I’ve seen the future and it will be
I’ve seen the future and it works
And if there’s life after, we will see
So U can’t go like a jerk
–Prince “The Future”
2016 is the year of dying publicly. Celebrities, of course, can not go quietly—that is the nature of being a celebrity. And if they die suddenly and young, as young as our memories of our younger selves who treasure them are, then all the more to discuss. “What killed Prince,” they ask, as if there is ever a final answer we could accept, “and what are his legacies?” This is not new.
“The violence,” a social media meme in front of me reports, also “is not new. It is the cameras that are new.” And we have seen them: the people killed in gang violence while livestreaming from their car; the people killed in confrontations with police on dash cams, body cameras, and now Facebook video; the hastily launched cell phone videos taken from within a nightclub under siege. We see them. Millions of times over we see them on our various screens. And we swiftly move to create some sort of context where this sort of omnipresent death can settle within the world as we wake up seeing it.
I’ve often imagined how the people in my immediate life would react to my death, either in the ways it would be or the ways I wish it were. I think we all do that. But only now, in this year, at this time of publicly dying and being slabbed on the unkind autopsy table that is the Internet, have I begun to imagine how my death might play out in the year 2016 if it were me who was shot to death in an encounter with police.
It’s not unimaginable. It happened to a man just down the street from me a few years back, a neighbor not too different from myself in many ways. So let us say that it happens in the doorway of my own house. No one else is home. There are witnesses, neighbors who peeked out the window when they noticed the cop car parked outside. Maybe one of them even made the call, noticing that there was activity going on inside the house when they thought our family was supposed to be gone. But a patrol car in the area happens from time to time in our neighborhood, and since the lights aren’t flashing, they don’t pay much attention. Not until after the shots.
And here’s what happens next.
The police and the newspaper issue a short press release that a man was shot by police and died on our street, but they aren’t releasing the name until family has been contacted. But social media is faster. People are taking photos and video of the scene. Neighbors who are friends with us on Facebook but don’t actually know our phone number send urgent messages to find out “if we’re okay.” Their thoughts our genuine, but they also are hoping to learn more, learn things that no one else knows yet, and in their earnestness, this is how my family learns of my death – through social media and text messages that arrive before my family can be found. Extended family learn of it as friends and classmates race to be the first to break the news by offering public condolences on my page.
My name is too far out there, so the police confirm it. By now they have talked to my wife and parents. They use and stress the term “confrontation” to frame the encounter, and say that the circumstances are under review. They can’t say anything more at this time.
By this time, ears have perked across the web. The keywords “unarmed man” and “shot by police” trigger the feeds of armchair journalists and pundits. They race after the important information first: what is my race, and what is the race of the officer(s)? When it is learned that I am white, the first wave of voices hit the stories’ comment feeds. They goad and taunt Black Lives Matter, “wondering aloud” if there will be any protests in my name, any blocked highways to protest police brutality this time around. Others, knowing that there won’t be, weakly assert that because I am white, I am far more likely to receive justice if justice is needed. They are probably right.
Because there is no video of the incident, there is nothing specific to crystallize outrage around, so the first blog posts from gun control advocates that appear are more like placeholders, a link to the KEYC page with the story and a brief lament about another victim in the militarized police state. They begin digging, but so do the police officer advocacy groups.
I have a public Facebook page, and several public author pages across the web. They find my blog and begin to scan it for “clues” into what may have happened. A picture of me – several different ones, really – begins to emerge. But the investigating runs into a snag. There is another person in Mankato with my name. There are public documents on this person: court documents, divorce listings, custody reports, citations. None of them are mine, but they become inextricably linked to me in poorly-researched debates that rage across the Internet. My defenders try tirelessly, but hopelessly, to assert that I had no criminal record, no warrants, not so much as a speeding ticket or motor violation. As race is never far off in discussions about police violence, a number of people assert that perhaps the reason I had no run-ins with the law (as opposed to Philando Castile’s often-mentioned fifty or so) is the color of my skin. They are probably right.
