Birthday thoughts about the deaths of black men and women at the hands of police
And how I tried to #saytheirnames
Today is my birthday. Five weeks ago I stared at my laptop and watched two men die. You did, too. We watched Alton Sterling die in a parking lot on a Wednesday, and then on Thursday — less than 24 hours later — we watched Diamond Reynolds live-stream the death of Philando Castile.
Part of me felt the same way I did when I was 15 and my neighbor hushed me down into his basement to show me his older brother’s copy of Faces of Death. After ten torturous minutes I lied and told him I needed to get back home. I felt like I had crossed a line I couldn’t come back from. Something shifted somewhere, and I was irrevocably changed.
Another part of me, however, wanted to do something this time — to change something, anything. You don’t sit there and watch the life bleed out of these black bodies then just shrug your shoulders and go back to commenting on your uncle’s pro-Trump meme. That’s just voyeurism. That’s Faces of Death disguised as journalism.
What to do, though? Share another article on Facebook with people who think the same way as me? Tweet some hashtags from yet another vigil? As a white man living in Vermont — a state where blacks make up 1% of the population (which is double what it was a decade ago) — I felt helpless.
I spent my 25th birthday in a New York state correctional facility. I was an addict and a petty thief who had been arrested dozens of times before a judge finally called bullshit on my privilege and actually sentenced me. My spades partner back at Rikers, a young black man from East New York whose first offense — a handful of crack — got him a three-to-six, had clapped and laughed when I returned after my sentencing.
“Oh, it’s about TIME they locked your white ass up!”
Whites aren’t the smallest minority inside the walls — that’d be Asians — but we’re a close second. The other 90% of the prison population in New York is split 60/30 between blacks and hispanics, respectively. Most of the jails in the NYSDOC are located in predominantly (entirely?) non-Hispanic white areas in upstate New York.
What this winds up looking like is a whole lot of white prison guards whose primary experience with people of color are they inmates they lord over — i.e., criminals.
During my time inside, I often sensed that many of the officers saw me as just an anomaly, a wayward kid who had made some mistakes, whereas my fellow non-white prisoners were seen as typical representations of of their culture and race — i.e., our jails are filled with black people because black people are thugs.
And so on my 25th birthday, at a minimum security facility in a tiny town in the Adirondack Mountains, a prison guard shook a Marlboro out of his pack and handed it to me. I gave him a what gives? look. He nodded and smirked at me.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We look out for ours.” And then he tapped two fingers against his hairless white forearm and clicked his tongue.
A few weeks later I was the only white inmate out on a work crew. We were moving rocks in a creek under a bridge — a useless and back-breaking task. Just before noon a guard came down the bank and called for break.
“Come on, Olsen,” he barked. “Get the lunches.”
I followed him up the bank and to the van parked on the bridge above. As he pulled out his key ring to unlock the door, he chuckled.
“Hey, Olsen,” he said, looking over his shoulder at me. “What’s black and brown and looks good on a nigger?”
I looked away and said nothing. I didn’t want to hear anything else. I wanted to disappear.
These are dangerous days, to say what you feel is to dig your own grave.
We were in the studio working on our next album when three more police officers were killed in retaliation, this time in Baton Rouge. Late one evening we recorded our own version of “Black Boys on Mopeds” — not because we planned to release it, but because it’s one of the things a musician can do to fight the sense of powerlessness when faced with such incomprehensible madness.
It didn’t matter that this song was about a young black man who was killed by British police over 30 years ago — as I listened to my wife sing the chorus, I was struck by how much it sounded like America today, right now, in 2016:
It’s the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds.
I wanted to learn more, to connect. I wanted to make something that said, in no uncertain terms, “These are black lives, and they matter.” I decided to use our version of “Black Boys on Mopeds” as the soundtrack for a video I would create that seeks to memorialize the unarmed black men killed by police this year. I assumed it would be easy enough to do — not painless, mind you, just simple. Point A to Point B: find a website that provides all the data clearly and thoroughly, collect said data, make a video.
As it turns out, I was wrong.
We spent our family vacation, coincidentally enough, in one of aforementioned white-as-hell regions of upstate New York, and after each long sunny day spent swimming and biking, I would put the kids to bed and get to work on the video.
For 15 days the only people of color I saw were the dead ones on my laptop screen. Hundreds of images of black men and women from when they were still alive, photos taken before they were shot and shocked and suffocated by those who had sworn to protect and serve them.
I never found that magical website — the one that was going to lay out the narrative for me and offer up the information in concise cut-and-pastable nuggets. The internet was loaded with agendas and had plenty of opinions, but not a lot of data.
The first important resource I came across was EBWiki.org, a website “aimed at ‘crowdtracking’ cases of violence against people of color, and enabling organized community response.” It’s an invaluable tool if you know who and what you’re looking for, but I didn’t. I could count on one hand the names of victims I knew. I needed someone to give me the names and tell me their stories.
And then I found the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning database of “every fatal shooting in the United States by a police officer in the line of duty since Jan. 1, 2015.” This was it. Clean, easy to navigate, and its search options allowed me to filter the data down to unarmed black men.
Initially, I assumed unarmed was the appropriate place to draw the line. Who can argue with that? Why wade into the murky gray water of debating the justified use of deadly force? Lets just keep it neat and simple, right?
I didn’t seek to add more names, but quickly learned that unarmed excluded victims I expected to see. Where was Alton Sterling? Philando Castile? These men were categorized as weapon unknown. Time to redraw the line.
