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There was no end to the killings, and no turning away from the videos that captured every death. Cameras were everywhere now, in purses and pockets, in the hands of every motorist and passenger pulled over by flashing lights. The police had their own cameras, fastened to uniforms and mounted in patrol cars. The images captured by all those lenses repeated on the news and online, over and over, and every time someone else died, another video surfaced to join the endless loop of blood and tears.
The videos burned the names of the dead and their final moments into the nation’s collective memory. There was Eric Garner, the man on a Staten Island sidewalk who kept saying “I can’t breathe” as he suffocated under the weight of officers. There was Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old with a pellet gun who lay dying in a snowy Cleveland park, shot by a cop who had just pulled up in his cruiser. There was Walter Scott, the man in North Charleston, South Carolina, running away as an officer shot him in the back. Eventually the footage blurred into one long and never-ending movie that forced the country to stare into its brokenness.
Deep into the summer of 2016, another video emerged. It was taken by a woman sitting in the passenger seat of an Oldsmobile, talking to her boyfriend as he lay bleeding behind the wheel. “Stay with me,” she begged him as he moaned. A police officer stood just outside the car, still pointing his gun at the driver. “You shot four bullets into him, sir,” the woman said. “He was just getting his license and registration, sir.” They’d been on their way home from the grocery store with frozen potpies and chocolate swirl ice cream before being pulled over for a broken brake light. The officer could only stand there shouting, “Fuck!” By the next morning, millions had watched Philando Castile die on their phones.
In a suburb of Dallas, inside a two-story house on a tree-lined block, a twenty-five-year-old black man studied the Castile video, growing more and more angry. He was a five-foot-six loner, drummed out of the Army in disgrace. Now he was living in his mother’s house, working on a plan he’d been churning over for a while. As the Castile video went out across the country, he felt a deepening resolve. He put on khaki military pants and a long-sleeve camouflage shirt, covering a tattoo on his upper left arm that said seize the day. He laced up his tan high-top boots. Neighbors had seen him in his mother’s backyard, doing push-ups and drills. In his bedroom he kept a journal of tactics, recording his progress at reloading more efficiently, learning how to lay down suppressive fire, reminding himself to be aware of muzzle flash and how it could reveal his position to enemies. He was honing a method called “shoot and move,” practicing how to surprise and dominate. He sketched images of soldiers and wrote himself words of encouragement. He told himself there was no shame if he had to pee on himself during battle. As he headed out the door, his mother looked up. Her son rarely went out.
“I’m going to a protest rally,” he said.
“What are you protesting?” his mother asked.
“All the shootings,” he said. “Mom, you’ve got to listen to the news.”
“Stay out of trouble,” she said.
He climbed into his mother’s black SUV and headed toward downtown. He arrived just as the sun slipped out of sight, bathing the city in a dark, dusky blue. He parked on Lamar Street, in front of a bone-colored building that housed a community college, switched on the SUV’s hazard lights, and got out. On the streets around him, a slight breeze was moving through the oak trees, a late reprieve from the ninety-seven-degree day. Above, glass and steel skyscrapers were coming aglow with lights. A police helicopter swooped low over the buildings, its rotors thumping across the sky. The protest, organized in the wake of Castile’s shooting, had already begun. Hundreds of people marched through the streets, and the emotion in their chants carried on the wind. The sound infused the streetscape with the same unsettled air felt that evening in cities across the nation.
The young man slipped on his bulletproof vest and picked up a Saiga AK-74 rifle. He walked toward a group of police officers, their backs turned to him as they focused on the marchers. He raised his rifle and took aim at his first target.
An officer’s body camera captured what happened when the first shots roared out, shocking and deafening. The camera was pointed at another officer, the first to fall. It recorded the officer letting out a primal cry, the sound of life leaving his body. He folded and dropped facedown. Then the camera’s angle shifted violently, as the officer wearing it fell, too. Now the camera pointed directly upward and recorded a passenger jet flying high above, glistening in the day’s last sunlight as it drifted peacefully across the frame. There the camera’s gaze remained for many long seconds, recording gunfire and the darkening sky.
Copyright © 2021 by Jamie Thompson