police violence

Darnella Frazier’s Nightmare Year

Protest against police violence in Minneapolis.
Photo: Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

It never felt right. The plaudits that followed Darnella Frazier since last spring always seemed compensatory, as if they were trying to make up for something bad that had been done to her.

They arose out of tragedy. On May 25, 2020, Frazier was walking her little cousin home from a Minneapolis store when they saw a man lying on the pavement surrounded by police officers. Frazier raised her phone and hit “record.” The man on the ground was George Floyd, and her video of Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, until Floyd died, roiled the nation. It fueled protests and riots and formed the basis of an eventual murder conviction for the cop. Frazier was 17 years old at the time.

The teenager testified at Chauvin’s trial and was greeted as a hero. Celebrities praised her on social media for her bravery. She was profiled by ESPN and awarded a special Pulitzer Prize “for courageously recording the murder.” An American trinity of validation was hers to relish: famous co-signs, shiny trophies, media attention. All of it tainted by the sense that a great failure had motivated it all — that these adults and their institutions were tacitly apologizing for this child having to watch a man get tortured to death.

The failure continues. On Tuesday, a cop from the same Minneapolis Police Department whose officer killed Floyd careened down a residential street in his squad car, chasing a man suspected in a carjacking and several robberies. The squad car collided with two other vehicles, and one of the other drivers was killed. That driver, Leneal Frazier, was Darnella Frazier’s uncle.

“Nothing feels real,” the younger Frazier, now 18, wrote in an impromptu eulogy. “I was just with you at the beach … If I would’ve known that would be my last time seeing you, I would’ve hugged you so much longer, told you I loved you so much harder.”

As the number of Black Americans killed or menaced by the police has swelled, more intimate connections among the victims have come to light. Caron Nazario was pulled over by Windsor, Virginia, police in April. He was wearing his Army uniform, and a cop told him he was “fixing to ride the lightning” while pointing a gun at him. Family members who saw the video felt a tinge of surreality. Nazario shared a cousin, Raquel Welch, with Eric Garner, whom he had addressed as “uncle” until Garner was choked to death by police on Staten Island in 2014.

During an April press conference after the killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, Wright’s aunt revealed that Floyd’s girlfriend, Courteney Ross, had been one of her slain nephew’s high-school teachers.

Now, the uncle of the girl who filmed Floyd’s death is dead. To bemoan the bad luck that has befallen these families, as though they’re somehow cursed, undersells the scope of what’s terrorizing them. American police kill roughly 1,000 civilians a year. They subject countless others to suffering that goes unseen by most people — harassment, incarceration, ruptured families, lost jobs. They destroy homes and treat neighborhoods like demolition-derby sites. It would be more surprising if these incidents didn’t touch some families more than once.

Their cyclicity also denies closure for past harm. Many people reacted to Chauvin’s conviction with elation and a feeling of catharsis. Here was the rare police officer who would face legal consequences for killing an unarmed Black man. The system, it seemed, could police itself and corral its own excesses when called upon to do so.

It was a propaganda victory on one level. Chauvin’s prosecutors leaned heavily on police witnesses to advance the thesis underlying their case: The police are good, but Chauvin is not. Punishing this aberration, they argued, would unsully this noble profession and keep good cops in business. This helped forestall the uprisings that surely would have greeted his exoneration — the sort that, less than a year before, had jolted public officials into frantic, if mostly thwarted, reformist action.

But the aberrations were never what was most dangerous about the police. It was those who killed, tortured, jailed, and brutalized in line with department policy and legal precedent. It was the guarantee that, for all the pageantry of criminal trials, more violence would not be far off. This will keep happening. Darnella Frazier is a witness twice over.

Darnella Frazier’s Nightmare Year