Police shootings and the Ida B. Wellses of our time
Documentaries remind us to never forget the worst of humanity. We’re not getting the message.
American newsrooms remain in the depths of a maelstrom because everyone bet incorrectly on the internet. In the midst of throwing journalistic spaghetti at the wall, one of the ideas that stuck, ever so briefly, was hyperlocal citizen journalism. Not only was news going to survive via microtargeting, it was going to happen via the backs of ordinary people, empowered with Flip cams and a few basic instructions, et voila, CNN iReport and a zillion facsimiles.
And then, oh so quickly, social media cut out the middleman. Horrors are now live-streamed directly into our mobile devices. That’s what happened Wednesday night as Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds broadcast the last moments of her boyfriend Philando Castile’s life on Facebook. Many were still reeling from the video footage of the death of Alton Sterling, a black man shot by a white police officer Tuesday morning in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
What do we call this most modern genre of documented black death via police shooting? What do we call the individuals who have the presence of mind to press record as someone is losing his or her life? Directors? War correspondents? Documentary filmmakers? Heroes? Selfless, invaluable crazy people? All of the above?
Reynolds filmed her bleeding, moaning boyfriend from the passenger seat of a car. They were reportedly pulled over for a missing taillight, and while Reynolds did not capture video of Castile being shot, she did film a police officer with his gun still pointed into her car while Castile lay dying in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. “Please don’t tell me that he’s gone,” Reynolds said. “Please, officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him. You shot four bullets into him, sir.”
When police threw Reynolds’ phone away from her, it landed face up and continued to record the sky at dusk, framed by power lines and trees, while her cries of anguish could be heard off-camera.
Traditional documentary filmmaking doesn’t hold the glamour of narrative feature film. It’s an occupation fueled by passion, devotion, and idealism. Documentaries call for us to listen to and honor our best selves, but they also remind us to never forget the worst of humanity, too, in the hopes that we won’t repeat the sins of our fathers.
These videos of death by cop — specifically videos of Eric Garner, of Walter Scott, of Sterling, of Castile, and of Freddie Gray — fall squarely in the latter category. They’re macabre documentary shorts in the public domain. They are filmed by amateurs, but they have a distinct structure. They tell stories, albeit brief ones: someone was alive, and now, by the hand of a police officer, they are not.
Gradations of autonomy separate these shorts from deaths captured by the unblinking eyes of dash cams or surveillance cameras — as in the cases of Tamir Rice or John Crawford — because of the inherent tension of a videographer in possible danger, and because of the personal cost, after the video’s “release,” to those who film them. There are no employer-funded visits to licensed therapists, or tireless efforts to pull you from war-torn hot spots if you’re Kevin Moore, who filmed Freddie Gray’s arrest, or Reynolds, who continued broadcasting as she was arrested and placed into the back of a police car, or Abdullah Muflahi, who filmed his friend Sterling being killed, or Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed New York City police officers placing Garner in a chokehold, or Feidin Santana, who feared police retaliation for filming Scott’s death.
There’s just life. And terror. These citizens are not freelancers, but they are the Ida B. Wellses of our time. The hot spots aren’t Syria, or Libya, or Egypt, or Iraq, or Iran. They’re Baltimore, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and New York City and North Charleston, South Carolina, and thousands of other cities and townships spread throughout the nation. After the terrifying events of Thursday night, when gunfire from Army veteran Micah Xavier Johnson killed five Dallas police officers who were working during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, what do we make of videos from the event? In one particularly disturbing clip, a man believed to be Johnson can be seen shooting a uniformed officer from behind. If death by cop videos carry with them a startling degree of intimacy, this felt more like a dispatch from Fallujah.
We need a designation other than bystander with a cellphone, one that recognizes the sacrifices of people such as Moore, Reynolds, Muflahi, Orta, and Santana. Citizen journalist feels hokey, insufficient, and condescending. Call them documentary filmmakers and public servants, witnesses and walking wounded, fearless and vital preservationists, all rolled into one.
For what they give us, it still doesn’t feel like enough.