Once you start redrawing the line, you have to actually read the stories. You can’t just cut and paste a list of people. What about Fritz Severe, a 46-year-old homeless man who was shot dead in front of dozens of children after he refused to drop the metal pipe he was holding?
Or what about Eric Harris, 44, of Tulsa, Oklahoma? Where’s the line for him?
Harris fled an arrest after he sold a gun to undercover officers working a sting operation. He was caught by officers and shot by a 73-year-old part-time reserve deputy, who said he intended to use a Taser. Harris told officers ‘I’m losing my breath,’ to which one replied: ‘Fuck your breath.’
Fuck your breath….
Time to move the line.
Five days into making the video, prosecutors in Baltimore, Maryland dropped all charges against the three police officers accused in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray. That’s when I realized he wasn’t in the data I had collected.
That’s because he wasn’t killed by bullets.
As great as the Washington Post database is, it’s limited to people who were shot and killed by police. I didn’t realize I was missing a staggering number of victims — black lives that were cut short by Tasers and choked out by forearms and broken by boots and crushed by patrol cars and mauled by dogs and starved to death while chained to a chair for days in a dark forgotten cell.
And then, once I found the website that offered data on these victims (Mapping Police Violence), I was ashamed by yet another painfully obvious oversight of mine: women.
Had I adhered strictly to the murdered black men memorialized in the song, I would have not been able to say the names of so many black women — women such as Natasha McKenna of Fairfax, Virginia:
Police used a stun gun on McKenna, who had schizophrenia, claiming she “refused to comply” with deputies’ commands and “physically resisted” them as they prepared her for transport to Alexandria to face charges there, the sheriff’s office said.
If I wanted to truly see everything, I had to erase the line completely.
Another problem I had with the Washington Post database: no photos. I needed faces to connect the names to. As I went deep down the Google rabbit hole and poured through hundreds of agonizing articles, I found that most of the portraits used by the media were mug shots — images supplied not by their families, but by the police.
Well, I didn’t want their mug shots. I sought other photos, no matter how grainy or small or hard to find they were. These lives shouldn’t be defined solely by their mug shots. I’ll leave that to the news outlets.
After all, I have a mug shot. Is that what defines me? Is that all I am?
No, we are more than our mug shots, more than our mistakes. We are fathers and daughters, mothers and sons. We are athletes, comedians, soldiers, and graduates. We take selfies. We flex our muscles and squint. We have shit-eating grins. We photobomb. We clean our cars and decorate our Christmas trees. We drive to the shore and find ourselves taking pictures of the sun setting over the water and wonder if anyone else in the world feels like this.
Every morning for two weeks I would push my four-year-old daughter in a swing in a playground in what was surely the whitest place on the face of the earth. She would scream over and over that I push her higher — higher! — but all I could think of was Nicolas Thomas.
And Meagan Hockaday.
And Andre Green.
And. And, and, and, and and andandand….
I was sure I was finished. I compiled the video and synced the music. I knew there were probably more — surely there were — but this is what I could find. And this was all I could do. I was drained. I didn’t think I could read another heart-shattering story.
And then Korryn Gaines was shot by police in her own home while her five-year-old sat on her lap.
Yes, she was holding a shotgun. But there was a five-year-old sitting in her lap. And we sent in a SWAT team.
Yes, we. The police work for us, don’t they?
As it turns out, I wasn’t finished. There were new names — names that weren’t there when I started the project.
As it turns out, black people continued getting killed while I was slathering sunblock on my daughters so their porcelain skin wouldn’t burn as they spent dazzlingly bright days jumping off a dock into clean river water.
This video names the names of 132 black bodies that died at the hands of police officers between January 1, 2015 and August 1, 2016.
20 months. 132 black bodies. A four minute video.
The song is in 3/4 time. Every three beats, a new face is named — a single measure, roughly 1.8 seconds.
Entire lives measured in measures.
On the last day of our summer vacation I finally saw a police officer, a New York State Trooper. Apparently some teens had taken a golf cart for a joy ride in the middle of the night, and now the keys were missing.
November, 2014. We stopped at a hotel for the night on our way to Columbus, Ohio to visit my ailing mother for Thanksgiving. Earlier in the week, a grand jury had made the decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. Everywhere you looked, headlines echoed the announcement and the community’s reaction. My six-year-old daughter had started asking questions — a lot of them — and we were slowly spoon-feeding her the truth. She was connecting dots daily.
As I finished checking in, I saw her staring at the TV in the hotel lobby, watching CNN’s coverage of Ferguson. We dragged our bags down the long hallway to our room and passed a handful of housekeepers along the way.
“Daddy?” my daughter asked. “Why are all the cleaning people brown?”
Oh, man. THE TALK. Socioeconomic oppression. Cultural subjugation. This was the moment I’d been waiting for, where all my experience and knowledge would finally mean something as I metaphorically held my daughter’s hand and ushered her into the garden of enlightenment. I was about to breathe life and wisdom into the lungs of my descendants.
I crouched down and looked her right in the eyes. Time to get woke, kid.
“Um….so — ”
“Daddy?” she interrupted. “Are the police going to shoot them, too?”
So like I said, it’s my birthday today. I’m 45 years old now. Only 10 of the 132 victims in the video made it as far as I have. That means I’ve outlived 92.5% of these men and women — and it was pretty easy to do.
As a matter of fact, I didn’t even have to try. I was born this way.
Thank you for reading this. I hope you’ll consider recommending it to others.