The quiet struggle of Feidin Santana, the man who filmed the shooting of Walter Scott

·15 min read

Feidin Santana’s former life tastes like habichuelas con dulce, a Dominican dessert made with cinnamon, nutmeg, red beans and milk.

He looks forward to the treat each year during Holy Week and, on a bright April morning, a friend delivers a batch made just for him.

In English, his second language, Santana struggles to describe the sweet bean dish that brings him such comfort. He cradles the container in his arms when it arrives — a moment of rare joy for a man whose life is now perpetually bittersweet. Because no matter what happens or how much time goes by, Santana’s life remains tethered to the day he saw a Black man gunned down by police.

The media still probe and pry about Santana’s darkest day, asking him what he was thinking when he reached for his cellphone that morning and why he started recording. Reporters ask him what ran through his mind when a North Charleston police officer raised his .45-caliber Glock 21 handgun and fired it eight times at the back of a fleeing Walter Scott.

Even now — after a year of marriage, the recent birth of his second child, and his piece of the American dream within reach — Santana’s life is still largely defined by the fatal police shooting he witnessed on April 4, 2015.

That day, he said, split his life into a distinct before and after.

Being the lone bystander who captured the police killing of yet another unarmed Black man has been, at times, an unbearable existence for Santana, who identifies as Afro-Latino. So when Santana saw the footage of George Floyd gasping for air, Santana mourned not only for Floyd and his family but for the bystanders who documented Floyd’s death. He knows better than anyone that they, too, lost something that day.

After recording the final moments of Walter Scott’s life, Santana faced death threats and feared the day when he would have to testify in court. For years, Santana struggled to find a balance between the identity thrust upon him and the life he longed to create for himself.

“It depends on the way you see life. Sometimes we have to understand that many times it’s not what you asked for,” Santana said. “I wanted to be a baseball player. I’m a barber. But I cannot live regretting.”

“Fate is what we have in the present,” he said.

Santana was 23 when he hit record on his Samsung Galaxy S5 and captured footage that disproved the initial police narrative about how Walter Scott had died. Santana’s cellphone video stunned the world and led to murder charges against former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, the lawman involved.

At the time, though, Santana had thought and hoped the officer’s bullets were made of rubber. But if the bullets were made of rubber, he thought, then why wasn’t the man on the ground breathing?

That day, after the shooting, North Charleston police told a traumatized Santana to stay where he was. Instead, he fled: first, from the crime scene and, months later, from the country.

After his cellphone video began playing on TV screens and websites worldwide, the man being hailed as a hero remembers turning to his attorney Todd Rutherford.

“I just want to go back to my country,” the soft-spoken young man from the Dominican Republican said. “You know, I just,” he searched, “I just want to be me again.”

It would take Santana years to accept that there was no going back to the man he called “the regular Feidin.”

Flight

The youngest of two sons, Santana’s life began in Santo Domingo, or as locals call it, “La Capital.” His father played the piano. His mother loved to sing. When Santana was 1, his father moved to the United States for work and, when Santana was either 12 or 13, the entire family followed.

First they lived in Newark, New Jersey, and then Yonkers, New York. Eventually, they settled in Providence, Rhode Island. At the time, Santana had never seen snow and struggled to learn English. Despite the language barrier, he did not feel alone. There were other Spanish-speaking families who moved there as part of the Dominican diaspora. The only constant in his life was change.

“I have been a nomad all my life,” Santana said while sitting at a park in North Charleston, the city he now calls home.

The decision to stay here did not come easy. After the shooting in 2015, fear ruled Santana’s life.

He began to wonder if he should have deleted the video and left the country that day when he had the chance. His daily walks to work at the Dominican barbershop suddenly felt dangerous. He received racist messages and death threats on Facebook. And after witnessing an officer shoot a man dead, Santana did not trust that police would protect him: a brown man with a green card.

“At the end of the day, it was just my word, my evidence out there,” Santana, now 29, said of his experience.

In this image from video, Walter Scott is fatally shot by North Charleston Police Officer Michael Thomas Slager.
In this image from video, Walter Scott is fatally shot by North Charleston Police Officer Michael Thomas Slager.

“Many friends that I have that didn’t know the story, my story, they thought it was something that was not easy to do but they saw my name all over the nation,” he said. “They never thought, ‘Oh Feidin sacrificed his safety and even his life.’ Few people understand that. Because when you are a witness you are only protected when the cameras are there. When the cameras go, nobody’s around.”

