This video tells the story of Donrell Breaux, 26 years old, from the neighborhood of River Ridge, in Jefferson Parish, LA. It was shot by Eric Benegas, Breaux’s friend. It was shot in April 2014.
Breaux and Benegas were, by their own admission, cracking jokes laced with profanity when a neighbor called in a complaint – about their colorful language. An officer arrived, asked for identification. He caught the scent, he thought, of marijuana. So when Breaux retreated into the house to get some, the situation got worse. Fast.
The video is almost exclusively shot indoors. The interior backdrop is astonishing and quotidian all at once. A familiar middle class home, with pink walls and art, neatly framed. A decorative, polka-dotted carpet. A big plush couch. A dog who just wags his tail, and tries to play along with the rough action on the couch. A front door with an ornamental window. A back patio with brick pavers. A lace curtain surround.
The video begins with an officer entering through the front door – briskly, bluntly, and with a shoulder to the doorframe. “Turn around,” the officer says, “you are under arrest.” “For what?,” is the response. “For what?” The officer is insistent. The man lets him into the house. “I’ll sit down,” Breaux says, “But I’m scared.” Benegas asks the officer – “how are you going to arrest him?” – to which the offer responds, with a sweep of his hand, clutching handcuffs, “Get out of here.” “But I live here,” is the simple response.
Over several seconds, the men grapple – one trying to handcuff the other, one trying to avoid being handcuffed.
As this unfolds, there are things to note. Among them is the incessant politeness of Breaux, who is prone on the couch, who refers to the officer as Sir without exception and never uses a single profane word, and who is clad in purple LSU gear, a sign – imprecise, but still significant – of some fealty to higher education, to personal betterment. The mood and temper of the video grow dark and ominous. “Eric, don’t leave me.” Breaux says, turning to his friend, perhaps realizing that his life depends on the presence of a camera. “He is filming this!” he tells the cop; “You’re scaring me.”
And then, the officer – who is clearly frustrated – redoubles his efforts handcuff the man and reaches behind his back. “What are you reaching for?,” Breaux asks, voice trembling. “Please don’t shoot me.” Something in that tremor catches the ear.
Many of these videos feature a vocal audience adding layers of commentary. Like Breaux, Benegas is a quiet, polite voice here. “Just let him handcuff you,” he advises Breaux. Don’t fight back, the implication goes. Things might get worse. Twice Benegas steps outside to seek help from someone else.
Some such videos are proto-legal documentaries, aimed at “keeping the police honest” or laying the groundwork for a legal challenge to the arrest on civil rights grounds. There are elements of that here. In this one, though, there is something more. One man pleads with his friend to keep video-taping, because he fears that without a camera trained on his body – an unofficial eye, watching and recording – his life will be forfeit.
The lives of African Americans may be closely surveilled, and that surveillance often triggers (or accompanies) a heavy-handed response, but that same unwelcome surveillance also keeps the drama going, keeps the players alive. Sometimes.