On August 4, Jessica Lussenhop (@Lussenpop) posted an image culled from Google Earth of the memorial for Michael Brown, the teenager shot to death by the former police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri last year. Lussenhop simply writes, “Michael Brown’s memorial lives on in Google Earth.”

In effect, her Twitter posting created an electronic echo, an online memorial, and the subsequent conversational exchange reveals a good deal about how our civic rituals are being configured as they are recreated within these media platforms. The types of interaction generated seem to be significant in two principal ways: a) Rather than the makeshift memorial constituting a space of quiet reverence, it’s a fractious arena in which participants compete for attention, and b) It is a space in which the participants are reflexively aware of its impermanence, and deal with that state of transience by being casual, treating it as a moment of conversation around the social network’s water cooler.

The appreciation for how fleeting this memorial of a memorial can be is indicated by Señor Dolor deCabeza, @sidecarhammond, who recommends that people who care to preserve the view for themselves take or store screenshots before Google updates their database. His statement is a curious reminder that preservation has to be an act of willful intent. However, in the rest of the conversational menagerie there are the typical shared jokes, light jousting, and pointed comments that attempt to use the posted image as a catalyst for confronting unsettled grievances. Lady Kaju poses the rhetorical question, “Do the FIRES live on google earth too?!,” and then answers the query herself, “Cuz we live them, you twit!” As in life, there are those interlocutors who make random suggestions because they are nervous or want to be involved and yet mask the fact they they have nothing relevant to say. The user, OccupySolidarity @ogkeyser, suggests that people call Trump Towers en masse to jam the phones in order to “flush Trump down the toilet.” Saint Negro, @SaintNegro27, jokes (or perhaps not) about stealing all the stuffed animals from the actual memorial, as though to highlight the ephemerality of electronic media and its very tenuous mimetic relation to the actual object it purports to represent. One person, Gay Garrett-Abbo, @gglightbulbhours, wants to counteract this perishability and thus advocates for the construction of a small building to house the memorial “set up like a museum.” Of course, the conversation includes the grossly mean-spirited comments that attempt to make a joke out of Brown’s death: Ryan Mullins, @RyoMul, writes: ‏“is that what’s left when they scraped him off the ground?”

As an image this ad hoc tribute to Michael Brown utterly fails him. The bird’s-eye view afforded by Google makes the photographed memorial seem like a pile of light-colored rubbish stamped into specificity by the geolocation tag of “Canfield Drive.” Aside from the tag, the depicted street might be almost Anytown, USA. There is a paved road, a car just turned off the drive, one tree under which more piles of undistinguished items are piled, and parking spaces for itinerant travelers who plan to drop by, very much like the visitors to this twitter post, but who likely do not plan to stay. The Google Earth image makes Michael Brown’s shrine, and therefore, to an extent Brown himself, a generic narrative.

Yet, despite the haphazard back and forth of the social interaction and the emptiness of the image, this unreal, ephemeral homage nevertheless does a bit of what memorials have historically done for us: allow us to consider our own humanity by considering the loss of someone else’s. The dead no longer possess the key trait of autonomous will that makes us somehow valued in the human community, and the loss of that crucial aspect can make pause in our tracks, retrace our steps, read the messages, the cautions, the condolences, and calls to arms. Being reminded that all our potential and possibility can be choked off and shot away can make us find some curio or tchotchke, some thing we can use to represent our awe and dismay. Sometimes we just give our attention. Particularly in the black community, which has a history since the Civil Rights Movement of using the slain black body as a memento mori to distress the public conscience and goad government into political action, this thin memorial has weight and meaning — in part because it is so empty and wretched.

It voices a cry that those in the black community echo, knowing that other black boys are going to die for nothing — for running, for not running fast enough, for being too big for their age, for being to small to fight back effectively. Black boys are going to die tomorrow and the day after that and in the following weeks, months and perhaps years until every conflict with a police officer that ends in the death of an unarmed man of color is adjudicated by a citizen review board that makes the officer justify his or her actions. Among black folks the cry this memorial vocalizes is one of recognition, knowing that we are creatures perceived to be like the wolverine in Jame Dickey’s poem, “with all his meanness and strength,” who makes a pact with himself, “to eat / The world, and not to be driven off it.” We know that some of us will die and so we fatalistically say just as the wolverine, that scarred, enraged, and feared vision of wildness, says,  “Lord, let me die, but not die / Out.”

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...

8 replies on “Michael Brown’s Google Earth Memorial”

      1. Not according to the findings of the coroner, the feds and every one involved. It’s over. But not art no matter what.

        1. Dear Barb,

          The image of his memorial culled from Google Earth is intended to represent the shrine, and in so doing constitutes art, in that the image is a representation (though art is not always a representation) of a thing in the world and it functions to provoke an intellectual and/or emotional response in the viewer.

          1. What complete blather, however, it is an excellent example of modern faux elitist art. You might want to consider the difference between real art and social propaganda.

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