I have never died before.
In the beginning of December, at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington, D.C., I made my way down to our hotel’s main lobby with a few of my friends, to join hundreds of my colleagues for a die-in, a powerful, symbolic protest against the continuing epidemic of extrajudicial killings of black citizens by police and vigilantes. We gathered a few minutes before the scheduled time, as instructions for how to begin arranging our standing bodies around the rotunda were whispered from ear to ear. “If you are planning to die, please make your way into the center of the circle, those who prefer to watch on the outside.” People began to hold up signs hastily scribbled on poster board and plain old blank office paper: “Black Lives Matter”, “Justice for All”—while one of the main organizers—a caramel-colored sister-scholar-organizer dressed in all black stood up on the pedestal that held up the tall, dangerously pointed objet d’art which marks the exact center of the lobby. Her muted signal came before I felt quite prepared. With a calm, direct, downward gesture of the hand we were informed that our time had come. Ready or not, it was time to die.
At exactly 12:28 P.M. we lay down on the immaculate marble floor in unison. Immediately, I felt my throat close and the rush of tears that I fought to hold back. “Dead women don’t cry,” I thought to myself, as I immediately became aware of my breath. Almost against my will, it felt—for dead women don’t breathe either—my lungs insisted on continuing to fill with air. As my lungs expanded so forcefully, I shed more tears as I thought of the violence and brutality with which Daniel Pantaleo literally squeezed the life out of Eric Garner. Garner, an asthmatic, was placed in an illegal chokehold and gradually robbed of air while he screamed repeatedly—over and over and over again—“I can’t breathe.”
I wondered about the placement of my limbs—whether they were arranged convincingly enough for me to stand-in for a corpse. I lamented the fact that I hadn’t had time to shove my phone out of sight before I died. Always the fieldworker in every single moment, I had taken it out to snap some quick shots of the assembly—and now it lay limp in my hand as the rest of my body lay in a not-so-random sprawl on the floor. My regret about the phone quickly faded, for as it lay across my palm it reminded me powerfully of Amadou Diallo–shot 41 times by NYPD officers as he clutched a wallet in his hand. In spite of my best efforts, both the tears and the breath were relentless—the harder I fought the more determined they each seemed to become. With each exhale there was a release—a bizarre mix of carbon dioxide and toxic emotion leaving my nostrils and dangerously swirling up into the surrounding air. We lay there for four and a half minutes, symbolizing the four and a half hours that Michael Brown’s corpse lay on that Ferguson street in a morbid display of state power deployed with lethal force against black bodies. State power backed by centuries of similar displays of strange fruit swinging in the breeze; state power which attacked our very senses–assaulting our vision with a powerful and intimate reminder that the past is not prologue, for it is in fact not even past.
As an African American, the precariousness and overwhelming vulnerability of black life are all too familiar to me. It would not be an exaggeration to state that every single black person I know has at least one story of police brutality—whether they are victims or witnesses. There are too many names that as a collective–we can recite painfully and accurately from traumatized memory: Eleanor Bumpurs, Sean Bell, Kathryn Johnston, Johnny Gammage, Rodney King, Abner Louima, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Leon Ford, Jr., Mike Brown, John Crawford, Vonderrit Myers, Tamir Rice, Tanesha Anderson, and way too many more. We know that whether we are young or old, rich or poor, male, or female, tall, fat, thin, handsome, educated, saintly, slightly unladylike or rough-around-the-edges, whether we are petty criminals or church-going grannies—that we are always, in every single moment—deeply vulnerable and profoundly unsafe.
Ever since the most recent wave of police killings of unarmed black civilians, beginning with the murder of Michael Brown on August 9 I have been struggling with the dead weight of silence. A few status updates and some tweets, but even though I make words for a living, none seemed to be adequate. I have monitored social media feverishly for updates and documentation of the initial act of violence and then, in horror, I watched the outsized and brutal repression unfold: right in Middle America there was tear gas, rubber bullets, tanks, assault rifles—trained and deployed on protesters, journalists, and bystanders alike. I was both caught off guard and completely unsurprised, for as Freud would say, there is knowing and then there is Knowing;1 no matter how painfully ordinary such brutality has become there is no escaping the paralysis that results from such a profound state of dread when you actually watch it unfold in real time before your very eyes. Nothing in your life could have prepared you to witness what they are now seeing. Carol Kidron reminds us of the tremendous potency of silence as a conduit for trauma, emotion, and memory.2 I was now helpless before that power. Silence covered all—even as the outside world continued to rage and burn.
