It feels like 2014. I’m watching the uprising following Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer unfold online, from my back porch, nestled in a secluded part of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Cigarette in my mouth, rage in my soul, I’m far away from Ferguson, but the pain, anger, and sadness feels like home. It’s a trauma familiar to myself and so many other Black folks, who carry it every day.
We’ve lugged it into this week. On Thursday, during a lull in the uprisings in Minneapolis and other cities, I was talking to J. Drew Lanham, a wildlife biologist at Clemson who studies how race informs one’s perception of nature. Three days earlier, on Monday, two videos had begun circulating online. One showed the grisly, violent death of George Floyd as a Minneapolis police officer allegedly suffocated him by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck. He cried out that he couldn’t breathe. The officer didn’t ease up. It feels like 2014 again, and I’m watching Eric Garner relay the same message to a police officer who did not ease up.
The second video was recorded in Central Park and showed a woman phoning the police, in feigned fear, as she tried to weaponize her whiteness against Christian Cooper, a black man who was out birdwatching and who had asked her to leash her dog. These two stories this week were part of the same story, just like watching the video of George Floyd feels like watching the video of Eric Garner in 2014.
As Lanham told me:
It was par for the American course, really. As much as I’ve talked about birding, it really is just the Black American experience. It can happen while you’re birding. It can happen while you’re out watching butterflies. It can happen while you’re driving. It can happen while you’re sleeping. It can happen while you’re walking—anything.
So when it happened, his birdwatching was interrupted by this assault. And the more I think about it, that’s what I believe it was. Some people would probably argue with that, but in the context of what I’ll call psychosocial assault—especially through the lens of history, stereotype, and all in the context of what’s going on—this was no less than assault on someone. And Christian might see that differently. But you know, as a Black man who’s faced some of these things, birding or otherwise, every time it happens to me, I feel assaulted. Being Black in America, you come to expect it and, if you don’t expect it then you’re going to be more shocked and more surprised. And you’re going to be knocked more off kilter. So it’s best to, in some ways, be guarded against that—and that’s a sad way to have to walk around, with the expectation of bias. And that creates a very different sense of being.
Lanham’s observation snatches me back to 1999. I’m 7 years old, and my grandmother is dragging me out of a store. I was being followed and I didn’t realize it, but she did. In the car, she explains to me that I can’t run through the aisles picking up toys as I go.
I ask her why.
It was the first time someone explained the political consequences of Blackness, that this is what my life was going to be like and that I always have to be prepared for something bad to happen.
In the three minutes we’ve been talking, it revived all this trauma. I call it scar tissue that you walk around with, and scar tissue never allows you to fully function like you functioned. You always got to work around it. You always got to do this therapy, once the scar tissue is there, to get back some range of motion that allows you to be fully who you are. So whether you experienced it as a child in a store being followed or riding down the road and having a police cruiser follow you—and you know they’re checking you out in a certain way—that presents a different day-to-day for you.
What began as a conversation about Cooper and being Black while birding was evolving into an exchange about trauma, how it affects us, and how it can make mundane daily activities feel like you’re crawling through cement. In America, the line between birdwatching and civil unrest is thin. When tear gas fogs up news cameras, rubber bullets bounce off skulls, buildings burn and glass shatters, the mainstream press sees a sudden dystopia. But Black folks see what we’ve been living with all along.
Even with video evidence, this woman is getting off the hook. You know, I really value my time with birds. It’s what keeps me sane in between all of this other stuff. And, to be quite honest, I would probably feel safer in deep woods than I would in Central Park, where someone might perceive my Blackness as harmful. I prefer to bird among wild things, non-human things, more and more, in part because nature isn’t biased against me because of my skin color. If something happens to me out there, it might be because I’m being unaware or stupid somehow. But if I give the wrong impression to someone because I have binoculars or I look a certain way or they just had an ax to grind against Black folks for some reason, then I could be their target that day. I think about that. I think about how that woman pointed at Christian, that if that had been a gun, he would be dead. She had no fear in approaching him and pointing her lethal finger and aiming the police at him.
Seeing Black people threatened and mercilessly killed on camera harkens back to memories of lynchings, public spectacles and places of white camaraderie at the expense of Black life. Tapes are looped on cable news networks and shared without warning on social media. It’s evidence of what occurs during fatal interactions with the police or racists. But it’s also anguish-inducing. And, often, it isn’t enough to yield any legal restitution. Video did not lead to the conviction of the officers who killed Freddie Gray or Philando Castile. In 2018, it wasn’t enough to charge the officers who killed Alton Sterling. On Friday, endlessly shared video footage—and days of civil unrest—provoked officials to charge the officer who rammed his knee into Floyd’s neck until he died. I’m jerked back to 2014, when I started screaming as I watched John Crawford die on camera in an Ohio Walmart. I’m yanked to the moment I refused to watch a video showing 12-year-old Tamir Rice gunned down in a park. This could have been Christian Cooper’s fate, and because of this, the apology from Amy Cooper, the woman called the police, isn’t enough.
Forgiving is for those people. You want me to make you feel better about acting badly and I’m not into it. When I look at that incident with Christian and Amy in Central Park, all of this stuff wells up. It’s like you’re walking in the store and if anybody even gives any indication of following you, that comes back up.
The hard thing for white people to understand is that kind of trauma. Some people can relate to triggering if, for example, they’ve had some bad experience like abuse. Regardless of race, people can be triggered in some sort of way. Race is another venue for abuse. It’s another venue for someone to accost you in some way. And so it does create this sense of constant wariness.
And I equate that constant wariness to a bird, and you can watch birds when they’re in situations where there are predators around and, man, they’re just tight. They’re tense. They’re ready to take flight at any moment because they know that this predator … wants to do them harm. There’s this different sense that they have to have at that point in time, versus when there may be fewer predators around or they have adequate cover to escape to and they can more fully be engaged and feeding or singing or paying attention to a mate or to young. And that’s no different than us.
It often feels as though Black folks can’t catch a break. We’re disproportionately dying from the novel coronavirus. We could be shot and killed in our homes, while going for a run or while out with friends. As protesters pour into the streets of Minneapolis, Louisville, Denver, and other cities, Black folks are jerked back to 2012, when Rekia Boyd was shot by an off-duty police officer and when Trayvon Martin was gunned down by an overzealous rent-a-cop. Or to 2013, when Renisha McBride was killed while seeking help after a car accident. Or to 2015, when Gray’s spine was severed in the back of a police van, when Sandra Bland died in a Texas jail.
What does that have to do with birding? It has to do with birding like it has to do with being a kid in a toy store and having someone tell you can’t do that, to tell you that you’re less than someone else. I’m 55 years old, and every trauma builds on the next whether I’m birding, or doing something else. Trauma is compounded. And it seems to me that the thing that Black folks, unfortunately, grow rich in is trauma [and] that people insist on compounding it for us.
It still feels like 2014.
It feels like 2015.
It feels like last month.
It feels like next week.
Here we go again. It’s Groundhog Day.