george white jr.
One of the great American poets, Sterling Brown, grew to fame by bringing to life the stories of everyday Black folk. The poems I can’t shake are those in which these ordinary people confront White Supremacy…and pay for defending their humanity. Recently, I have returned to “He Was a Man.” The poem describes its protagonist thusly:
“He wasn’t no quarrelsome fella/ And he let other folks alone/ But he took a life, as a man will do/ In a fight for to save his own…He wasn’t nobody’s Great man/ He wasn’t nobody’s Good/ Was a po’ boy tryin’ to get from life/ What happiness he could/ He was a Man/ And they laid him down.”
And so to was Joshua Brown.
For those of you who don’t know, Joshua Brown was one of the star witnesses in the trial of the killer of Botham Jean. Botham Jean was the young Black man killed in his own apartment by an off-duty Dallas police officer. I wasn’t aware of Joshua Brown in life. I must admit that I had avoided the murder trial because I was afraid that, despite evidence and common sense, another police officer would be acquitted in the killing of another Black person. I know I sound like a coward but every time a Grand Jury refuses to indict, or a city leadership refuses to act, or a trial jury acquits, a small piece of me withers. And like Eric Garner, I drew a line, hoping not to lose anymore of me. Joshua testified during the second day of the week-long trial. The jury handed down its verdict on October 1st; on October 5th, Joshua was lying dead in a parking lot. When I heard about Joshua’s murder, I girded myself and watched his trial testimony.
Some have described Joshua’s testimony as emotional and I wouldn’t disagree. Joshua seemed to reject much of the “cool pose” that many of us Black men invoke in times of great stress or fear. He seemed incredibly vulnerable as he swiveled left and right in the witness stand. And why not? Our courts have become abattoirs of liberty, truth, and innocence. To say that we have a two-tiered criminal justice system don’t hardly call it. Yet, here was Joshua, answering questions in a low voice, having to be prompted to speak up or to say “yes” instead of “um hum.” One of the first things that Dallas P.D. did after their officer shot Botham Jean was to assert that Botham had weed in his system, as if that explained his slaughter. So it was quite a surprise that within the first 2 or 3 minutes of his testimony, Joshua admitted that he and Botham had been smoking cannabis in their separate apartments on the afternoon of Bo’s last day on earth. Leasing agents had knocked on the doors of both apartments, asserting that there had been a noise complaint, Joshua explained. After the leasing agents left, he and Bo introduced themselves to each other and laughed it off, assuming that the real motive for the intrusion had been the strong scent of weed. To that point in their lives, Joshua had only known Bo as the guy who sang in his apartment every morning.
Prosecutors asked Joshua to leave the witness stand to help locate his unit on a poster-size schematic of the apartment complex. When Joshua stood up and walked toward the front of the courtroom, it seemed as if the prosecutors had used a Star Trek transporter and beamed him up from his living room where he had been chilling with his beloved dog. Joshua matched his green “Dragonball Z” t-shirt with blue basketball shorts. The Prosecutors were so confident in the probity of Joshua’s testimony that they did not try to coach him to avoid talking about smoking weed or dress him in a long-sleeved, collared shirt to cover his neck and arm tattoos. He testified that when he returned to the apartment complex around 10pm, just as he reached the hallway that would lead him to his apartment across from Bo’s, he heard two voices overlap then quick shots; no shouted commands or warnings. He testified that he ran away from the shots and peeked through a window to see if the altercation had ended, all the time hoping that his dog was ok. He testified that he saw the killer crying as she talked into her cell phone, seemingly more concerned about herself than the person she had just shot. He even testified that, yes, it was easy to get confused in the complex and walk on the wrong floor to get home but that there were lots of landmarks to distinguish the floors and a key not working was a dead giveaway that you were trying to enter the wrong door. He was just a man who was living by his own steam, a guy who watched the NFL, and loved his dog.
When Joshua reached the part of his testimony in which he described hearing Bo singing “Gospel music or Drake” in the mornings, he began to weep. At first, his pursed lips shifted and his voice caught in his throat, then Joshua bent down as if to rest his head while wiping tears with the front of his shirt. Eventually, the Prosecutor offered a box of tissues and a break from testifying; Joshua accepted both. Once he returned to the witness stand, he was shaky but consistent. Toward the end, he shuddered just before whispering “damn, it’s cold in here.”
The Defense attorney stumbled through a pitiful, short cross-examination, as if to acknowledge that the damage had been done. I have no evidence but I can’t shake the feeling that Joshua’s death was retaliation for being a witness against a killer cop. And that feeling doesn’t just come from the notoriety of this peculiar case. Black Lives Matter activists in Ferguson and other places have been quietly stalked and killed over the last few years. It is as clear as ever that when Black folk speak truth to White power, pain is not far to follow. Joshua’s testimony helped convict a killer and he was killed days after the cop was sentenced. He was a man…and they laid him down.
george white jr. is an associate professor and chair of history and philosophy at York College-CUNY. His first book, Holding the Line: Race, Racism, and American Foreign Policy Toward Africa, 1953-1961 was published in 2005.