Finding Black Death on a Quiet Hilltop: Reflections on Death, Dying, and Fieldwork in the Era of Black Lives Matter

I pulled my car up to a parking spot on a steep hill, deployed my emergency brake and made to step out of the car.  As I did so, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a picture of a young black man printed on a sheet of white paper.  The photograph was taped to the front of a milk crate sitting in the grass, forming the focal point of a makeshift memorial erected right next to the sidewalk. I say makeshift though that’s not exactly what I mean—the materials out of which it was constructed were humble yet chosen and arranged with obvious love and care: boulders placed carefully on either side of the photograph provided a sense of symmetry, glass candles placed neatly inside of the crate, and dark green wine bottles artfully forming the outermost border.


It was a late summer Sunday, one of those days where all you want to do is grasp the lingering sunshine and carelessness in your hands. I had spent the morning on some participant observation at a nearby mosque, and Imade plans to catch up with an old friend afterward.  On this day, I was working and playing in northern NJ—though my observations of #BlackLivesMatter protests and related activities have taken me up and down the east coast between New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and D.C.Black death is ubiquitous, and nothing, not even the pretense of “being done with fieldwork for the day,” is a protection against the constant possibility of its interrupting presence.


Fieldwork in the year following Ferguson has often felt like a never-ending emotional rollercoaster ride: uprisings in Baltimore and the overnight transformation of an American city into a militarized zone, a seemingly endless parade of hashtag obituaries, violent and graphic videos of black citizens being shot, strangled, and beaten by police, increasingly virulent and violent backlash against black bodies by private citizens in Charleston and other places.  Protests and vigils in response to these tragedies have been near continuous as well—and though most public discourse around these events seems to measure their utility andeffectiveness exclusively in terms of policy outcomes, my fieldwork has taught me a great deal about the power of these gatherings as conduits of collective emotion.  Paul Tilich argued that “protest is a form of communion,” and there is a lot of truth to that. In these spaces the demons of rage and grief are let loose and transformed (on a good day) into something akin to solidarity and hope.  On other days, they are let loose and stubbornly refuse to budge, festering as compounded, sublimated rage, grief, and despair.


Later that afternoon, my friend drew my attention to the memorial that I had hastily passed, and proceeded to tell me the story behind it. I listened as he recounted the tragedy: he had been at home when it happened.  The victim died right outside, killed by an off-duty police officer who struck the young man with his car in the spot where the memorial stood, and then fled the scene.   The case is still winding its way through the legal system, but it’s unlikely that the officer will face any charges. As horrifying as this case is—as each of these cases are—the greater tragedy is the paradox that the horror is so deeply commonplace, so much the status quo that these incidents have become, in some ways, profoundly quotidian.  There is a stubborn relentlessness in the repetition of death, to the ways in which the legal system predictably contorts logic to justify the constant stream of black victims. He was resisting. She was threatening. He severed his own spine.  She shot herself while handcuffed.   He was…there. I listened to the gruesome tale, attentive to the emotional contours that are by now familiar elements in these narratives: the ebb and flow of anger and heartbreak as the details of the victim’s life and death are recounted, followed by the all too familiar anticipation of the predictable, hopelessly frustrating, no-resolution end of no justice to be had.


On this quiet New Jersey street, another black victim lost his life anonymously, unknown and unnoticed by most of the outside world. I was stuck by the profound quietness of his death—there was not even a hashtag. Though I live less than an hour away and research these cases I did not know of his name or death.  I could not help but contrast it to my fieldwork at the other extreme—the tense, emotionally charged, adrenaline filled, hypervisible experience that marked my first days in Baltimore.  I arrived to Charm City fairly soon after Freddie Gray’s murder, on the first day thatprotests escalated into standoffs with police. The eyes of the world were fixed on the city for the next couple of weeks, watching but in many ways unable to see.  As America mourned the death of a CVS, police presence in the city doubled and trebled, American soldiers in assault vehicles roamed the streets, tear gas and babies were placed in close proximity to one another.  There was a profoundsurrealness to it all, but underneath everything was the familiar yearning for justice, accountability, and protection from everyday, lethal violence meted out to black citizens by the state. In moments of chaos and quiet alike, justiceand safety remain equally elusive.


Black victims of state violence are everywhere, in every region of the country.  Police have killed black women, men, children and grandmothers.  Victims have met brutal deaths in street encounters gone wrong, in their homes, on college campuses, in libraries, in shopping centers and in jail cells. And in spite of how abruptly the eruption of what we are now calling the Black Lives Matter movement may seem to some, neither the problem of state violence against black bodies nor organized resistance against it is new.  The American state’s consistent disregard for the sanctity of black life and the communities that must learn to live with their fundamental lack of sanctuary is a dance that has been going on for centuries. The struggle continues.


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