Paris, Texas 2009


Much has been written about the terrible endings of black lives in public and in broad daylight, often at the hands of civilian police forces. Cursedly confronted by the routine abuse of black bodies, we are fortunate to have beacons of moral clarity writing eloquently and passionately about this profound issue.

Among the better pieces written in the past few days, since a group of teens were chased away, harassed, and hurled to the ground in McKinney, Texas:

Brit Bennett’s op-ed in the Times

Jamil Smith’s in the New Republic

Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s piece in Salon

Yoni Appelbaum’s essay in the Atlantic.

There is a lot of room here for people with active minds to do some work, to sift through the vast archive of racial misery on YouTube and read it (as Stacey Patton and David Leonard suggested last year) critically, as engaged public humanists.

Start watching and let the predictive algorithm take you where it will.

One can’t help but take note of the speed with which seemingly ordinary encounters become apocalyptically violent. A little boy playing in a park with a plastic gun is shot dead after a two-second confrontation with police. An older man, selling lose cigarettes, is slowly surrounded by a clutch of officers and then is wrestled to the ground in a literal – agonizing – heartbeat. A suburban pool party, already tense after a confrontation between white local residents and the mixed group of teens using the pool, tilts towards madness when an officer barrels his way through the crowd looking for even the faintest sign of disobedience and threatening any black bodies that moves or speaks with his service weapon.

Surveying the vast trove of materials on YouTube – from handheld videos shot with phones to dashboard cams mounted in police vehicles – that speed, that instant acceleration, is telling. These moments don’t build slowly. They explode with maximum force, like a firecracker held in a clenched fist.

One of these videos sticks with me.

19 year-old Cornelius Gill was picking pecans in Paris, Texas, a few years ago. Gill hoped to sell these for a small, illicit profit. When veteran Officer Jeremy Massey drove by, and stopped, arrested the younger man for theft, cuffed him, held him from behind, and called in backup.

When the second backup car arrived, its dashboard camera captured a confusing, but relatively calm scene. Massey was backed up against the side of his pickup, and Gill was easily controlled. The meaning of everything else was unclear. Another young man – perhaps a friend of Gill’s – was standing nearby; maybe he was talking to Massey, or maybe he was offering moral support to Gill. In any case, he wasn’t doing much. In the near background, another man is slowly walking towards the trio. A fourth man, wearing orange, is in the far distance, hustling to catch up.

The image – five men, a gray pickup truck, a bleak Texas landscape – could be the setting for a somber play about a sad crossroads.

There is no narrator present. The video is taken by a dashboard camera in the police cruiser. No one to provide the backstory. The video just zooms right up to Massey and Gill, and the three men in their orbit.

The newly arrived police car comes to an abrupt stop.

And then all hell breaks loose. Massey, whose body is coiled and ready with a purpose, promptly swings Gill onto the hood of the sedan, slamming his face and chest. Gill screams out in pain, as Massey drags him sideways across the hood and propels him towards the cage in the rear seats. As he moves Gill, Massey points vigorously towards the other young man, focusing the larger arriving officer’s attention on that particular threat.

Because just as soon as Gill hits the hood, the other young man in the foreground shouts in outrage and moves in closer, almost as if to help or to intervene. His hands are at his sides, though he is clearly upset. Still, he does not lift a finger.

It doesn’t matter. His agitation prompts a rapid response. The uniformed police officer bursts onto the scene from the driver’s side of the car, and promptly pushes away the other young man, cuffing him on the head. For the next 20 seconds, the uniformed officer continues to stare at him, to keep him at the margins. All the while, he keeps his right hand on his holstered weapon.

The man in the orange jumpsuit arrives, and puts himself between the uniformed officer – fingertips on his gun – and the other young man. He is the neighborhood diplomat, at least in November of 2009 in Paris, Texas.  “I’ll get him” he says, reassuringly, holding his empty hands out, “I’ll get him.”  For the rest of the video, he is constantly positioning himself between the police and any young black man who enters the frame.  Without saying it, he is pleading for their lives, for their freedom.  His body language reads, “please don’t shoot them, don’t arrest them, don’t take them away.”

Other people arrive, and there is much finger pointing and shouting, but the play is over. The last act is merely a cacophony of voices, each telling the story on singular terms. The man in the orange jumpsuit continues, throughout, to broker his trade: there will be no retaliation for Gill’s brutal treatment and there will be no more arrests.

Lawrence Levine, the cultural historian, once said that the most astonishing thing about the American people during the Great Depression wasn’t what they did do, but what they didn’t. They didn’t stage a rebellion.They didn’t break down the system. I thought a lot about of Levine’s poignant commentary while watching the man in the orange, that peacemaker extraordinaire. This is triage, I thought. This is one man just trying to keep someone alive for one more day, hoping to get that person through one more encounter with armed authority. One man deliberately not staging a rebellion.

Many people are writing these days to talk about the scale of the problem, but that speed also tells us something. It tells us that the system is always on the verge of intimate explosion – once more, like those firecrackers held in a clenched fist. It tells us that these explosions aren’t a consequence of some scripted, rational response to facts-on-the-ground. They are pre-determined, planned out on some other plane, far from those pecan fields. So that every officer is weaponized, whether he or she knows it or not. Weaponized and sent out to discipline black and brown bodies. And then, all of the sudden: boom. Before you know it, a trigger has been pulled, or a handcuffed figure thrown across the hood, a young girl tossed on the ground by her hair and pinned to the turf.

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