Fifteen minutes. That’s how long it took for me to stop crying, compose myself, and drag my groceries inside my apartment after watching 32-year-old Philando Castile bleed out in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. The scene was sadly familiar. Not even a day after we watched Alton Sterling get wrestled to the ground and fatally shot by two police officers in Baton Rouge, another Black person met the same fate.
It’s almost routine, the killings. So much so that I’m eerily numb—outraged each time, yes, but numb to the death of the men and women who leave this earth only to become hashtags, protest chants, and names on a t-shirt. It’s sickening how regular this feels, how normal. How predictable the cycle of grief and demands for justice, shock, outrage and grief all bleed into each other and begin anew. After all, the list feels endless: Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Natasha McKenna, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Sean Bell, Bettie Jones, India Kager, Jamar Clark, Felix Kumi, Samuel Dubose, Brandon Glenn, Eric Harris, Ezel Ford, and…
I could go on all day.
So far, police officers have killed at least 506 people this year, an average of three people a day. If that weren’t enough, we’re on track to exceed last year’s high of 990 people fatally shot by police.
This time, however, was different. Even though I’ve seen countless videos, scrolled through hundreds of witness accounts, written dozens of articles, and fired off probably a thousand angry tweets about America’s inability to value Black lives, this time I was completely undone.
Castile’s partner, Diamond Reynolds, posted the heartbreaking video of the aftermath of her boyfriend’s fatal encounter with police to Facebook. In the clip, Reynolds is heard trying to comfort her boyfriend while telling viewers a police officer shot Castile while he was reaching for his identification.
“You told him to get his ID or his driver’s license,” Reynolds says to a police officer in the video. “He let the officer know that he had a firearm and he was reaching for his wallet and the officer just shot him in his arm,” she explains.
The scene is surreal and Reynolds seems almost too calm, given the circumstances—her boyfriend’s bloody body slumped next to her in the seat, police, guns drawn, barking commands. Through it all, though, Reynolds keeps filming, even when she is detained and placed in the back of a police car, her phone documents the scene. That’s when it happens. As Reynolds cries out in grief and anguish, her four-year-old daughter tries to comfort her.
“It’s okay, mommy,” the little girl says, her voice full of innocence. “It’s okay, I’m right here with you.”
That’s when I lost it. I couldn’t help but think of my son in that moment.
As parents, we’re supposed to comfort our children. We’re supposed to protect them against this world that tries to snatch their joy and their childhood and their life without a moment’s notice. I wanted to hug that baby and tell her that no, things would not be all right. She’d just witnessed the first in a series of public killings of her people. These killings have gone on since we were forcibly brought to America, and sadly, it seems they will continue to occur over and over again.
As I wrestled with what I’d just witnessed, I was reminded of the work of Ida B. Wells. Wells was a journalist and activist who led an anti-lynching campaign in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and her passion for justice never wavered, despite encountering seemingly insurmountable odds. Last night, I felt almost compelled to read Wells’ work. I needed her words to help me make sense of what we’ve been experiencing—these public killings. I needed to understand how Wells could be so vigilant in her quest for justice in the face of such horrors, and how we can be too.
During my review of Wells’ work, I came across her piece in the Arena about the Lynch Law in America. Reading her descriptions of lynchings felt hauntingly familiar to what we’re seeing today with the extra judicial killings of citizens.
“For all kinds of offenses—and for no offenses—from murders to misdemeanors, men and women are put to death without judge or jury; so that, although the political excuse was no longer necessary,” Wells writes, “the wholesale murder of human beings went on just the same. A new name was given to the killings and a new excuse was invented for so doing.”
Today, as it was in Wells’ day, the excuse seems to be people are Black and breathing.
Still, I’m struck by that baby’s soothing words to her mother; that it’s going to be okay. Her little voice hit me directly in the heart because I want so badly for her words to be true, but history tells us otherwise. We’re not okay, and without justice and full equality that protects Black folks from being seen as threats for just existing, we never will be.
Britni Danielle is the Senior Digital Editor of EBONY.com and JETmag.com. Catch her tweeting @BritniDWrites.