Diamond Reynolds’ Video: The Most Excruciating Black Pain I’ve Seen on Tape
In 1999, the release of The Blair Witch Project was a huge, culture-shifting phenomenon because of its stylistic approach to storytelling via pseudo-“found media” footage. The film succeeded largely because of its voyeuristic premise—a too-scary, too-late witnessing of lives being unraveled in mundane settings that suddenly felt treacherous and organically predatory because of the unscripted terror that awaited the Marylander campers. Seeing horror like this seemed personal and even a bit wrong; you felt voyeuristic witnessing something you sensed you shouldn’t see. You walked out of the movie feeling not only somehow responsible, but also a little leery of the rest of the world.
Its first-person, shaky-camera approach really did revolutionize pop culture, making the case that simplistic technology could, at least momentarily, pierce our collective apathy for scripted narratives and give us something new—a perceived veil of authenticity. You saw its reverbs in everything from reality shows to TV dramas (The Office is a great carrier of the Blair legacy, bringing horror to mundane everyday settings), to YouTube.
It made things real, it made things uncomfortable, and it made things relatable.
Pop culture’s mainstream tends to be a step or two behind real life, and in 1991, the blackest Blair Witch situation of “found media” emerged with the Rodney King video. From a nearby balcony, a citizen videotaped the police beating of L.A. black man Rodney King after a drunk car chase. The nation, in turn, erupted, launching cries of injustice that were all too familiar to the L.A. community, which had long endured racist police brutality, and, of course, the infamous riots that besieged the city. The ordeal then was met with what’s become a familiar vein of sentiment: the disparagement of King’s character as a means of validating his treatment, questions about the civility and authority we give law enforcement, and the degree to which race played a role in the severity of the response.
In 2009, more “found media” exposed the ongoing legacy of racialized police brutality as a young father, Oscar Grant, 23 years old, was shot in the back while facedown and handcuffed by Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department officer Johannes Mehserle in Oakland, California. Before dying hours later in the hospital, one of Grant’s final utterances was, “You shot me! I got a four-year-old daughter!”
Last year, after being pulled over for a broken brake light, 50-year-old forklift operator Walter Scott had eight rounds fired into his back as he ran away from police officer Micheal Slager. This too, was recorded by a bystander. These deaths are pieces of a larger trend in the country; embedded videos in a wider narrative of shootings. Recent analyses place the number of police killings in 2016 at 566.
In the last few days, we’ve gotten news about two more black men being murdered while interacting with law enforcement: Alton Sterling (No. 558), a 37-year-old father, was shot and killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after allegedly fitting the description of a gun-wielding black man in a red T-shirt. Hours later, there were news reports of another black man, Philando Castile (No. 561), being shot and killed in a car in plain sight of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter while apparently reaching for his license and registration. In perhaps the greatest portrayal of black trauma to date and the effect of POV technology, his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who sat next to him as he was murdered, recorded the whole aftermath.
There is an eerie moment in the video where the camera goes sideways and still for several minutes, switching from Castile’s bloodied body hunched over in the car to Reynolds’ cries, pleas and terror—a vague echo of the abrupt ending in The Blair Witch Project, where the camera drops, still recording.
Reynolds is an uncannily calm narrator of her partner’s death and circumstances; the whole bloody scene is punctuated with her daughter saying, “It’s OK, Mommy, I’m right here with you,” less than 24 hours after we saw Cameron Sterling cry on camera, “I want my Daddy.”
“Found media” has brought many of these murders to light in ways that make it hard, but not impossible, for Americans to deny we have not only an accountability problem with law enforcement, but also a seemingly un-killable virus in this country: racism. What used to be still photos of hanging black men from trees, and the mutilated corpses of black men who have run afoul of white rules, have been replaced with the jarring, moving, graphic videos of shootings, chokings and beatings of black men.
Where do we go from here? In Philadelphia, newly elected Mayor Jim Kenney has signed a budget that is expected to equip 4,000 more city police officers with body cameras over the next five years. It’s a $550,000 policy initiative that seeks to strike the balance between trust and accountability in the hopes of preventing or at least clarifying Philadelphia tragedies that have befallen the likes of Brandon Tate Brown, the young black male that was shot in his car by Philadelphia police in 2014.
But we should acknowledge that these things are only a start—a way to leverage technology and found media as a tool for preventive justice. They will not stop these crimes, though they do have the potential to deescalate confrontations between police and the people they’re intended to protect and serve.
Body cameras and a host of other proposed reforms will surely thwart some situations, and provide increased means for consequences. They may even help develop a wider understanding of the stress and duress police officers and citizens face when they engage. But these initiatives still feel like a far cry from convictions and indictments; for years we’ve had dash cameras, eyewitness video footage and testimony. Hell, the bodies of these recent victims alone have been bullet-ridden pictures worth 1,000 words, but time and time again, the justice system has found a way to reinterpret those bodies: Sandra Bland was predisposed for depression and suicide; Freddie Gray, shackled and subdued, frantically tussled with law enforcement and snapped his own spine; Castile and Sterling were reaching for weapons. They had records, they had character flaws, they had judgment, but most consistently, they had black skin—which is the still the bottom-line for probable cause in America.
And there’s the real tragedy—the fact that the more pernicious thing we have yet to do is increase the value and respect for black lives in a society steeped in the grime of white supremacy. These situations should force you to hold tight so many complexities at once: some hard truths about our disposability attitude towards black lives; about the continued, virtually unabated domestic terrorism reaped upon black families; about our friends, family members, colleagues and acquaintances that seek to mitigate these murders by marring these men’s backgrounds and mistakes accountable; about these black children who are now added to a long list of children growing up fatherless now.
Late last night at a Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas, shots rang out, splitting the crowd of police officers and residents in every direction. By the end of the ordeal, at least five cops were killed and seven were injured. A suspect was allegedly incensed by the ongoing murders. There’s no justice in that.
This is an American horror story.
Tre Johnson writes at Dearth of a Nation.