What strikes me most about the recent videos of black men dying and dying and dying is the repetition. They all seem familiar—as in: We’ve heard it before, and before, and then well before even that. The scenes splashed across the news have become almost ritualistic, prayerful; they have a narrative potency that seems to move of its own accord, an agency exceeding that of the humans involved, whether police or suspects, victims or bystanders. We all know the words, we all sing along. In North Charleston, South Carolina, the death of Walter Scott began with a litany like so many before it: He reached for my weapon, a struggle ensued, I feared for my life, the weapon discharged. Amen.
The counternarrative, the recall and response, was provided by a passerby who captured the now-viral video of the killing on his cellphone. That, too, was a memory remembered, a chorus we knew before we knew: He was running away. He was shot in the back. He was unarmed. The weapon was planted. Repeat con affetto.
As Baltimore is rocked in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, our collective riot-song has been cranked up to full volume: They’re out of control! They’re wild animals! They’re burning down their own neighborhood! No wonder the police have to kill them! And in complex counterpoint, the dirge of mysterious-death-while-in-custody: No justice, no peace! interlaced with the percussive bass line of A thorough investigation will be undertaken.