History was being made, and he was missing it. As was taking place across the nation, his city was holding a public protest against a number of violent acts by police resulting in the deaths of black men and women. The videos documenting the incidents had gone viral, headlining every social media and news outlet. The country was in an outrage, demanding justice and change. Today was his chance to be a part of something bigger than himself, but due to circumstances beyond his control, he was blowing it.
He hurried along through the back streets and alleyways as fast as his legs could carry him, letting his ears guide him through the maze. Though the tall buildings on either side muffled the acoustics, the sounds of the protest began to take shape as he closed the distance; first the low rumble of thousands of indistinct voices all trying to be heard at once, and then the distorted warbling of someone yelling into a bull horn. Obscure shouts of affirmation immediately followed.
According to his Twitter feed, from almost the very beginning, the protest in his city had been anything but peaceful. Tensions between protestors and the police had escalated quickly. There had already been violence, though who was responsible for initiating was unclear at the moment. The protest was in imminent danger of becoming into a riot, of descending into the uncontrolled chaos that would result in more violence and further the downward spiral of a nation turned against itself, and he was missing all of it by running late. He slowed briefly to check his phone for the latest video updates.
As he rounded a corner in the alley that intersected with another in a straight, perpendicular line, two of his senses came under assault strong enough to pry his attention away from his phone. The first was the overwhelming scent of piss mixed with garbage, a foul smell intensified by the stale air and sweltering heat trapped within the walls of concrete and brick on both sides. The second was the sounds of a scuffle directly ahead.
Two men were entangled with each other maybe a hundred feet away from where he paused. The larger of the two men was black. The other was a white police officer. He could tell the white man was a police officer by the uniform, including the distinct hat worn by cops, and the utility belt around his waist that included a holster. The hat was lying in the alley a few feet from where the men fought. The gun was still in the holster.
He held up his phone and hit the record button on his camera to capture the surreal scene before him. Both men were looking to gain control over the other, each with a hand on the throat under the other’s chin. The black man was stronger; pressuring the cop back half a step, but the cop had training on his side and was holding his ground against the larger man. The sounds of their boots scraped the asphalt as they struggled for dominance, both grunting with the exertion to achieve the upper hand. If either of the combatants was aware of his presence, they did not show it.
A myriad of questions flooded his brain as he recorded the altercation. Why were they both here, so far from the protest? Why were they fighting? Who had been the instigator? How was this going to end?
Keeping the camera tightly trained on the pair, he listened to see if he could hear anyone coming to join the fray. There were no sounds of footsteps approaching, no sounds of sirens getting closer. No one was coming to help either of these men.
The pair’s weight shifted, and they rotated so the black man’s back was to him. His ability to see the action was compromised, but there was no way to get a better vantage point from where he stood rooted in the junction of the alleys.
“Don’t!” one of them shouted.
Given his obscured line of sight, it was impossible to tell who reached first, or if they had done it simultaneously, but both men were now struggling to pull the cop’s gun from his holster. They jockeyed for it, wrestling in a tight circle, the stakes in this contest now exponentially higher.
Suddenly the gun was out of the holster, gripped by all four hands. Who held it and who was trying to take it away was unclear. The barrel of the gun swung in all directions. The struggle for control over it continued, with neither man gaining an advantage, until the white cop head-butted the black man, staggering him back a step. The impasse was broken.
In that space of an instant, he could see through his camera that the cop had control of the weapon. Without hesitation, the black man rushed, one hand reaching for the gun, the other for the throat, and succeeded in getting his hands on the cop when the deafening sound of a shot rang out. It was still echoing off the walls of the buildings on both sides when the black man collapsed in a heap to the pavement.
The camera kept on recording as the cop slumped to his knees, dropping his sidearm and checking on the status of the victim. Though the cop obscured most of the black man’s body, he surmised that the guy was going to die. There was no surviving a bullet to the chest from that range.
“Hey, what’s going on down there?”
He looked up and over his shoulder at the source of the voice. In a fourth story window overhead, the faces of two Latino teenage girls were looking down at him. They had heard the gunshot and were investigating.
