The Empty Accolade of Surviving State Violence

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During their recent awards announcements, The Pulitzer Prize board surprised many people when they awarded Darnella Frazier, the teenage girl who recorded George Floyd in his final moments, a Special Citation Pulitzer. In a statement about Darnella’s Pulitzer, the board said her award was “for courageously recording the murder of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests against police brutality around the world, highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.”

There was a tangible unease on social media after the news broke. This ain’t it” writer Zoé Samudzi wrote on her Twitter. “Sigh,” Dr. Oni Blackstock tweeted out. “The same way George Floyd probably didn’t want to be made a martyr (and would rather be alive), Darnella Frazier probably didn’t want to have [to] film his murder, (be traumatized) and win a Pulitzer for it.”

One of white supremacy’s many cruelties is the way that it strips even the mundanities of life from Black people. Darnella didn’t know taking a routine walk with her cousin to the corner store would lead to her having to be on the frontlines of injustice. That she would become ensnared in the crosshairs of history like so many Black girls before her.

There’s no doubt that, without the near-instinctive reflex that Black people have had to develop over the last decade of pulling out our cell phones during what should be the most unremarkable police interactions, we wouldn’t be here a year later with a guilty verdict and a country still sifting through the proverbial and literal ashes of last summer. The verdict is a rare, albeit small, triumph for a decade that has brought one unrelenting tragedy and protest after another, that not even indisputable camera footage could resolve.

The split second that it takes to witness an act of state sanctioned violence and decide to hit the record button has often led to troubling long term consequences for the person behind the phone. Ramsey Orta, the man who recorded Eric Garner’s haunting last words, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” as Garner is choked and tackled to the ground by a group of officers, has expressed regret for recording the famous video because of how he says the state has retaliated against him. Recently, Feidin Santana, who recorded Walter Scott being shot down by an officer in South Carolina, spoke about having to move out of the country to regain some semblance of normalcy after receiving death threats.

For Darnella, who was only seventeen when she recorded the video, the pain for her has been nearly unfathomable. “And everybody’s asking me how I feel,” Darnella can be heard saying just a day later when she returns to the scene of the murder. She says, “I don’t know how to feel!” In a recent Facebook post on the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, Darnella wrote a long message on her page that said in part, “a part of my childhood was taken from me. My 9-year-old cousin who witnessed the same thing I did got a part of her childhood taken from her.”

While Darnella was processing her grief for both the man she witnessed die right in front of her and for the version of herself she lost that day, the country was once again trying to grapple with its anti-Blackness. We watched as companies clumsily attempted to assuage their white guilt, while politicians chose to don kente cloth and adorn the streets with the words Black Lives Matter–all to avoid making actual systemic change.

One of the more disturbing and perverse trends that always come from these short lived racial eureka moments this country has every other year is to try and assign meaning or poignancy to an act of white supremacist violence. Speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi received swift criticism for saying that George Floyd “sacrificed” his life for justice right after the trial for his murder. There were the reactions to photos of Floyd’s daughter Gianna’s recent White House visit that led some people to view the moment as hopeful instead of tragic that a little Black girl is only here because she lost her father in one of the most inhumane ways.

The valorization of people like Floyd, Gianna, and now Darnella with her Pulitzer prize as martyrs instead of victims of state violence acts only to individualize these tragedies. It’s much easier to believe that Darnella was ordained for some higher moral purpose instead of having to confront the fact that policing in America is an inherently immoral system that negatively impacts even those not directly targeted by the police. Deification too, can be its own form of violence, and for a teen that has already lost so much, heroism can be as isolating and dehumanizing as the trauma of racial violence.

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