Lesley McSpadden, the mother of the 18-year-old boy whose death at the hands of a Ferguson police officer in August sparked weeks of protests, is going to Geneva, Switzerland next month to speak about her son and other victims of police brutality in front of the United Nations.
Michael Brown's killing is still under investigation by federal officials, while a local grand jury tasked with deciding whether to charge officer Darren Wilson for his death is supposed to make an announcement any day — with few in Ferguson believing that an indictment is likely.
But with little faith in the justice her son will receive, McSpadden, accompanied by one of the family's lawyers and a handful of local activists and human rights advocates, is taking her son's case — and that of other victims of racial profiling and police violence — straight to the UN Committee Against Torture, the body tasked with preventing torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and punishment around the world.
The trip — which was recently made public by organizers and promoted under the tagline "Ferguson to Geneva" — is meant to make a case, to as wide an audience as possible, that both Brown's killing and the militarized police response to protesters demanding justice for him, are a matter of human rights.
"It's actually covered by article one of the convention against torture," Justin Hansford, a law professor at Saint Louis University and co-author of a brief to the UN body filed by Brown's family and local activists, told VICE News. "When the government has all the guns, all the force, and when they can kill people with impunity and without fear of being found guilty of a crime, that's a classic example of state violence."
"You see this in dictatorships and regimes where they do this to their own citizens and they get away with it," he added.
Hansford compared Brown's killing to that of Emmet Till in the 1950s — a pivotal moment behind the civil rights movement of the following years.
"The murder of Michael Brown was a fresh cut in an old wound in the sense that it played on the legacy of lynching, when black people's bodies were on display for people as a form of intimidation," Hansford said, referring to Brown's body, which laid on the streets for more than four hours.
Brown's death, he added, "wasn't just a violation of people's civil rights, it was a violation of their human rights."
Amnesty International denounces human rights abuses in Ferguson as police gather riot gear ahead of grand jury decision. Read more here.
Following widespread protests, the US Department of Justice launched two separate investigations — one into Brown's death, and one into the Ferguson police department, to determine whether discrimination has played a role in officers' behavior there. But protesters and rights advocates have increasingly made the case that the response to protesters and Brown's death was not just a matter of discrimination but amounted to human rights abuse.
Framing both as human rights issues is an attempt to speak to people's empathy — Charles Wade, a protester and one of the organizers of the Ferguson to Geneva initiative, told VICE News.
"People are starting to understand that people of color often feel that they don't have the same rights as humans, that their humanity isn't being respected," he said. "A person may not have ever seen it that way so they may now think, 'Yeah, all lives do matter, I do care. How can I help?"
The Ferguson to Geneva organizers are not the first to appeal to human rights principles. In a report released last week, Amnesty International made that case in the strongest language yet, when it said that law enforcement's use of rubber bullets, tear gas, and military equipment violated international standards.
The UN delegation is yet another attempt to shift the terms of the conversation on Ferguson, and to appeal for the support of a broader community.
"As we started to think about what the situation was in the larger context, we started to link what's happening in the US in terms of police violence with human rights violations," Wade said. "Our mid- and long term work will be linking what happened in Ferguson and what's happening in other places where there's excessive police violence to the international struggle for human rights."
Wade said he first thought to take Ferguson's fight for justice to the UN after learning of a similar initiative by a group of youth of color in Chicago, who planned to also go to Geneva this fall to denounce their experience as targets of police violence — an initiative they dubbed, "We charge genocide."
Yes, tear gas being used in Ferguson is banned in warfare — but not in war zones. Read more here.
"A lot of us here have been looking for ways to extend the conversation and extend our work outside of just Ferguson, tear gas, and rubber bullets," Wade said. "We asked, what does that really mean, and where does that fit within a larger conversation people can have? Race is a big part of it, it's probably 90 percent of it, but so often people are not seeing what's happening to people of color in this country as human rights violations."
The Ferguson group has been raising funds to sponsor the trip, on November 12 and 13 — but is still short $11,000. In addition to McSpadden and attorney Daryl Parks, Hansford, Wade, and four local activists including Tef Poe will also be going. McSpadden was not immediately available for comment.
Taking the issue to the UN is largely "symbolic," organizers admit.
"It's about taking the conversation to the global community in general," Wade said. "It's for us to show that now even the UN is interested in what's happening in a real small city called Ferguson, and you should be interested as well. You should see this as an issue that isn't just one instance, one police officer, and one man. This is what's happening all over the country."
The point of taking Ferguson's plight to an international forum is not so much to embarrass US officials, Wade said, though Hansford said the group hopes to connect with a delegation of administration officials who will be in Geneva at the same time. "While we're out there it would be great to talk to the US government," he said. "They'll be there, it would be wonderful it they talked to us."
But there's a more practical purpose to the delegation as well — to get the world's eyes back on Ferguson and St. Louis as residents prepare for an imminent grand jury announcement many fear will spark new clashes. Police have also been preparing for likely protests — stocking up on tear gas and riot gear and sending out emergency preparation plans for local schools.
Still scarred from the outsized police response to the summer protests, demonstrators have said they fear more force used against them, and they want to make sure that whatever happens next doesn't go unnoticed.
"They have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on these tools of war, and stockpiling guns," Hansford said. "I think the international community and human rights community should turn their eyes towards Ferguson and see this in a human rights context."
The world's attention, he added, "could very well save some lives." "If it convinces them that the world is going to be watching and they will be held accountable, it could change their behavior and their reaction to protesters," he said.
Law enforcement officials have defended themselves against the accusations of human rights abuse.
"The St. Louis County Police Department and the Unified Command had one mission, and that was the preservation of life," St. Louis Police Sgt. Brian Schellman told VICE News following the Amnesty report, adding that police have been gearing up for more protests. "We are going to be prepared regardless of what the grand jury returns."
'I've never seen anything like what I saw in Ferguson': VICE News speaks with a member of the Amnesty delegation to Missouri. Read more here.
For their part, protesters plan to return to the streets should the grand jury decide not to indict Wilson. But there's a lot more than rallies to the movement for justice they have built in Ferguson, and the UN delegation is just one example of its broadening scope and growing ambitions.
"A lot of people have had this impression that just marching is happening, just demonstrations," Wade said. "That's not the only thing that's been going on."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi