What is the worst.
Here is a woman in a car with her phone ready. I will not watch the video but from the headlines I know she was ready for something like this. Her boyfriend has been pulled over and this is the life she lives now, the combination of the instant-access media culture and centuries of violent repression (there is no race war because wars end). The policeman has a gun. Her boyfriend has a gun.
I can’t even handle the still photo, the video’s preview, I haven’t been able to watch one of these since the Cincinnati campus shooting, I can’t
Her boyfriend tells the policeman he has a gun. Her phone is ready.
I live in a world where I can walk the streets at night, any time of night and most any street, I can walk around unafraid. What do I trade for this freedom and security? Nothing, really, it costs me nothing, so my mind makes up a cost. I can’t look in a mirror on days like today. I can’t stand the color of my skin, the blue of my eyes, I gravitate towards the pain, I want to take it all and own it and apologize even though apologies are not even, not worth the words they spend, I can’t swallow without a lump, I can’t speak of it, it is jammed down inside and plugged up with festering impotent snarls of rage and sadness, this self-loathing, this self I have inherited and therefore do not deserve except yes I do I do I do
What is the worst, what can be not only filmed now but streamed live, because it’s never been a question of what can be recorded but what must.
He reaches for his wallet. I am telling you I have a gun and that it is a licensed firearm and it is in the car with me and I am telling you this so that you are not surprised into shooting me. She has her phone out and ready because she does not live in a bubble, she has marked every death and probably been personally connected to a few, she is not naive nor is she paranoid.
My friend at work has been the most active on my social media feeds today because she has a son who is still too young for this (we are all too young for this) and she very justifiably fears for his life, because what does it take anymore to get shot like a dog, shot like a target, must you even move? Must you even leave your house? Dare you take a breath? Who will see and misinterpret? What nervous non-black will come around a corner and feel justified defending his proximity with lethal force? I am reading everything she posts and hoping for more, even though they hurt me, she’s good at finding new angles, at peeling back and uncovering the deepening layers of dysfunction and corruption and miscarriages of justice, increasingly poignant, increasingly personal, I don’t know how to talk to her about any of this, I don’t know how even to talk to my wife about any of this much less a work acquaintance who I hope doesn’t mind too much if I refer to her as a friend. I cannot empathize (although my thoughts today are consumed by the attempt), I cannot comfort, I cannot say everything will be alright because such platitudes have little effect even with odds in their favor, and these odds are not.
The woman in the car does not start to record with her phone because she does not want to provoke the officer. She does not want the guilt, should the worst happen. This is why we do not see the shooting itself, because she was trying to prevent one.
Imagine the Bible without Jesus. Forget the messiah figure, it’s a trope, we can ignore tropes, what’s left. Forget the mythology and early creationist fantasy genre, end of the world stuff at the end just the same, what’s left. We have a persecution story. We are living a persecution story, and I am on the wrong side. I was born into this and I have taken the path of least resistance to get out of it, I have shirked opportunities at separating myself from the stage on which this all takes place, I have never lived in the safest of neighborhoods but then again I have never been able to afford to, I opted for a couple-few arts degrees instead of cashing in on that engineering scholarship, but I haven’t gone further than that. To own my privilege and repay it. I look at the most recent Star Wars movie and I want to know, how do you wake up every morning your whole life, putting on that storm trooper gear, following the leadership of sith lord after sith lord, obeying the sith rules (you’ve been trained to feel pain when you break them). But you have eyes, too, you see what goes on. What type of heroism must you uncover in yourself to escape, and more relevant to us earth-bound troops, where could I escape to? I can’t take this uniform off.
Once he has been shot, she has no reason left not to begin. And in this most modern of killings, she does not simply record, but broadcasts. This is what it’s come to. This is live. This is her life now. This is our lives, now. We have crossed the border of picking and choosing what we share. She is trapped. She can’t not do this. Because she superstitiously tried to prevent the inevitable she missed the crime in the act and now she feels foolish and beholden to the world and to her race so much so that even in this moment of suffering and personal tragedy she must be both victim and witness, and in real-time.
Please don’t argue with me on this. Please don’t talk to me of contradiction and correction. I don’t want to hear about how the cop was Asian, because that is a semantic dodge, this is a nation divided in two as it has been since slavery and if you’re not black you’re white. Please don’t bring to me your evidence of other shootings and their mitigating circumstances because you can just stop at the fact that there are other shootings, other murders, other crimes (they’re not crimes because crimes get punished).
I am hopeless, today. I want of all hope. I have read Richard Wright and I have read James Baldwin and Toni Morrison and W. E. B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass and others of the most articulate first-person accounts of our country’s systemic and violent oppression, and yes they got to me but probably because of my light-skinned uniform and a faulty, over-esteemed empathy gland, or maybe just because of the timing, it’s the Faulkner I’m reading now that is really hitting me where it hurts. It’s a tale that spans a century, fifty years on either side of the Civil War, and heavily steeped in race and class but with next to no attempt to characterize or humanize a non-white character, and those it does are mixed race. There are ten uses of ‘nigger’ for every one ‘Negro,’ not just from the main character, the antihero from a primitive mountain village in West Virginia who craved for power and grew into a learned unscrupulousness, he wasn’t taught oppression he acquired it with purpose; no, this verbiage is ingrained in the narration of every character, even the sensitive Quentin Compson, the focal point around which this story of Colonel Sutpen is being spun. I am about two-thirds through the book. Only just now has there been an acknowledgment of the inherent evil of the system which Sutpen represents. The ownership of human beings and its economic benefit. It is a hard book to read for this reason, this unflinching, blatant denial of humanity. I think it is intentional. I think Faulkner put it off for this long not only just to scald the eyeballs of a more modern audience (do not keep playing that video how can you keep playing that video you have no higher purpose you are not seeking to better your audience with this murder porn you are ratings whores the lot of you) but because it was real. Because they talked like this. My forebears. My ancestors. My kin.
If the Bible is a history, and history is a timeline that never stops. If there were more than two testaments we would call them first and second, and now we’d be on the sixth or something, and in the sixth testament I am on the wrong side. There are god’s chosen people, doomed to servitude, enslaved to build and sustain an empire but promised an intangible reward on another plain of existence. And then there’s me. The Egyptian at the base of the pyramid, looking up, marveling at its glory. Maybe I don’t carry the whip myself, maybe I even refused to design the structure, but I am complicit in the torture for reaping what benefits I do. I am accountable. I am the Roman in the gallery, watching my fellow Romans condemn those perceived minorities who look different from us, who don’t shave their beards, who talk with a funny accent, whom we blame for our own discomfort, and then crucify, one, by one, by one. I don’t stop it. I don’t know how to stop it, but I don’t stop it all the same. I am complicit. I am accountable. I am ashamed.
She broadcasts his death because she is trapped, like so many of her brethren come and gone, prisoner of her own time and circumstance.