At some point last night, the Foodtown grocery at 148th and St. Nicholas caught fire.
The subway station entrance across from it is a few blocks from my apartment, and by the time I had passed that intersection this morning, the front window was gone and inside was nothing but bitumen.
A haze hung over much of the morning. It followed me into the office and despite the luminosity outside, my office was shrouded in darkness. I’d made the mistake last night of watching the recently released dashcam footage of Laquan McDonald’s final moments. The incident itself takes place near the end of the nearly seven-minute clip. Much of the video’s body is taken up with reckless driving and distorted sound such that one hears, instead of a siren wailing, a dying thing, drowning. Such videos are legion. Social media is lousy with them. They spawn and consume Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter timelines like cancerous cells. At one point, they lose their shock and induce only numbness, in part because the result is almost always the same, that cavernous yawning that faces the colored American public where justice or restitution or vengeance should be found. Sometimes, however, the horror leaps back out and becomes a visceral, churning thing. It scoops out insides and it renders nerve endings more sensitive, sets them afire, and it cripples the muscles that hold one up. The heart deflates, and one feels, instead of a deadening, a dying.
“Calling in black” is a bit of morbid humor that has seeped into the lexicon of late. I joked morosely with a South Asian colleague about it this morning. Here we sat, on our floor, saddled with our mission of enforcing the laws guaranteeing civil rights for the people of the State of New York, and Chicago had purchased so much real estate in our minds.
November 25, 2014, I woke up in Paris to news that the grand jury had declined to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. The following week, Daniel Pantaleo found the same result, stemming from his murder of Eric Garner on Staten Island.
Facebook has recently begun prompting users to share “memories” of specific days in years past, anniversaries of a sort where you can re-share particular status updates or pictures or linked pages. November 25, 2014, I’d written the following Facebook status: “I just…I don’t know how not to be angry anymore.” 19 Likes. 1 Comment. 1 Share.
This past weekend was notable, in large part because of the radiant people of color I was privileged to spend time with, some of whom I met in person for the very first time that day. The day was a reminder that joy can take corporeal form, that luminescence can be a felt thing, a visceral experience where the entire body is rendered clement. A blanket has wrapped itself around one’s insides. Smiles glow. Hugs calm the chaos of warm things. Where normally one speaks, one instead sings. Dancing becomes a larger thing than oneself, so that we moved as a swarm, as a glorious, teeming mass caught beneath that tent, a single organism thrumming with life and love. Of self. Of each other. The weekend of the Yale-Harvard football game was also notable because I got to spend time with a man I’d styled as a bit of an older brother.
We spoke last night, and I had ISIS on my mind when I’d asked him when these videos of police-initiated executions become atrocity porn. At what point does it reach that level? In the back of mind was an image from a glossy page of Dabiq, the monthly online magazine produced by ISIS. In it, a child holds a severed head aloft. Towards the end of the video of Laquan McDonald’s murder, he lies still on the ground, and puffs arise from his body and from the concrete where bullets strike. Moments earlier, the first bullets had twirled him in a grotesque pirouette that preceded his collapse. To write of his death this way approaches sacrilege. There was nothing beautiful or aesthetically intelligent about the destruction of his body. There isn’t a sentence in the world that can make it anything other than the abominable and heinous act it was. But the words are what to which I flee when confronted by the confusing and the hurtful and the lessening. The murder is the severing of the head. YouTube is the pike on which it is planted.
The video of journalist Steven Sotloff’s beheading shows him wearing a lapel microphone. The wind would have made sound difficult to catch. The video does not show the actual act. Just the beginning, a fade to black, then the result. The camera then pans to their next hostage. It’s gratuitous and primal and obscene. No message superimposed on the video can counter the exorbitant violence of this gonzo pornography. Fucking for fucking’s sake. The exorbitant violence is the point. Further along the spectrum, approaching the purely-gonzo atrocity porn, is the grainy cell phone video footage taken by jihadis. Snapchats of executions. Vines replaying mutilations. A masked jihadi holding up a severed head in one hand and throwing up a gang sign with the other. Caption: “Chillin’ with my homie…or what’s left of him.”
The video footage of Laquan McDonald’s last moments is evidence. It is a snuff film, but it is also evidence. It is a riff in the song that has been sung over and over and over. Occasionally, a new verse is added or inflections change, but it is the same song. The video brings the tuning fork in my soul to same reverberation as had the video of Walter Scott’s murder in North Charleston, South Carolina on April 4, 2015.
The tragedy of so much of this lies in the fact that the snuff film is evidence. It is necessary. Without it, the dirge for Rodney King would have been a different song. Its absence is, in part, why Freddie Gray’s murder was attended by mourning and rage at that particular pitch that rode at the base of Baltimore’s burning. The snuff film is necessary when it should not be.
Laquan McDonald was murdered as Darren Wilson rose from his seat to walk free. Only now can we note the horrible synchronicity in the rising of the one and the falling of the other.
Gene Demby wrote in August of the particular psychic toll that afflicted reporters of color who had fallen upon this particular beat: black reporters reporting black death.
As calls for newsroom diversity get louder and louder — and rightly so — we might do well to consider what it means that there’s an emerging, highly valued professional class of black reporters at boldface publications reporting on the shortchanging of black life in this country. They’re investigating police killings and segregated schools and racist housing policies and ballooning petty fines while their loved ones, or people who look like their loved ones, are out there living those stories. What it means — for the reporting we do, for the brands we represent, and for our own mental health — that we don’t stop being black people when we’re working as black reporters. That we quite literally have skin in the game.
A genre of the same afflicts citizens of color in general. It’s still someone who looks like us who is collapsing amidst the recorded mutilation of his own body.
And when you find that name-turned-hashtag, or that latest released recording of dashcam footage pops up on Facebook, joy, and the prospect of it, dies.
Right now, protests sing in Chicago’s streets. In Minneapolis, melody fights through the white supremacist gunfire trying to silence it.
We’ve been singing this song for so long it is a wonder our voices have not left us.
And here I am, writing. Wondering what notes I can throw into the chorus. Trying to figure out how best to join my voice in the singing. Struggling with the prospect that this writing does nothing.
I know it is a thing that brings me joy. I feel useful doing it, even if that feeling is an illusion, smoke keeping me from seeing a difficult truth reflected back at me. It will not rebuild that Foodtown that went up in flames last night. It will not restock it with cereal and toilet paper and canola oil. But terror abates when I write.
This weekend, I will see my family. And what will surround me, engulf me, protect me, is love, joy turned visceral.
Gonzo pornography is the absence of love. The beheading performs the same act, the erasure of humanity, so that all that remains are grunts and fucking and scratching ourselves. I know that watching video of police-initiated executions does something in me that brings me closer to that, hits a particular pitch at which the tuning fork is activated. But to watch it is evidence that I am not that thing. To watch it is, in part, to be reminded that elevated lifeforms exist, to see and be reminded of the activism that attends the aftermath and the preceding, that Laquan McDonald was more than a figure in a snuff film. They all were.
Before long, the Foodtown will stop being a husk and will become, once again, something in which people move and buy sustenance. A place where babies wail while being held by their mothers, where young adults shop for dinner ingredients, where people go about the business of being human. A teeming mass, contained beneath a tent. A single organism thrumming with life.
The urge to text my older brother bubbles in me. If only to hear in his voice or read in his text the beautiful, living chaos of warm things.