Santana struggled with feelings of fear and bouts of depression. He also longed to get back to his wife and child in the Dominican Republic and, there, the hope of feeling like the person he once was.

Anthony Scott understood. He is the older brother of Walter Scott. The first time he met Santana, the two were sitting in the backseat of a car preparing to watch Santana’s cellphone video.

“It’s so painful for a family to see this. And when you see it happening over and over again, it’s like it’s your family member is that person,” Anthony Scott said of what it is like seeing other videos of police violence. “That pain, it just never goes away, and you start to feel the same way you felt when it was actually your particular situation. I think they call it PTSD.”

Their experiences illustrate the lasting personal toll that comes from both witnessing a high-profile police killing and watching similar incidents unfold across America.

Dr. Alyssa Rheingold, who directs clinical operations at the National Crime Victims Research & Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, said watching others get injured or killed can trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, both in the moment and years later when similar incidents occur.

“Experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event can have a life-long impact,” Rheingold said. “It can be years before someone can come to terms with or figures out how to carry that event with them versus having an event running their life.”

A 17-year-old girl in Minneapolis found herself in Santana’s position almost one year ago, on the day she filmed George Floyd’s murder by a police officer. The next day, when Darnella Frazier returned to the scene where she recorded Floyd’s death beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, she paced up and down the sidewalk. At one point, she stopped to put her hands on her knees to catch her breath, which appeared to come in short and sharp bursts.

“I posted the video last night and it just went viral,” Frazier said through tears in a video uploaded by NowThisNews. Her voice broke. Between sobs, she said, “Everybody’s asking me how do I feel? I don’t know how to feel.”

In the aftermath of the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott, Santana said he felt like he had to escape. He flew back to the Dominican Republic to find relief. Over the next two years, he returned to Charleston multiple times to testify in state and federal court.

Only after a federal judge sentenced Slager to 20 years in prison did Santana return to North Charleston for good.

“A lot of people assume it’s something you just get over, but it’s not,” Rheingold said of traumatic events. “It’s something you learn how to live with.

Fight

In late March, Santana walked into the site of his future barbershop in North Charleston, nodding at the progress he saw. The floors, now a light blue epoxy that resembled the sky, were done. A row of full-length mirrors leaned against the wall.

But not far from his mind was the jury selection unfolding at that moment more than 1,300 miles away in a Minneapolis courtroom. Santana wore a black T-shirt with a message printed across his chest: “Do you believe us now?”

He sat down with his back to the mirrors in the shop, leaning forward to say, “I’m a different man now. More confident, more mature. I would say even more educated on social issues that are going on in our nation.”

In 2018, Santana became a U.S. citizen. And, after trying to put his identity as a bystander behind him, Santana is now using his voice and his experience to try to make race relations better. In March, he was elected the second vice chair of the Charleston County Democratic Party.

“He has a quiet assurance that is rare,” said Ben Pogue, a Charleston Democrat who encouraged Santana to get involved in local politics. “But even now, he probably doesn’t think of himself as a political person.”

Santana instead speaks of community and how he sees this role as a chance for him to make a contribution. He said his decision to film what he saw on April 4, 2015, was also a civic act.

Holding up his new Galaxy S20 cellphone, Santana said, “This is your protection. This is where you reflect transparency and the real actions.”

However, when Santana took the stand in the 2016 state murder trial of Michael Slager, he could not understand why his video didn’t speak for itself.

Why was he — the man who hit record — questioned for twice as long on the witness stand as the man who pulled the trigger of a gun eight times?

“It’s not a secret that minorities have been oppressed,” Santana said in a recent interview. “We are still living in this falacia. We are still living in a fallacy of democracy.”

A personal post

Santana avoided watching the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. No need, he said, to watch an experience he had already lived on the witness stand in 2016 and 2017.

But one night, hours after a string of witnesses testified about the day they saw George Floyd die, Santana found himself watching clips on his phone.

Santana sought out the tense exchange between one of the witnesses, mixed martial arts fighter Donald Williams, and Eric Nelson, one of Chauvin’s defense attorneys.

He watched as Williams answered questions about why he had called police “thugs,” why he had called 911 on the police and how many times he shouted derogatory comments at the officers that day. When the lawyer sought to discredit Williams, painting him as an angry member of the crowd, Santana thought back to his own time on the stand.

“It’s fair to say you grew angrier and angrier?” Nelson asked.

“I grew professional and professional. I stayed in my body,” Williams replied. “You can’t paint me out to be angry.”

