The Best You Can Do Is Witness, and Report
I watched the Derek Chauvin trial in my office rather obsessively throughout the last month, and while the case for his guilt seemed to grow more overwhelming by the day — and it was pretty overwhelming in the first place — I, like a lot of Americans, was skeptical that there would be a conviction, based on, you know, American history. So Tuesday’s conviction was a relief, albeit several clicks short of equaling the scales. Justice was done. But as so many have pointed out, the conviction was a rarity. There is another trial next month, in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed while jogging in Georgia in February 2020. His father, interviewed after the verdict Tuesday, said, “I’m feeling real comfortable right now because I’m seeing my son will get some justice,” he said. “It looks like he’s going to get some justice now because of the way they handled that case [Chauvin trial] was real professional and they looked at people as people.” I hope he is right.
But the first person I thought of after the verdict, looking back on the trial, was Darnella Frazier. Frazier is the teenager who continued to film for the entire nine minutes that Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of George Floyd. Her video is the reason there was justice for George Floyd. Darnella Frazier may be one of the most important people of this whole era of American life.
But to watch her testimony during the trial was to see a woman wrenched with guilt.
“It’s been nights I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life,” Frazier said on the stand. She looked anguished. She looked like this had torn her apart, and, frankly, she looked like she had not entirely forgiven herself. She paused at one point and tried to remember who was on trial here. Looking at Chauvin in the courtroom, she said, “But it’s like, it’s not what I should have done, it’s what he should have done.”
It is not difficult to understand Frazier’s unique torture in this situation. Her video has been watched by billions of people; it led to an explosion of social justice activism unmatched in this country for decades. She has, in a literal, tangible sense, changed the world. But she also was standing there, actually standing there, for those nine minutes, seeing a man die — a man be murdered. You could see her anguish on the stand. Should she have done something? Could she have done something? It seems clear that she did all that she could, that she did the right thing. But that’s easy for me to say from afar. I wasn’t the one holding the camera. What she did changed history. But it’s not history to her, not in the moment.
Way back in 2009, I wrote a feature story for New York magazine about the early days of Twitter. (For it, I interviewed a young founder of the site named Evan Williams.) While I was in the Twitter offices in San Francisco waiting to talk to Williams and fellow executive Biz Stone, something strange happened on the other side of the country: A plane, after running into a flock of birds, crashed into the Hudson. This story was not broken by local news, or an intrepid reporter. It was broken by a Twitter user named “manolantern,” who posted, at 12:33 p.m. ET:
A man named Janis Krums shortly afterwards posted a picture of the plane to Twitpic (remember Twitpic?), saying, “There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.”
Here’s what I wrote about that phenomenon for the magazine:
Think about that for a second. In the midst of chaos — a plane just crashed right in front of him! — Krums’ first instinct was to take a picture and load it to the web. There was nothing capitalistic or altruistic about it. Something amazing happened, and without thinking, he sent it out to the world. And let’s say he hadn’t. Let’s say he took this incredible photo — a photo any journalist would send to the Pulitzer board — and decided to sell it, said he was hanging onto it for the highest bidder. He would have been vilified by bloggers and Twitterers alike. His is a culture of sharing information. This is the culture Twitter is counting on.
Now, 12 years later, it seems absurd to think Krums would have done anything else. Of course he’d post the picture first and deal with the physical situation in front of him later. This is the central organizing principle of Internet life today. And it is remarkable — revolutionary.
There is a common understanding that police shootings are not some sort of sudden problem, that the only reason there seem to be so many more is that now people know, instinctively, to document them when they are happening. And it is, slowly, but undeniably, starting to make a difference. And that culture, of recognizing that we have power, that our phones, that our social media, that our voices, can change the world… it has, in fact, changed the world. Frazier performed the brave act of simply documenting what was in front of her, and reporting it. She is a model for all of us, a symbol of the power we have right in front of us, the difference it can make. We can simply witness, and report. All of us. Nothing is more powerful. Nothing is changing the world more, and more quickly. Frazier may feel guilt, but she shouldn’t. She should feel like she did the most consequential thing any of us can do. She can change everything.
Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel How Lucky, released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.