t give me an update on the case because the county department had already taken over the investigation, but crowd control was still his hands. And by the sounds of the car horns blazing, I knew things would only get worse. “We’ve reached out to the hip-hop radio stations,” Jackson said. “We’re going to ask the community for peace in the morning.” I responded: “Chief that’s not good enough. I need you to allow me to interview you on camera. What are you going to do to control the crowd?” Although I was physically drained, I went live at 10 p.m.
My work began to take a toll on me: I had no energy, but my producer needed a 10:30 p.m. live shot too. Once you call yourself into work, you can’t half-ass. We worked out a deal. My photographer dropped me off at home that night, and the morning photographer picked me up, just hours later for the 6 a.m. show, my regular shift. After the morning show, we got word that there would be a news conference at the Ferguson Police Department. Crowds began forming early. I had never seen such outrage from the community over a shooting. Police gave very little information. They said there was a struggle that spilled out onto the street and the “suspect was shot by the officer.” The officer, who had six years of experience with the department, was placed on paid administrative leave while the case was being investigated. Protesters were so mad that they tried to march into the building. “Keep going. The networks are watching. We’re going to send someone tonight,” my mentor told me. I could hardly stand, I was so tired, but I did keep going. The crowd camped out in the middle of the street outside the police department, and I hashed out another deal with the weekend team. “Just let me go home and take a nap, and I will get back up tonight for the vigil,” I said.
Covering the vigil: Another photographer, this time a young black man, picked me up that night. I knew him because a few months before Brown’s case, we were followed by a man in a white hood and forced to shut down our live shot in Belleville, Ill. Now, we were together again, back in the “field” and completely unprepared for what we were about to experience. We parked the truck and started walking to the meeting spot. There were thousands of people marching from the neighborhood on Canfield Drive toward West Florissant, a major thoroughfare. “No justice, no peace,” the crowd chanted. Once they made it to West Florissant, police intervened. A police car parked in the middle of the street. Officers wanted the protest to end. I continued to use Instagram to report the story. I asked people to hold up my phone while I shot new updates. “This protest became violent very very quickly,” I reported. “People started surrounding police cars and putting their hands up and throwing things at the police officers. “Police finally just took off,” I said. The crowd chanted: “Hands up, don’t shoot. Hands up, don’t shoot.” The next thing I know, police fired off tear gas into the crowd and people took off running. “What do I do,” I asked my fiancé frat brother, who was a part of the protest. “Just get down low,” he said. My photographer and I were committed to sharing this story on the news that night. We identified a meeting spot for when we got separated. We attempted to go into the crowd together, but then people suddenly took off running. We waited for each other at the meeting point and tried again to film interviews. I found a woman with a young child who said she was a part of the family. She said people began throwing bottles at police and she was upset the vigil wasn’t peaceful as planned. Then, I found a teenage girl who told me she watched people break into and steal all the goods from the nearby QuikTrip, which was burned down that night. When my work reminded me of my family: I have two baby brothers. At the time of Brown’s death, my youngest was just 16 years old, and the older one was only 20. They were not at the vigil, but one of their friends came up to me. He said someone broke into our live truck. He walked me to our KMOV news van. There was glass everywhere. My photographer laid his rain jacket on the seat for me to sit on, and we decided to find a safer spot to go live from for the 10 p.m. show that night.
After the show, we hoped to trade in our live truck for a new news vehicle so that we could go back into the field. Although we had our main weekday evening anchor Sharon Reed ready to go on set, our news director sent word that we were all done for the night.
Taking my first break in reporting: Together with the executive producer, we watched the scene unfold on the local Fox station. I’ll never forget my beautiful blonde morning co-worker walked in a few hours later in her cute dress and heels, and my photographer and I just looked at her in disbelief. “Have you watched the news? You may want to go home and change,” we told her. She would later go on to win an Emmy for her coverage on Mike Brown. KMOV refused to even submit my work for awards. Another mentor called me in the middle of the night.“Don’t stop until they take you off the story,” she told me. She knew what was to come, but I had no idea. I was normally off on Mondays and Tuesdays. However, I was allowed to call myself back into work on Monday. I had the scoop on the key eyewitness of the case, Dorian Johnson.
He is my cousin: The Johnsons are not blood, but I will claim them. His brother was raised with my “Noble” cousins since they were little kids. He even went to the same elite all boys private school as my cousin. He comes from a big family, and my aunt and uncle wanted to help by allowing Dorian’s brother to live with them. We remember Dorian growing up. He was around us, and he played in the Police Athletic League. One of the hidden stories of this case is that Dorian is familiar with police. They coached his basketball team for years. One of the reasons he initially spoke up saying “Brown had his hands up” was likely because he trusted police would listen. Instead, officers harassed the Johnson family. Both boys were forced to leave the city and head out west in hopes of a better life. Not only did I have the first interview with Brown’s mom, but I would also have had the first sit down with Dorian.
