On May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Darnella Frazier set out to the corner store with her nine-year-old cousin to grab some tuck, not aware that what would happen next would make history, and her actions would be seminal in its creation. Only 17 at the time, she witnessed what black Americans endure every day: police brutality incongruent with their crimes (and sometimes lack thereof). As a crowd gathered on the sidewalk, watching Derek Chauvin unrelentingly pin George Floyd under his knee, Darnella knew that “his life mattered”. She couldn’t do anything to make the violence stop, so she whipped out her phone and hit record.
And thus, one of the most important documentaries in the world was conceived.
For 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the teenager filmed three officers brutalise a black man, while a fourth officer kept onlookers from interfering. The courage it took for somebody her age to keep filming a horrific act perpetrated by four extremely violent men is unimaginable, but it was this powerful snap-decision which changed the narrative of systemic racism in America and the unfair abuse black people suffer at the hands of the police force. A year later, the Pulitzer Board has awarded to Darnella a Special Citation “For courageously recording the murder of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests against police brutality around the world, highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.”
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In the past, too many black murders have been passed off as policemen doing their duty, with culprits being handed paid leaves and the lightest slaps on the wrist (if at all). Darnella’s video made it impossible for this to happen – there was no way this murder could be misreported, fudged, or coloured by false police accounts as they had been earlier. The evidence was clear as daylight, and while it may never bring Floyd back to life, justice is being served. Frazier testified in court “It wasn’t right. He was suffering. He was in pain.” Chauvin was found guilty of two counts of murder and one of manslaughter, while Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane face two charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder, and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter. And a public citizen’s video was the key piece of proof.
This special citation is a turning point in the perception of journalism. Today, citizen journalism, which has long been regarded as unverified or lacking credibility, forms the foundation of reportage. In fact, it always has. Much of investigative journalism is wholly dependent on a well-informed, participatory public, like Frazier. Platforms like Twitter give impetus to witnesses on-ground to put out information and shine a light on their realities, especially in areas that are hard to reach or just not deemed important enough to be covered on national news. Newsrooms have been floundering for a while – inept gatekeepers, a profiteering mindset, and racial prejudices plague the dissemination of news. Citizens have access to cameras and platforms, they’re well-aware of the difference between verified news and credible sources, and are the greatest resource a journalist could ever have. Beside reaffirming this, Frazier’s Prize adds another black name to the list of Pulitzer awardees, and breathes new life into the waning interest in the BLM movement.
It’s hard to imagine what course this would have taken had Darnella Frazier not been at Cup Foods store that day, or not recorded, helplessly, the demise of George Floyd. But the fact remains – she did. A child showed unprecedented mettle and moral fiber in the face of irreparable trauma, and that changed the world. More power to her.
Photographs: Getty Images, Unsplash, Instagram