Here we are again. In high school, I wrote an opinion piece in the midst of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Please don’t try to find it: it certainly doesn’t come up when you Google my name, and it makes me cringe to read it or show it to people because it was authored by a completely different version of me. Though I am asking you not to read it — seriously, I hate it a lot — I recently read it again after a spate of gun violence in schools and the brutal (alleged) murder of 27-year-old Tyre Nichols in Memphis.
In my 16-year-old self’s article, amidst some rather juvenile and dramatic sentence structure, I lament the exhausting yet beautiful Black experience in America: the joy of Black expression contrasted with the sorrow of Black death. It’s funny because, as I write this, I almost feel that version of myself knows more than I do now. In just about three years, I have become more exhausted, less fiery and less sure of my eagerness to move forward in a world in which these things continue to happen. It makes sense that exhausting experiences tend to exhaust you, but you don’t expect to feel this exhausted.
I’m sure you remember that the catalyst that rekindled our outrage was the cellphone video — shot by 17-year-old Darnella Haynes — that showed the 8 minutes and 46 seconds during which a Minneapolis Police Department officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, killing him and setting off a chain of reactions that no one on that street corner could have predicted. Now, almost three years later, our world feels different. People think differently about things. Politicians say different things. Even activists have shifted messaging in many ways. But the videos keep coming.
When George Floyd was killed by that police officer, I was staying at my grandparents’ house. We had recently been sent home to virtual school and finished the year by submitting a few asynchronous assignments to Google Classroom a week. Since I didn’t need to spend much time on schoolwork, I spent many more hours writing pieces for my newspaper. There was a tense atmosphere around the world, but my obligations had dissolved and I was leading a fairly leisurely life. I remember waking up that morning to New York Times notifications about riots in the Twin Cities and texting with my journalism teacher about their coverage. I was younger and much more idealistic, so I probably quibbled about their framing of the protests and riots. I honestly don’t know what I would think now, and I don’t care to look back at those pieces to find out.
I spent most of the morning reading articles and consuming reactions on social media. When I first saw the video, it was nighttime. My grandparents were watching NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, as is their habit. Interspersed with scenes of “rioters” engaging with police across the country were shots from that video. My grandparents — both white — were horrified and unnerved. They couldn’t understand how something like this could happen. Having lived in Detroit through the civil rights movement, I think they thought things had changed, like many of us had; Or at least that things had changed more than that. I don’t remember much about my own reaction other than this dread in the pit of my stomach. It was a deep feeling that glued me to the couch, fixed my eyes on the screen and simultaneously made me want to go to my bed and lie down for a while. I remember some somber conversation between the three of us, similar to when we would get bad news about a family member. We lamented this poor man’s death — murder — and agreed that something had to change; for a while there, it had seemed like it might.
Later that night, after those conversations had finished and dinner had been eaten, I laid in my bed; this particular racial existential often dread drew me there.. I must have been in middle school when I stayed up late one night reading a Washington Post retrospective on Mike Brown’s killing. I had heard the name before but wasn’t conscious of why it was so important until that night. I remember tears streaming down my face, not because I truly understood the injustice, but simply because of this tragedy that ended a young man’s life so soon, so abruptly. I have a similar memory of researching Trayvon Martin’s killing. For George Floyd, I felt an overwhelming need to see the video. I felt that if I didn’t see the video, I didn’t care enough, or I wouldn’t understand enough, or it just wouldn’t have been enough. It had to be seen. I would fix my upper lip and maybe shed tears, but I had to see what happened in front of Cup Foods that day.
So, lying in my bed, I watched it. And, of course, it was repulsive. And sad. And disturbing. I remember — vividly, distinctly — watching it. I don’t remember anything else I did that night. But I do know for a fact that I have only ever seen that video one time. I hope to live for many more years, but I do not believe I will view that footage ever again, grateful as I am that Darnella Haynes captured it. As a young Black man who has experienced the discomfort of dealing with police officers in my everyday life, I don’t think I need that. Frankly, I don’t think anyone does.
It shows progress that police departments across the country not only record their officers but are obligated to publicly release footage of them in action. I have respect for the police, and law enforcement is a necessary function in our society, but they have got to be held accountable. Though accountability may be a low bar, in the circles I run in, expectations for the police were at the sea floor even before George Floyd. But when the George Floyd video went viral, I think I set my own expectations too high.
I have not seen the video in which five Black police officers beat Tyre Nichols with such viciousness and disregard for human life — and then left him bleeding on the pavement for over 16 minutes without medical care — that he died in the hospital three days later. Before the video was released by the Memphis Police Department, Nichols’s family circulated a photo of him in his hospital bed. In the photo, a tattoo on his shoulder begins to spell the name of his mother, RowVaughn Wells, who has been heroic in her advocacy during what is likely the most painful moment in her life. She took that photo but has said publicly that she chose not to watch the video. I’ve seen the photo. And maybe, in the weeks that follow, or when the trials of these officers — each charged with second-degree murder and a litany of other felonies — become news stories of their own, I will feel the same need to watch the Tyre Nichols video that I felt in 2020. Right now, the news articles are more than enough to keep Tyre in my mind.
On Jan. 31, I was very fortunate to attend an artist talk at our Perlman Teaching Museum, where Studio Art faculty members David Lefkowitz and Xavier Tavera, among others, have their work on exhibit. Xavier’s work is part of a larger series, but the images on display are blown-up photographs of errant bullets taken from homes in South Minneapolis. His work evokes gun violence without the images of the visceral brutality that these videos force us to confront. During the Q&A, I asked Xavier how he decided what to display, and how he weighed the reactions people might have to these — or any — images which elicit powerful emotions. He had previously mentioned the video of Tyre’s beating — he, like RowVaughn Wells and I, had not decided to watch it yet — but told me that he would stumble in answering my question because he had no definite answers on the issue. He said that, after exhibiting it, he relinquishes control over his work as his audience will form their own reactions and conclusions. He said that he wanted to both push and pull, for his audience to be at once attracted and disturbed by the allusion to violence. Xavier closed his response, though, with this: in 2020, when he finished those 8 minutes and 46 seconds, he needed to leave his house and walk to the marches that would launch the movement that lasted all summer.
He didn’t tell us this, but I’m guessing he didn’t stumble then.
Great perspective—thank you for this!