Dying, it turns out, changed everything. I died in that hotel so that we might be able to live. As I lay on that polished floor feigning death I heard off in the distance the voice of a Dickens character recalling me to life. Dying in that lobby staunched the bleeding in my heart, patched it hastily and returned it to me. Dying put me back in touch with the sheer physicality of my body, and enabled me to reach both hands through the numbness and feel my emotions as they moved between my fingers. Empowered by my renewed sensuality, for the first time in I don’t know how long, I just felt. Instead of attempting to stop the intake of air I inhaled slowly, deeply, and dedicated every single breath to Eric Garner. I relished in the heat of the tears that now welled up behind my still-closed eyelids and offered each of them to Mamie Till and Lesley McSpadden. In death, I rediscovered life—and emerged with a renewed sense of the urgency to resist. And upon my resurrection, still at a loss for words, I sought expression in physical contact. I found the eyes of my sister-friend in the still awakening crowd, and instinctively—compulsively even—sought the only release that seemed powerful enough to carry the sheer enormity of my emotional state in that moment. In silence, we picked our way toward one another and embraced.
Some people have questioned the utility of our action. “What’s the point of a bunch of elite academics laying down on the floor of the bourgeois hotel where they are gathering, with pretenses to ‘disrupting’ their own conference?” After all, there were “real” protests just a short distance away out on the streets of D.C. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that many of us, especially anthropologists who are adjuncts or graduate students could hardly lay claim to being elite, or that many of us have been engaged in direct action in our home communities (this was, I think, my third protest in a week)—this space was, in fact, the perfect place to die. For me at least, a black anthropologist who grapples every single day with her discipline’s sordid racial past and often, at best—ambivalent racial present—dying there, in that space enabled me to think and feel with renewed energy about the reasons why I’m even bothering to be there. There I died, and there I was recalled to life because there is still plenty of work that I have to do.
I died that day because I am determined to live.
Reflection: by Lynn Bolles, Professor of Women’s Studies, University of Maryland, College Park
I thought this was really, really good. It was a perfect piece from a young person who really felt connected to the symbolic and the personal. I’ve read Faye’s piece on Savage Minds – I assume you read the ones that Lee, Whitney-Battle Baptiste and I wrote right after the indictment—or lack of one—happened, on Savage Minds too. Each has a different tone that I find actually remarkable. I’ve commented—not sure where—about the intergenerational feel of the event; Donna wouldn’t know that “old” civil rights hands, Black Power, 1960s student movement, VietNam protest and anti-apartheid folks were in the mix. Also, there were toddlers and infants who were sooo quiet. Other PHOTOS show strollers and THAT WAS VERY EFFECTIVE and shattering for sure. I helped Johnnetta Cole get down on the floor and she held my arm. I helped her get up too and we were silent as we then went on our way to do organizing and mentoring for the rest of the day. Old folks’ work, as it were.
Sigmund Freud. (1933). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. New York: Norton. (Translated by W.J.H. Sprott)
Carol A. Kidron. “Toward and Ethnograpy of Silence: The Lived Presence of the Past in the Everyday Life of Holocaust Trauma Survivors and their Descendants in Israel.” Current Anthropology. Vol. 50, No.1 (February 2009).
Donna A. Auston is a Ph.D student in the department of Anthropology at Rutgers University, where she also received her B.A. in Linguistics and Africana Studies. Her research interests include examinations of race, ethnicity, gender, the body, phenomenology and embodiment, religion, language, media representation, and Islam in America. Her dissertation research is about American Muslims, and is an exploration of race, ritual embodiment, and lived subjectivity. In addition to her academic work, Donna has nearly two decades experience as a community organizer, and has a number of radio and television appearances to her credit. Some of her recent publications include a book chapter entitled, “Color Me Invisible: The Hidden Legacy of African American Muslims,” and “On Victim-Blaming: Reflections On Domestic Violence, Gaza, and the NYPD.” Her website is www.donnaauston.com.