Why Whites Should Watch

White people have a choice about whether or not to tune into police killings of Black and brown people. Many Black Americans feel no such choice.

As the jury deliberates in his killer’s trial, I’m reminded of the day Philando Castile died. I left work and went to visit my partner. We hugged and kissed. I asked if she’d heard the news.

“Yeah,” she sighed. “That little girl trying to comfort her mom. I just don’t...”

I shook my head. “I didn’t watch it.” She gave me a look – and a second to think about that.

Castile’s last moments felt private to me, I explained, and watching them voyeuristic. My partner, who is white like me, said simply, “Watch.”

So I did. And I realized what she meant. White people have a choice about whether or not to tune into police killings of Black and brown people. Many Black Americans feel no such choice. Some writers have called for readers of color to allow themselves to forgo the trauma of watching the killings of Terence Crutcher, Keith Scott, Walter Scott, and far too many others.

White people should watch them. Watching those videotaped deaths has taught me more than reading about them ever could. The videos illuminate three things particularly eloquently: the humanity of the victims, the inhumanity of their deaths, and the structural nature of police violence against people of color.

When we read about police killings, it’s easy to fall prey to writers’ penchant for criminalizing the victims – or simply to fill in details about them based on our unconscious biases. When we watch, though, the randomness of these deaths sears the humanity of the dead into our hearts. Philando Castile was on the way home from the grocery story with his family. Terence Crutcher’s car broke down. Keith Scott was simply waiting for his kid, reading a book. We’re taught – in coded language and as a kind of woefully insufficient justification – that police kill only a certain kind of Black man. Watching teaches me otherwise. If you changed only my skin color I’d be just as likely as Crutcher to be shot in the back instead of offered a tow.

Video also brings to life the loved ones who witness the violence – and in many cases themselves serve as the brave videographers. When you hear Rakeiya Scott, Keith’s wife, plead with officers to recognize that he is disabled, it hits you in the gut in a way reading about it can’t. Video puts you in the passenger seat as Diamond Reynolds, Philando Castile’s fiancée, steadily aims her camera at Officer Jeronimo Yanez, whose gun is still aimed at a dying Castile.

Video makes us wonder with unexpected sensitivity about a third party: the killers. When I watch Brentley Vinson kill Keith Scott, I’m pushed to put myself in his shoes. I can feel the panic in his voice – the misplaced sense of helplessness. Without excusing his decision to pull the trigger, I can’t help but notice the confluence of factors that influenced it. He’s surrounded by colleagues shouting that Scott has a gun. He has been trained to preserve his own safety over that of civilians. He must know he’s subject to punishment for failing to shoot but almost never for shooting. With all that in mind, he makes the split-second choice to take a life. Video helps white-collar liberals, who might otherwise be tempted to demonize individual cops from the safety of our offices, turn a mirror on ourselves. There but for the grace of God go we. On both sides of the gun.

In jarring juxtaposition to the humanity of the filmed, video underscores the inhumanity of the killing. We can read that the helicopter operator called Terence Crutcher “a bad dude,” but until we see the scene from his vantage point, it’s hard to grasp just how little evidence he has of that. Crutcher is tall, a man, and Black. That’s it. I’ve long known intellectually why we must proclaim that Black Lives Matter. But when I watched Michael Slager rush to put cuffs on Walter Scott after shooting him five times in the back, I felt it in my body.

You can’t watch that murder, read of a jury’s inability to convict Slager, and think there’s much hope for justice in less cut-and-dry cases. Perhaps most importantly, then, video brings home the structural reality of race and policing. Philando Castile knew exactly how carefully he had to announce that he had a permitted firearm in the car. He’d been pulled over 52 times before that day. That kind of treatment has professional, psychological, and spiritual consequences. Deadly force is only the sharpest expression of a criminal justice system that serves in ways large and small to deprive Black and Latinx Americans of liberty.

Whether we like it or not, all white Americans benefit from the opportunities thus stripped from our neighbors. We have a responsibility to try as hard as we can to understand that process. Watching the tide of Black death is inherently problematic, maybe even dangerous. But intention matters. Undertaken with a somber commitment to honor the dead by working for justice, viewing the videos creates more benefit than harm. It allows us to begin to engage. There too, we risk screwing up. If the alternative is ignoring suffering that benefits us, the risk is worth it.

Jeronimo Yanez thought Philando Castile looked like a robbery suspect because of his locs and his “wide-set nose.” A partner of mine will never have to worry that I’ll die because of how I look. She’ll never have to summon the courage to turn on the camera while I bleed out. Diamond Reynolds did. The least we can do to is face up to watching what she shared.


For more on the trial of Jeronimo Yanez, download the outstanding 74 Seconds podcast from Minnesota Public Radio and follow its creators on Twitter @74secondsmpr.