BROOKE GLADSTONE Neither televising the trial nor watching it is an inconsequential act. For many Americans, it's a painful reminder of countless failed attempts at police accountability and the racist violence so often excused by our criminal justice system. For many others, it is a trauma, relived. The TV spectacle has tapped into a well of complex feelings for Ishena Robinson, staff writer for The Root. She began her piece this week with a confession. She's never watched the video of George Floyds death.
ISHENA ROBINSON Quite frankly, I just couldn't watch another video of a black person being killed on camera. I have seen quite a few. It does something to anyone's soul, anyone's humanity, I think, when you're watching another human being being killed on camera. You know, I remember after I watched the Ahmaud Arbery video, I couldn't sleep at night. I was so distressed, so upset, I broke down the next day. And so there's always a balance for me as a person, and as a writer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You said you began watching the trial with a sense of anxiety. A feeling that you're being asked to invest hope in a justice system that you don't believe will serve justice. How has the experience been watching the first week?
ISHENA ROBINSON It's been complicated. The piece I wrote was really centered on the witnesses whose testimonies I have appreciated so much because when you're hearing that a person could kneel on another human being's neck for nearly ten minutes while they are crying out for life, it gives me a deep sense of hopelessness. You know, where is the humanity? And so to be reminded that humanity was all over that scene. There were children, people who are older, people of different races, trying their very best to get the people in power to recognize this man's life and to save it. That has given me some heartening, while it has also saddened me to just see the ways that they were traumatized having to witness this in front of them. But in terms of, you know, hoping or believing that this trial will result in a conviction, I can't put my faith in that. It will just be another deeper heartbreak.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can we talk about Donald Williams? The clip of Williams' exchange with Chauvin's defense attorney went viral on day two of the trial.
DEFENSE It's fair to say that you grew angrier and angrier.
WILLIAMS No, I grew professional and professional and I stayed in my body. You can't paint me out to be angry. [END CLIP]
ISHENA ROBINSON Williams, in that incident, he is already deeply aware of the stereotypes against black men that are used in this country. You know, the stereotypes that are being used against Floyd in the case of his death. You know, the sense that black men are especially angry, especially physically forboding or threatening, and on the stand, as well as while he was watching this happen to Floyd in front of him, Williams keenly understood where he stands in this country as a black man and how people would stereotype and perceive him. And he has to hold those ideas and defend against those ideas while trying to argue for the humanity of someone who looks like him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You were also greatly moved, you wrote in your piece, by the testimony of Darnella Frazier, a 17-year-old credited for filming the video.
ISHENA ROBINSON Yeah, as was the other testimonies. There was an 18-year-old who also witnessed what happened. She said at one point she felt like she wanted to walk away because she couldn't handle it. She was seeing someone be killed in front of her eyes, but she stood there, and she filmed it. Frazier stood there and she filmed it. There was a 9-year-old, I believe who was related to Darnella. She felt sad and mad because she could see that the breath was going out of this man, and they're all holding that. Frazier to the point where she says she stays up nights sometimes thinking, you know, what could I have done? How could I have done differently? Could I have physically intervened? It's just heart wrenching. And again, it brings in all the complexities. The complexity of the fact that it's a trial. We need this trial. It has to happen, but there's also the sense again, that we've seen this before. This is just another inflection point. And in the interim, what's happening, is black people reliving, re-seeing this evidence that our lives are treated like they don't matter in America. And we have to reckon with that. We have to hold that in our bodies when the trial is over, whatever happens. And that is hurtful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So that raises the question, given how it causes wave upon wave of trauma. Are you glad it's being televised? Are you glad you watched some of it?
ISHENA ROBINSON I mean, I'm a trained journalist, right? And so, I can’t not feel in some way, you know, gratified that I'm able to witness something of this magnitude. It's a history making story, whatever happens. And of course, I think it's necessary for it to be televised. There are a lot of people who need to see it. Maybe they have been able to dismiss other incidents, or they've been able to explain away and they've been able to justify. And people will certainly continue to do that in this case as well, particularly as they hear the arguments that the defense puts forward, but there's something to be said about this is what happens. We have evidence of this. But I'd also say that black people like myself have every right to determine how much of this they subject themselves to, if any, because, as I said, we don't have a choice most of the time. I have focused on avoiding the actual video footage of Floyd, while I've seen clips, pictures, screenshots directly of Chauvin's knee on his throat. But I'm trying to hold on to whatever agency I have in not watching this ten-minute video, because that's all I can control in this maelstrom of trauma that continues to batter me. And so any black person who chooses to do that in the event of this case completely and totally has the right to do so.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ishena, thank you very much.
ISHENA ROBINSON Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ishena Robinson is a staff writer at The Root.
Coming up, which produces better reporting: proximity to the community you cover or distance? Who gets to decide? This is On the Media.
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