Instinctively, he turned and ran back the way he had come. Clutched tightly in one hand was the camera that held his footage, the key his immortality. The fight video was everything he could have asked for and more. Thoughts of attending the protest where the violence was escalating were a distant memory. He had an exclusive in his hands, and he had to upload it as soon as possible.
When he reached home, breathless and excited, he logged into his anonymous Twitter and YouTube accounts and uploaded the video. He made sure to tag it with all the hashtags that were trending in the face of the ongoing protests. And then he sat back to watch.
As anticipated, the video went viral almost immediately, being retweeted and shared on social media platforms in multiple countries. He beamed with pride as the read through the stream of feedback on his video. The comments fell on both sides of the issue, with protestors using this as yet another example of a racist cop employing unnecessary deadly force, and those opposed who argued that the cop had every right to defend himself against a violent protestor. These verbal exchanges in the comments grew more and more intense, one side convinced the cop started the fight, and the other equally convinced of just the opposite. His video was a microcosm of the tensions gripping the country, another log on the fire to make it burn hotter than ever. He wasn’t just witnessing history, he was making history.
His video made the evening news, with details being added that even he did not know, such as the names of both the cop and the victim, and that the victim had in fact died of the gunshot wound. On the television, pundits were demanding justice for the victim, while others were withholding judgment pending an investigation.
Though other acts of violence had broken out both in his city and in others during that day’s protests, including rioting in a few cities, it was his video that dominated the news and social media. The footage of the deadly fight was trending worldwide, bigger than he ever could have dreamed.
He deleted his anonymous accounts before he could be uncovered as the source of the footage. The accounts were anonymous, but his uploads could have been traced back to him if he hadn’t acted quickly. The video was everywhere now, so his originals no longer mattered. His baby was out there for all the world to enjoy.
The next day, something curious began to happen. The first was that many of the discussions surrounding the fight shifted away from who was at fault and if justice needed to be served. Instead, they began to focus on who took the footage. People questioned why someone would sit and watch a murder take place without making any effort to prevent it. Though the debate over the guilt or innocence of the cop waged on, all agreed that the person who shot the video was guilty of his own crime against humanity.
Some were willing to come to his defense at first, defending the right of the press, or speculating that perhaps the person who shot the footage was incapable of getting involved for one reason or another. But then the second shoe dropped, and the video taken by the Latino girls of him fleeing after the gunshot surfaced. As he had filmed the fight, they had filmed him. Once the nation had a face to put with the camera man, there was no one willing to come to his defense after that.
Video experts were called in to view the footage of him looking up at the fourth floor window. His face, clearly visible, was a frozen image on every television, computer, and phone screen across the world. The press labeled him as the “Silent Observer”. It didn’t take long for people to uncover his identity, and that’s when the hate began to pour in.
On his personal Twitter and other social media accounts, people of all races and colors attacked him. They called him a coward, a monster, less than human. They accused him of being part of the problem, as bad as any murderer or racist. Some people called for his arrest. Others screamed for his death.
The ramifications of what he had done did not stop there. He was fired from his job. His friends and family treated him as a pariah. Doors slammed in his face at every turn. Life as he had known it changed irrevocably forever.
Nationally, the “Silent Observer” became the catalyst of multiple new movements. People rallied against the world of voyeurism that threatened to plunge the world into a dystopian nightmare where everyone is on camera, every minute of their lives. Debates over how anyone can trust another when they might be recording everything we say or do became a new topic on social media. People wanted to know, “Where is the line between personal privacy and accountability?” and, “Who gets to determine where it’s drawn?”
The other talking point involved determining the root cause that lead to people like the “Silent Observer”; people who would rather film tragedies than prevent them. Was the education system to blame, or the unprecedented rise of social media that allowed everyone to be a field reporter without any of integrity that is expected of the press? The question was asked, “How out of touch have we become as a people when capturing our fifteen minutes of fame is more important than the health and well-being of others?”
History was made on that fateful day, but he did not miss it. He became it.