When I couldn’t do my job: My photographer and I camped out at my aunt’s house. We waited for Dorian, but he was still with the NAACP. They swooped him up after his initial interview on August 9th and took him into hiding. People in the community wanted to know why the key eyewitness in the case still hadn’t officially come forward , but I knew where he was. KMOV would not let me report that.They didn’t want to go against a major civil rights organization, but I knew people deserved to know what was happening. Finally, I got word that the NAACP would be taking Dorian to a set location. We were told Dorian would be talking with police, but later found out he would be going onto national TV to tell his story. My photographer and I caught the local NAACP president outside and questioned him on camera, but the interview was never aired. After that, I was essentially sat down.
Being taken off the story: I took Tuesday off, and then many of my story pitches were ignored. "I just don’t want to keep throwing oil on the fire,” my producer told me. My news director said I was too emotional. Robin Smith, my Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority sister had worked at KMOV for more than 40 years. As I walked out of my news director’s office with tears in my eyes, she tried to stop me. Brittany! Brittany! I couldn’t stop. I grew up watching her on TV. But even though I had much respect for her, I refused to respond. The next day, she pulled me aside and apologized.“I am sorry that I have not been there for you,” she told me. You need someone who you can talk to. “I just don’t understand,” I admitted. Smith covered my mom’s case years earlier. “I thought y’all had already paved the way,” I said. “Do you think your roots are blonde,” she asked in response. “If you were white, management would call you passionate,” she said. “But because you are black, you are ‘emotional.’” Smith was my ride or die from that day on. She was then demoted to “minority weekends” with me. She retired on my last day at KMOV. I believe seven of us walked away from KMOV around that time. Five of us are black. And even though the mass exodus made the local newspaper, race never came up. I did get to share some stories from Ferguson, but I couldn’t tell them the way I wanted.
One of the untold stories: I met a young pastor where Brown’s father attended church. Pastor Carlton Lee had about 60 or 70 death threats from people demanding that he stop protesting. I wanted to know why he still continued to fight. “Brittany I’ve been profiled,” he said. “My family members have been profiled by police. My church members have been profiled, and something needs to change.” When I tried to include the reason why this pastor was on the front lines, my producer told me it wasn’t important. I took my problem to the news director and asked him to allow me to explain why people were protesting. “That’s not important” he told me. There I sat, frustrated and crying in our makeshift newsroom in the Wendy’s dining room. People across the nation were watching this case unfold, and here was an opportunity to explain why protesters were so angry. I was not allowed to include these facts in my story. The truth is Ferguson was an all-white suburb in north St. Louis County. When Black people (like me) began moving into the neighborhood, the white residents got out and headed west. My co-workers were familiar with Ferguson because many of them lived there years before, but the demographics of the neighborhood had drastically changed. Protesters burned down an area they once called home, and this is before the controversial grand jury decision that would decide the fate of Mike Brown’s shooter, Darren Wilson.
Covering the grand jury decision: My news station along with the others in town began suiting up for war early. We took a class led by police about how to handle the protesters and even got fitted for bulletproof vests and gas masks. We got security guards too. Reporters were called in from other markets to help us report the story, and among them was a young, white, male reporter. I knew him. He got his start with me years ago in Flint, Mich., where I worked as the fill-in executive producer and anchor of the weekday morning show. The reporter was an army veteran who I believe was strategically called in to report on the case. Even though this was an all-hands-on-deck situation, KMOV changed my schedule to the weekday morning shift. I was forced to report on stories that had nothing to do with Ferguson. My black photographers complained that they were strategically placed far from the action. I was however, allowed back in the area once we found out Pastor Lee’s church was indeed burned down. Despite my efforts at KMOV, I didn’t get the same anchoring opportunities as my other young white female co-workers.
Being left out of reporting opportunities: My news director said there was something wrong with my voice, and my assistant news director was constantly critiquing my hair. Finally, when my contract came up, I decided to begin looking for new opportunities. I found one as an anchor in Jackson, Miss. And although I was excited initially to take the position, that excitement wore off when I wasn’t allowed to wear my natural hair on camera and was forced to shut down many of my investigations about race. I ended up filing an EEOC complaint against the local CBS affiliate, a decision that ended in my wrongful termination.