When Santana had been cross-examined, he was asked about song lyrics he once wrote. Santana had long dreamed of becoming a musician like Bob Marley and imagined inspiring social justice in his native Dominican Republic through song.

“It’s all war, trouble, police abuse and those who must defend us as the worst criminals,” Santana wrote some six months before the shooting. “Who can I trust? Tell me.”

Asked in court about the lyrics and if he opposed the police, Santana said, “I’m against police brutality.”

He watched some of Darnella Frazier’s testimony in the Chauvin trial. When she spoke of the nights she stayed up apologizing to George Floyd, Santana had to stop watching. He opened the Facebook app on his phone and began to type.

“Being a witness of police brutality is hard. Giving your testimony of what you saw on trial is even harder. This recent cases makes me wonder: How many more families have to suffer? How many more names and ‘Hashtags’ do we need to mention in order for systemic Police practices and an unfair Justice System to understand our pain?” he typed. “We need to find the root of the problem and repair it now or this will never stop.”

Then, he hit “post.”

The tools to make a difference

The day after the guilty verdict came through in Minneapolis, Anthony Scott called Santana. He said he needed the young man to know his actions had paved the way for this moment.

Six years ago, Santana showed Anthony Scott and his wife the truth about how his brother, Walter, had died. They watched it together in the backseat of a parked car. At the time, Santana was waiting to see what the police would say about Walter Scott’s death.

It was only after the police incident report claimed the shooting was self-defense that Santana and the Scott family decided to share the video with the world.

Anthony Scott maintains that what Santana recorded on his phone was murder, but a 12-member jury in the 2016 state trial could not determine what they saw. They could not decide if it was manslaughter or murder, and they could not agree if the former North Charleston police officer in the video should be acquitted for fatally shooting a Black man as he ran away.

More than a dozen times over the course of the four-week trial, the jurors saw Santana’s footage of the officer raising his gun and firing it eight times at the back of a fleeing Walter Scott.

Lead defense attorney Andy Savage said Slager, the officer, was unfairly judged by a nation that has become obsessed with racially-charged violence and has become too quick to condemn police. “And because of the video, he becomes a poster boy for all of the other events that transpired,” Savage said, referring to other police shootings in 2014 and 2015.

In her closing statement, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson played Santana’s video again for the jury.

“Our whole criminal justice system rides on the back of law enforcement,” she said. “They have the weight of a nation on their back. But because of that, they have to be held responsible when they mess up.”

But after 22 hours of deliberation, the jury failed to reach a verdict. As Slager’s defense team celebrated, Anthony Scott told himself and the public, “It’s not over.”

Nicol Turner-Lee, a senior policy researcher with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said the use of cellphones to record police interactions has shown the world what many Black and brown people experienced for generations. The first instance, she said, came in 1991 when a plumber filmed the beating of Rodney King, an unarmed Black man, by several Los Angeles police officers after a car chase.

“There is nothing more special to give a man or woman than the tools in their hands to make a difference,” Turner-Lee said. “In the times of slavery, that was a book. And today’s difference-maker may actually be our abilities to record our authentic experiences, especially those like that lead to the full execution of justice.”

In 2020, Turner-Lee published a report that raised the question, “Where would racial progress in policing be without camera phones?” In that analysis, she noted the shooting death of Walter Scott was “one of the few cases where a video recording led to an indictment of an officer.”

In 2017, Slager was sentenced to 20 years in prison after a federal judge said he viewed the shooting as second-degree murder. Slager later sought to appeal the ruling, but another federal judge in April upheld the initial sentence.

Santana, who said he has no ill will toward Slager, said he understood why the former officer would seek to overturn the ruling.

“If you’re drowning in the sea, you’re gonna try to fight,” Santana said.

Last month, after 10 hours of deliberation, a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Chauvin guilty of murder in the death of Floyd.

On the phone with Santana the day after the verdict, Anthony Scott said, “It doesn’t matter what comes up now. You will always be my hero because you were there to record ours — you were there to record what happened to Walter.”

“And he led to that person, Darnella, standing there and taking video that day for George,” Anthony Scott later said.

After the Chauvin verdict, Santana again turned to Facebook. He did not want the witnesses in Minneapolis to feel alone, especially the young woman who hit record.

“Thank you Darnella Frazier. Once again, it has been proven that the MOST effective way to make Justice in America when its involves a police officer...is a cellphone video,” Santana wrote. “We still got a lot work to do...”

Then, he remembered something.

He never got his old cellphone back.

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