It was a beautiful, cloudless Friday morning in July of 2014. I could smell the ocean and hear the soothing sounds of its waves crashing as I took the first step out of my beat-up Hyundai and slammed the door shut. It was about 7 a.m., and Santa Monica was quiet. Rush-hour traffic in Los Angeles could be maddening, so I had left home super early that morning to beat the snarled highways and make my way to the offices of Global Green, an international environmental organization where I served as the director of communications. I was tempted, as I often was, to walk the extra block to the Pacific Coast Highway and stare out at the blue water that stretched as far as my eyes could see. Something about the ocean centers me. Seeing it never got old, but I was behind on several tasks at work, and the mounting pressure of deadlines overruled my inclination to be contemplative that morning, so I made my way inside.
The job was a major change of pace for me after years of spearheading my own philanthropic projects. I had become known in charity circles for my use of social media and email listservs to build awareness and raise funds for causes, but doing it for an organization like Global Green was a new challenge, bringing me into a more corporate setting. As I climbed the steps to our cushy second-floor office, I had no expectation that this would be the day that would change the entire course of my life. Everything about it felt just like the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that. Routine. But as I reflect back on that day, and over my forty years on earth, I now see my life as split in two, existing one particular way before that Friday and in an altogether different way after it.
For nearly a decade, Global Green had partnered with Vanity Fair to host its annual Oscars gala. The entire budget for the organization hinged on the success of the event. That morning, I organized our donor database, mundane but necessary work that consisted of cutting and pasting and entering data for hundreds of donors. As the hours crept along that morning and my colleagues filed in, I received a push notification on my phone from a former classmate of mine from Morehouse, where I had attended college fifteen years earlier. It was a Facebook message.
“Shaun,” my friend wrote. “Somebody posted something horrible on YouTube, man. The police are harassing this middle-aged brother on the street corner in New York and the dude is just begging them to leave him alone. He tells them over and over that he didn’t do anything. The man wasn’t armed. He wasn’t violent. None of that. And all of a sudden, this plainclothes cop comes up behind him, and starts choking the shit out of him, like UFC rear naked choke-style. The cop chokes the man while the brother was still standing up ?— ?then wrestles him to the ground and continues choking him. And Shaun ?— ?you can hear the man yell out over and over and over again, ‘I can’t breathe ?— ?I can’t breathe.’ He says it a dozen times. And the guy dies right there on the sidewalk, man.”
When I read those words, my stomach dropped. My first thought was that I couldn’t click on that link in the Global Green office. Don’t get me wrong: the people there were nice. But nobody ever talked about civil rights or police brutality or racial justice. I just didn’t know if I was ready to explain to them what my friend told me I would be seeing. And I’m ashamed to admit this, but a small part of me thought that he must’ve left out a key detail somewhere along the way. What he described for me was cold-blooded murder in broad daylight, with witnesses, caught on film. I wondered whether my friend had left out an essential chunk of the story. He hadn’t. Such videos have spread across the world in the years since, but before that day in July, a viral video of someone being killed by police simply did not exist, and so the reality of it was confounding.
I waited until my lunch break to watch the video, turning the volume down on my computer before clicking the link. What I saw was shocking. It was just as my friend had described, but worse . . . much worse.