The one thing that is universally acknowledged is that I did not then, or ever, have a gun. Every person who has ever known me can attest to my revulsion with guns, and does. Gun advocates are quick to deflect, saying that many objects around the house are dangerous – knives and such. As proof, they cite a photograph of the scene with my door open which shows my daughter’s tae kwon do weapons hanging on the wall: nunchucks and a bamboo sword. The nunchucks are foam and the sword would do far less damage than a baseball bat, but it’s all about appearances after all. There were weapons within reach at the doorway. A few survivalist patriots imply that maybe I should have had a gun and still been alive.
Because I have made no secret of it, my depression and suicidal tendencies quickly emerge, and many factions defending the officer are zealous in painting my death as one more part of the “mental health issue” in this country. Once that door is opened, there is a deluge of “experts” citing elements of my writings as clear proof of all manner of undiagnosed further mental conditions such as dementia, schizophrenia, PTSD, and dissociative disorders, as if any mental health condition is merely a hop, skip, and a jump to any other within the brain. These will be charged as the source of “what I did wrong” in my encounter with the officer. Others will deduce that I simply orchestrated the whole thing—suicide by cop—and close the book while offering heartfelt sympathy to the officer for having been placed in that horrible situation.
In the following days, the digging continues. People find the newspaper articles with pictures of me, and I am surrounded by children. Some are mine, some are students I am reading to or teaching about writing. Pictures of me leading VBS and Sunday School often appear, and my faith becomes a battleground online over the “kind of person I was.” My dedication to my church (although many will note that it is ELCA Lutheran, and hence pretty much apostate) and regular participation notwithstanding, my GLBTQ advocacy and other liberal “agendas” are sufficient to proclaim that I was anything but a “true” Christian. It doesn’t take long before these ideas are fused together, and detractors will float the idea that maybe I was secretly gay, or a pedophile, and how could they let me near those children?
The storyline writes itself then:
“Speaking of which, where was his family? Why were they all taking a trip without him? To work on his novel? Sure… Doesn’t sound like a close family if you ask me. She was probably leaving him. That’s probably what set him off. Look at all those posts where he talks about beer and breweries. Sounds like a drunk. Probably why she was leaving him. “
Our family life will be scrutinized. Snap judgments will be made from family photos, and people will wonder if all those missing teeth in my middle child’s mouth were really the result of a glut of lost baby teeth. There will be at least three anonymous calls to Child Protective Services on their behalf, and my wife will have to deal with an investigation on two fronts—what prompted the shooting, and was it a result of an environment unfit for children. She will fight them, and she will win because we have well-connected friends who are lawyers, social workers, and civil servants. There will be insurance money and maybe a settlement as opposed to GoFundMe campaigns. People will determine that these successes are made possible in large part due to my family’s being white. They are probably right.
The trolls will come out to play, certainly, calling my novel(s) pathetic and moronic, miserably amateur and cliché. Few of these will have actually read my work, and none will have bought a copy. My original songs, still tucked away in virtual nooks and crannies, are low-hanging fruit. They will be described as cringe-worthy and shared more than any other piece of media I’ve put out.
All of this will trickle down to my children. The Internet is immortal, and all the things said about me will get sprinkled into the minds of their classmates and their classmates’ families. Even if they move, it will still come out. They will need to be reassured their entire lives that none of those things were true, but there will always be the tiniest sliver of doubt. They will doubt their own memories of me.
I can say all these things with certainty because they have all already happened. Not to me, and not to one person, but to all those who have come before in this growing, uncomfortable phenomenon of the messy chaos of police work gone viral. I have seen it happen, and so have you, because there is nowhere we can turn to avoid some uncomfortable, undeniable truths rupturing among us, even if we can’t agree on what they are. And I can say it with certainty because when tragedy strikes in our country, it can be seen from much farther away than it can be felt. The pain is not palpable, and we have lost our instinct to comfort those who are in it. We are no longer drawn instinctively to the sides of those who grieve. Instead we are driven to choose sides so that countless people grieving at the same time can never be seen as grieving together, lest we finally reach a critical mass of it and something has to give.
And so I will be put away on people’s mental shelves, efficiently filed away well before the next death comes. And it will come, because it always comes. It has already come. In truth, it has never left. But the thing about dying publicly is that it has never been about the dying at all, only of what comes after. As they say, death is only the beginning.