National Good Samaritan Day fell on March 13 and commemorates those who have helped a person in need. This year, March 13 also marked one year since Louisville police officers killed Breonna Taylor during a botched raid on her apartment.
And in 2020 former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd on Memorial Day, when we honor Americans who died while serving in the U.S. military.
As an aspiring opinion writer, I’ve been taught to track such anniversaries because they are news pegs, an event that can be used as a reason to do a story that capitalizes on public attention.
But as a scholar of rhetoric and race, I have a competing perspective.
If the way people write and speak about the world creates a sense of good and bad, right and wrong, then the concept of tracking these tragedies is already complicit with what the writer and educator Simone Brown calls “the surveillance of Blackness” – the disproportionate monitoring and punishing of Black Americans.
Those stories routinize systemic violence through their repetition. It’s what the political philosopher Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.”
Systemic violence made ordinary
If someone is writing about the best gifts for Mother’s Day, I see no problem with tracking news pegs.
But if they’re writing about the deaths of people at the hands of police, perhaps a different approach is needed.
The pressure is understandable for writers to capitalize on the public attention that swells on the anniversaries of the deaths of Taylor, Floyd and hundreds of others.
One alternative to the news hook approach is just to take the word “new” more seriously. Instead of news hooks, writers could aim for what rapper Kid Cudi calls “dat new new,” something fresh and unanticipated. In the wake of Taylor’s killing, for example, a pro-gun control opinion piece might be reinvented as the idea that gun reform is a double-edged sword for Black America.
‘Find a dock’
I admit to perpetuating the news hook, not only in my own attempts at public writing but in my teaching as well.
I was just following the advice that I had received.
“Your story is a ship,” I’ve been told, “and news pegs are potential ports for that ship. Keep sailing your ship until you find a dock.” Translation: Keep pegging your story to an anniversary until you get published.
The ship metaphor operates on the assumption that an idea precedes the occasion that it describes and, therefore, that ideas exist apart from the concrete events that they are supposed to explain.
By that logic, the idea of police reform as a story focus exists before and outside of Taylor’s death. Taylor is the hook, just another example of why police reform is important.
When the specific “hook” that is Taylor’s death doesn’t have a chance to prompt a story on its own, Taylor is objectified on the anniversary of her death just as she was on the day of her death.
The language of ships also calls to mind the Middle Passage, the leg of the Atlantic voyage through which ships trafficked stolen Africans for enslavement in America. During the trip, countless slaves were thrown overboard into the ship’s wake or chose to jump to escape torture.
In “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being,” literary scholar Christina Sharpe uses the slave ship as a metaphor for the present-day condition that is being Black in America.
Sharpe describes that condition as “wake work.” Wake work means looking backward to keep vigil for the death lying in the wake and looking forward to the ship’s destination with hope and despair. Hope because the ship might be headed somewhere better, and despair because it almost certainly is not.
Wake work, Sharpe writes, is not only about the hard emotional, physical and mental work of vigilantly tracking and defending the dead. It is also about the equally exhausting work of imagining “otherwise from what we know now in the wake of slavery.”
Imagining otherwise is that new new. It’s a different interpretation about what tragedy means.
So what does imagining otherwise look like in the journalistic context?
There are stories that refused to use a news peg – that produced a new idea about the tragedies befalling Black Americans.
Consider a 2015 story about Monroe Bird, a Black man shot in Oklahoma by a white security guard, Ricky Stone, while sitting in a car with a white woman.
To justify the shooting, Stone claimed that Bird had a gun and was having sex in public, and that Bird tried to run him over with his car. No evidence was found to support those claims.
Bird did not become a news peg because he did not die during the incident. But life as Bird knew it did end. He was paralyzed from the waist down and racked with medical debt that health insurance didn’t cover.
A few months later, Bird died from a blood clot because he was not being moved frequently enough, a simple preventative measure for paralyzed patients that Bird didn’t have access to.
The title of a news report on Bird? “If Trayvon Martin had lived: Meet Monroe Bird.”
The story is one way to imagine otherwise.
The story took the familiar idea of Black Americans who have survived anti-Black violence and turned it on its head. The story shows that to not die is not to live. Then that idea morphs into a different idea: health care inequality.
Another version of imagining otherwise appeared in a self-published op-ed column written by an anonymous Minneapolis public defender. In the piece, the writer considers what would have happened to George Floyd if he had lived.
The answer is an imagined litany of underfunded and failed legal battles, the continued authorization of excessive force in police training manuals and another rotation of the cycle of violence in the American criminal justice system.
Tracking anniversaries is not wake work, it is not keeping vigilant watch, unless every time the next anniversary arrives it becomes an occasion to not only comment on the past but attempt to imagine otherwise, even if that otherwise is still without a happy ending.
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