We are a nation with a collective mind filled with horrific images. Many of us have watched the seemingly endless stream of videos of black bodies being destroyed in the streets. We have watched these videos over and over. What is the impact of us watching these graphic murders over and again? What is the influence of us walking around with indelible images of murder in our minds all the time?
I can see Eric Garner choking, Tamir Rice falling, Michael Brown laying in the street for hours. And, new this week, I see Alton Sterling on the ground with cops all over him and a gun pressed to his chest, and Philando Castile in his car, bleeding all over, while an officer holds a gun on him and his girlfriend screams. When Castile’s four-year-old daughter tries to console, I crumble. We have consumed so many graphic images of violent deaths that prove the fragility of the black body. What they accomplish is the same thing the widely-distrusted photographs of lynchings once did—to remind everyone that black bodies are disposable.
When I was growing up, Blockbuster Video always had a few copies of Faces of Death available for rent in case anyone wanted to watch people dying in gruesome ways. I never wanted to see it. Who wants so many horrible images in their head? But nowadays it feels like I’m being forced to watch the macabre, black version of it.
Still, we have to watch—at least I have to watch. Because I have to know. Even though the quantity makes it all overwhelming, I have to know what’s going on. I have to feel the pain and the anger. The moment demands it. But how much can one nation take? How much can black people take?
I don’t watch these videos and see abstract events. These are things that could happen to me. I watch them and feel like what’s happening onscreen is happening to my body. With each new video, I die again and again. Maybe you do, too. I have to watch, but what is it doing to me? Probably causing further scarring on a soul that’s already wounded. Black people in America are in trauma. We are like Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds pleading with Jesus,don’t let him be dead. But he is bleeding. Over and over, again. Our nightmare is our reality.
Thursday’s horrific mass shooting of Dallas police officers is more evidence of a nation in pain as well as a nation with access to too many weapons of war. I have problems with the way American police officers perform their jobs, but dear God I do not wish for dead cops. I wish for policing that is more effective, more judicious, and more empathetic. But to get there we need a radical restructuring of how America sees black people. We are viewed as the problem. We are viewed as prey. We are expendable and exploitable. All that means that black people are policed differently than white ones. Until that changes this policing crisis will continue.
That crisis has been going on for longer than I have been alive, it just feels hotter now because of the ubiquity of video cameras. And it will continue for as long as the broken windows theory continues to shape policing. Broken windows says you pursue small crimes aggressively and that will prevent more serious crimes. Garner was selling cigarettes on the street. Sterling was selling CDs. Castile had a broken tail light. If not for broken windows, they may have never talked to the cops that fateful day.
The crisis will continue as long as there is an over prevalence of guns in America which leads to police officers working in fear. Both Sterling and Castile were legally armed—which seems to have made them more vulnerable, not less. (Don’t expect the NRA to stand up for them—the NRA is here to protect the gun rights of white people.)
The crisis will continue as long as officers are taught that blacks are to be targeted and arrested. The idea that the problem is merely a few bad apples is a fallacy. Yes, the overwhelming majority of police officers are good and serious people, but the direction they get from on high is that black people can be targeted and arrested. From black people they can extract revenue. We are the lambs they shear and slaughter.
We need a revolution in how America perceives and polices black people. There has been momentum growing since Michael Brown was killed. There is a much needed movement working to try to make things better. Body cameras here, consent decrees there, Black Lives Matter growing—there is a movement. I fear the Dallas massacre will discredit and derail that movement and leave us further than ever from progress. We are a nation in pain and that pain is only going to spread.
Originally appears on July 8, 2016, in Vice: http://www.vice.com/read/i-see-my-life-in-philando-castiles-death