The Truth of Diamond Reynolds’s Chorus
This text begins with facts, they will not be argued here. We live in a police state founded on white supremacy. Philando Castile has been murdered along with thousands of others for being black. For white supremacy blackness is both a necessary other and its greatest threat.
Any analysis of what Diamond Reynolds did when she livestreamed the aftermath of Philando Castile’s murder will be incomplete and totally insufficient to meet the demands of her call for justice. “Truth makes a hole in knowledge.”1 Diamond Reynolds offered the whole world a truth—our job is not to fill the hole that remains with knowledge, but to use what we know (and what we don’t) to tear that hole open until it’s large enough that we can build a new world inside. In other words, the only value in offering an analysis of what she did is to mobilize our imaginary around what we must do in response.
I watched Diamond Reynolds’s video after watching the videos of the murder of Alton Sterling. I regret watching the latter. I am thankful that they exist as documentation and I am grateful to everyone who has worked, at great danger to themselves, to bring these documents and countless others like them into existence. If watching them helps anyone understand that a murder took place and the systemic conditions under which it took place, that’s positive. And yet it feels wrong to watch the last moments of someone’s life without their consent. Brutalized black bodies offered up as spectacle for public consumption: this is as old as white supremacy. While watching Philando Castile die is equally traumatic—there is no hierarchy of horrors here—afterwards I felt differently about having watched that video. This is Diamond Reynolds’s tragedy too; she turned on the camera and she is asking us for help.
What she did in turning that camera on is to meet the unbearable with the incalculable. The only precedent I can think of for her actions, and others have made this connection, are those of Emmett Till’s mother Mamie Till Bradley when she insisted on an open casket. “There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see,”2 she said. “As if,” Fred Moten writes many years later, “revealing his face would open the revelation of a fundamental truth, his casket was opened, as if revealing the destroyed face would in turn reveal, and therefore cut, the active deferral or ongoing death or unapproachable futurity of justice.”3 What does it mean to rush into the break of this unapproachable futurity, to demand justice now? What does it mean to ask the whole world to see?
When Diamond Reynolds begins her livestream the cop who had just shot Philando Castile four times, Jeronimo Yanez, was still pointing the gun through the window of the car. “Ma’am just keep your hands where they are!” he commanded. “I will sir, no worries,” she said. Diamond Reynolds is kept from holding her boyfriend while he dies; she is kept from comforting her four-year old daughter in the back of the car. Later she is removed from the car, forced to walk backwards, forced to her knees, and eventually reunited with her daughter only in the back of a police car. The police cordoned her off first verbally and then physically, and what she does from her enforced isolation is speak the truth over and over again with superhuman clarity. This truth is addressed to us all.
Diamond Reynolds is our Greek chorus. She was both inside of and separated from the tragedy happening right in front of her and she insists that it happen right in front of us as well. The Greek chorus gives voice to truths and in doing so generalizes them; it is through their narration that the audience comes to understand and share those truths. They are “the ideal spectator.”4 Brecht, for whom the ideal spectator is never passive, writes, “Greek dramaturgy uses certain forms of alienation, notably interventions by the chorus, to try and rescue some of that freedom of calculation which Schiller is uncertain how to ensure.”5 He is referring here to Schiller’s idea that, “A dramatic plot will move before my eyes,” and therefor is, “bound strictly to what is present to the senses; my imagination loses all freedom.”6 Many freedoms were striped from Diamond Reynolds, but she lost neither her freedom of imagination nor of calculation.
For Brecht the epic theater is a way out of the naturalism of dramatic theater, a form of imitation which not only overtakes the senses, as Schiller describes, but also leads to inaction precisely because it allows for catharsis—one cries at the theater so one can read the paper unmoved. And yet even for Brecht there remains the sense that a political theater achieves a kind of critical distance, cool and removed. What Diamond Reynolds did was hot. Urgent. A theater that was not. She collectivized her alienation when she addressed it to us all, when she gave voice to what we were never meant to see, never meant to hear. I cried nearly the whole time I watched her video but those tears were anything but cathartic—that night I was in the streets. Diamonds Reynolds is a chorus that demands we answer. And it is only by answering her that we prevent the death of Philando Castile from becoming a spectacle, that we do what Schiller couldn’t anticipate and Brecht couldn’t achieve. This is a profound form of address.
The limits of the liberal imagination often circle around representation. The idea here is that there are given amount of political subjects, say citizens of a state, and that each must be counted (given a vote), named (made into a demographic), and imaged (marketed to, pictured in advertisements). If a political subject fails to appear in any of these contexts, they petition those in power, they ask to be included. The problem with this logic is that power of this sort is premised on the disenfranchisement of some for the advancement of others. Citizenship creates the illegal immigrant, the state cannot exist without them; the police produce criminals, the law cannot exist without them; capital necessitates an uneven distribution of resources and the poor that follow, capitalism cannot exist without them. This is how these structures operate—if we are not willing to think outside of them we are not willing to work for equality.
Diamond Reynolds did not address her appeal to politicians; she certainly did not address it to the police. She addressed it her friends and family and she addressed it to everybody watching. I want to take seriously the radicality of this form of representation. I want to imagine a world in which inclusion is not premised on appealing to those in power, a world in which we each understand that the demand for justice is always already addressed to us all. I don’t know what that world looks like, none of us can, but I know that it requires that we try things that we’ve not yet had the courage to try and that we don’t stop until everyone is emancipated.
Fred Moten again. “In the death of Emmet Till, insurrection and resurrection are each insistently before the other waiting for a beginning that is only possible after the experience of all of what is held in the photograph.”7 And again, “ Something real—in that it might have been otherwise—happened.”8 Diamond Reynolds gave us the real; it is up to us to make something happen.
- Alain Badiou, Manifesto for Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), 80. ↩
- Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, Voices of Freedom (New York: Bantam Books, 1990), 6 ↩
- Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 198-199 ↩
- August Wilhelm Schlegel, A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1846), 70 ↩
- Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theater (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 210 ↩
- Ibid., 210 ↩
- Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 210 ↩
- Ibid., 196 ↩