Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, and Unsanitized Grief

Sunrise through window

How do we mourn with those who mourn? Here, Susan Kim, a member of The Allender Center Teaching Staff, reflects on violence, race, and the call to set aside agendas and enter the difficult places of grief and lament. This is a vital conversation, one that is absolutely essential to the ongoing work of engaging trauma and learning to tell our stories.

I almost couldn’t believe what I was watching when I first saw the viral video of Walter Scott, in South Carolina, being shot by a police officer in the back as he tried to run away. He was then handcuffed as he lay dying on the ground. The police officer went back to retrieve what appeared to be the taser gun he had used on Scott and tossed it beside his body, presumably to make the story he would later tell—that they struggled over the weapon—more plausible.

It was hard to believe the grainy video was real, though not because it seemed unusual; the heinous act seemed to match an egregious pattern of Black men being killed at the hands of police officers, a pattern painfully exposed by the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the unfortunately fortunate ones who have at least been publicly acknowledged and named. What I could not believe was that millions of people were seeing this video, including myself, and have become witnesses to a public execution that could be easily viewed over and over again with a simple Google search.

I am ambivalently grateful the video exists, that a man walking to work that day had the wherewithal to capture on his cell phone the interaction between Walter Scott and the police officer, proving not just that the officer’s version of events—that he shot in self-defense—was a lie, but that his shots were a clear act of murder, for which this officer was charged. And I am thankful that the video has been circulated to provide public exposure of what has been known and experienced to be true by countless Black men and other people of color at the hands of police and other authorities in our country, yet not believed.

However, it has been sad and disappointing how any conversations about the murder of this Black man at the hands of a white police officer, caught on tape, have essentially gone silent. Instead, his death has become entombed alongside other viral videos of kids saying funny things coming home still drugged up from the dentist, pets being caught on video being naughty while their owners are away, or drunk people singing out of tune to a Taylor Swift song.

But then the death of Freddie Gray happened in Baltimore, and we were snapped back into a reality and story that is far too familiar yet feels too large and difficult to engage. Wolf Blitzer did an interview (full video is available here) for CNN with a community activist by the name of DeRay McKesson in Baltimore as he was joined with protesters. After being asked about his plan and mission in Baltimore, McKesson expressed quite plainly that he was there to support the protesters making a statement against a “system that is corrupt.” Wolf Blitzer responded with, “But you want peaceful protests, right?” It was a question that bore more weight in what it implied than its sophistication.

A seasoned reporter with a large audience had the chance to expand a conversation on race relations, inequities, and the protests happening in this country with an experienced and knowledgeable activist. Instead he chose to ask and continue to demand an answer for a ridiculously obvious question. He then began citing the statistics of 15 police officers being injured, 200 arrests, 144 vehicle fires, 15 structure fires, and asking again, but in a different way, “There’s no excuse for that kind of violence, right?” An interview about protests related to the death of Freddie Gray and other Black men at the hands of police devolved into one of statistics and comparisons without mention by the host as to why the protests were even happening. And quite brilliantly, McKesson encapsulated this with one sentence: “You are suggesting this idea that broken windows are worse than broken spines.”

It’s hard, even for a veteran news reporter, to talk about what’s happening and what’s been happening regarding systemic racism in our country and law enforcement that has targeted communities of color—more particularly the deaths of Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, and the many Black men before them. So instead we talk about vehicle fires and other damage caused by rioters or the police officers who have been injured. It is not that these are unimportant or irrelevant facts; it should be acknowledged that there are some who have taken advantage of the turmoil in Baltimore and other cities and have done harm under the guise of protest, and that police officers do risk their lives in the line of duty, and many of them stand against the brutality and injustice of what occurred in Baltimore, Ferguson, South Carolina, and New York.

These are important and relevant facts, but too often they get written into stories as a means of neutralizing harm and goodness, thus grief and gratitude, by creating balancing scales of comparison. Freddie Gray’s death gets pitted against injured officers and destroyed cars. This creates competition for permission to grieve rather than acknowledging both without minimizing either. Similarly with peaceful protests vs. riots or “good” police officers vs. “bad” police officers, we ought to be grateful for peaceful protests and “good” officers, but not just because they are better than the worst of their counterparts or colleagues and do not allow their goodness to be tarnished by the worst of them.

However, it feels so much easier to just rewrite a story with all kinds of caveats and asides balancing harm with good or equalizing perpetration. That offers a sense of relief from truth, rather than the comfort that only comes by suffering the un-sanitized, un-minimized truth with grief.

The truth is hard, but not because we lack data. We have so much data, even an actual video, yet we still want to be naïve. This speaks to the reality that it doesn’t necessarily matter how much information we have regarding these issues of abuse. What matters is what we choose to do with the data we have. We can squander the data by ignoring it or by responding out of a sense of guilt and trying to grieve over every injustice suffered (which, again, prioritizes relief over true repentance and grief), or we can acknowledge the data at hand and engage the stories they tell with humble hearts.

We cannot and are not meant to grieve over every tragedy and injustice in the world. Our grief is limited. Our grief for Freddie Gray or Walter Scott ought to be limited, as we did not know and love them as their friends and family did, but we can still acknowledge the truth of their suffering in life and in death. Let us not squander, but honor what we have seen.