Every time there is news of a Black person harmed in an act of racist violence, I feel two conflicting urges: Watch and don’t watch.
I remember seeing the death of Philando Castile, who was killed in his car by a police officer while his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter sat in the back seat. The officer said he thought Philando was reaching for the licensed gun he had just informed the officer of – presumably so the officer wouldn’t be alarmed at its sight when he retrieved his license. Philando’s dying words, captured on the dash cam video: “I wasn’t reaching.”
I watched the video recorded by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds. I heard her trying to remain calm, trying to state the facts. I heard her tell the officer who shot her boyfriend that Philando was a good person. I heard her reminding him that Philando was a person.
I heard the despair in her voice as reality set in. “Lord, please Jesus, don’t tell me that he’s gone,” she said. I saw her daughter, who had just witnessed the murder of her father, trying to comfort her mother.
“It’s okay, Mommy,” said the little girl. “It’s okay, I’m right here with you.”
I felt like a witness – not in the legal sense, but in the Biblical. Like the women sitting at the feet of the cross witnessing the death of Jesus. There was nothing they could do either.
Something broke within me.
It’s not like I didn’t know such deaths occurred. But watching Philando, I was shaken by the fact that I had seen the precise moment of a man’s death. A thing that should be a peaceful and holy thing at the end of a long life. I had seen it covered in blood. Philando’s body slumping. His girlfriend crying. His daughter calm. Even now, writing these words, I fight back tears.
I saw Philando, with his lanky frame and dreadlocks. He looked like a younger version of my uncle.
This week, almost five years later, when I saw a photograph of Daunte Wright half-smiling in a baseball cap, I thought, “He could be my cousin.” Or my son.
Philando Castile was the last time I knowingly watched a person die. That’s because I belong to a people whose fates have been tied together for centuries. When I see these stories on television or read them in the news, it’s like I’m hearing about the death of a family member. Like it’s someone I know. Because it could be.
I still can’t bring myself to watch the death of George Floyd. Just a picture of his lifeless body on the ground and Derek Chauvin’s hands shoved in his pockets is enough to fill me with grief and rage and despair.
The other day, I watched the video of Second Lt. Caron Nazario being pepper sprayed by police officers in Windsor, Virginia. A few seconds in, I could feel my stomach sinking. I thought, “I shouldn’t keep watching this.” I knew how it would end. I heard the voice of the first officer rising with frustration and the voice of a second rising with desperation. One officer whose voice and actions seemed to suggest he was bent on teaching Lt. Nazario a lesson, the other practically begging Lt. Nazario to forget his rights and to do what he was told so this could all be over. He knew how it would end, too.
I watched as the first officer pepper sprayed Lt. Nazario and then ordered him to get out of the car while he was blinded and wincing in pain. I wanted to turn it off, but I couldn’t stop watching.
I watch because I need to know I’m not crazy. I watch the videos of the Amy Coopers and the Playground Pattys and the Virginia officers because I have seen those expressions – those assumptions of guilt and inferiority for residing in a Black body. I watch those videos and I read the think pieces and the surveys and the studies, because I need to be reminded that the racist things I have heard and seen and felt really happened. That I am not imagining them. I can’t be, because look – there is evidence, right there. It happened. I saw it. I can replay it. You can too.
I watch, sometimes, because I need to bear witness. I need to watch to show I believe the stories of the Daunte Wrights and the Lt. Nazarios and the Trayvon Martins and the George Floyds and the Sandra Blands. When I can’t bring myself to watch their videos, I read their stories. I need them to know: I see you. I believe you.
I feel my ancestors telling me they have seen enough Black bodies dying at the hands of racist violence to last a thousand lifetimes. That I don’t have to prove my belief by seeing another. That Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Still, I cannot help it. Like a moth to the flame, I cannot look away. I need to record these stories in my bones. I need to tell them to my children. To protect them. To warn them.